|How many people were paid off to keep silent about Trump’s alleged affairs?|
Opinion | Attorney-client privilege 101: A lesson for Trump
Post deputy editorial page editor Ruth Marcus has a lesson for the president about how to respond to news the FBI searched his personal attorney's property. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)
Today brings us another one of those uniquely Trump-era stories — one that under a different president would produce months of blockbuster congressional investigations and constant media coverage, but these days is met with “Huh, that’s interesting.” It comes from Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker, and it’s about an alleged extramarital affair and hush money.
The details, however, are far less important than this fact: During the 2016 election, there was a comprehensive, organized and well-funded effort to quash potentially embarrassing stories about Donald Trump’s alleged sexual transgressions, beyond what was actually visible in public, and only now are we beginning to appreciate its scope.
The best way to understand it is to put this latest story in context by bringing it together with a few other stories:
In late 2015, American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer, paid a former doorman at the Trump Tower named Dino Sajudin $30,000 for exclusive rights to a story that wasn’t even his. The doorman had heard a rumor that in the 1980s, Trump had fathered a child with an employee, and in exchange for the cash, he signed an agreement not to share the story with anyone. As Farrow reports: “Two of the former AMI employees said they believed that [Trump lawyer Michael] Cohen was in close contact with AMI executives while the company’s reporters were looking into Sajudin’s story, as Cohen had been during other investigations related to Trump.” Cohen has confirmed to the Associated Press that he was indeed in communication with AMI about the Sajudin story. The Trump Organization says the story of Trump fathering a child with an employee is untrue.
Stephanie Clifford, a.k.a. Stormy Daniels, was paid $130,000 in 2016 in exchange for her silence about what she says was an affair she had with Trump. Cohen claims that he provided the money without telling Trump; we may learn whether that’s true, depending on what the federal agents who this week raided Cohen’s home and office turn up.
Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who says she had an extended affair with Trump in 2006, was paid $150,000 in 2016 by AMI, in a practice known as “catch and kill,” in which they pay someone for their story and have them sign an agreement not to tell anyone else about it. McDougal now alleges that her lawyer at the time was in secret communication with Cohen, effectively working not in her interests but in Trump’s.
On Oct. 7, 2016 at 4 p.m., this newspaper broke the story of that infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. Just a half hour later, WikiLeaks released hacked emails belonging to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, which became a blockbuster story of its own. While we don’t know whether the emails were released to deflect attention from the tape, we learned yesterday that the warrant to search Cohen’s home and office specifically sought materials related to the “Access Hollywood” tape. If it was just an embarrassing story that came out, what would Cohen have to do with it?
Former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon told author Michael Wolff that longtime Trump attorney Marc Kasowitz quashed other stories involving women during the campaign. Bannon noted that Kasowitz has known Trump for “25 years,” and added: “What did we have, a hundred women? Kasowitz took care of all of them.” While the number “a hundred” may have been an exaggeration, Bannon has never denied making the statement.
I should say that I’m perfectly happy to accept that the doorman’s story was just a rumor. What doesn’t seem to be in dispute, however, is that AMI, which was essentially operating as an adjunct of the Trump campaign, paid $30,000 to keep the lid on a rumor.
We often greet stories like the one about the doorman by saying, “So Trump cheated on all his wives. We knew that already. Nobody cared.” That may be what we say now, but it was not how the Trump campaign, his employees and his allies saw it at the time. They obviously believed that these stories were a serious threat to Trump’s candidacy, which is why they engineered secret payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep them quiet. If they were willing to drop $30,000 on a doorman, not because he had some kind of damning evidence but just because he heard a rumor, who knows what else they did.
Looking back, we often marvel at all the things Trump survived or overcame that would have crushed any other candidate: the serial infidelity, the copious business scandals, the string of appalling comments, the dozen women who accused him of various degrees of sexual misbehavior, and so on. The most common explanation is that it ended up not preventing him from being elected because it was all so crazy and overwhelming, and the media were too distracted by the mad spectacle of it all to focus on any one scandal.
That’s certainly true. But it is now becoming clear that it also wasn’t an accident. There was a group of people, with Michael Cohen at the center, who were working very hard and spending lots of money to make sure it all stayed under wraps, or at least as nearly under wraps as they could make it.
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