Donald Trump's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen laid out the details of a broad scheme to cover up a hush money payment he made to adult film star Stormy Daniels on Trump's behalf. In his testimony Wednesday, Cohen described 11 installments of $35,000 paid to him by Trump to reimburse him for the $130,000 payment to Daniels, the taxes Cohen paid on that, and an additional $60,000 bonus for his efforts. Cohen also provided two checks made out to him in 2017 for $35,000, one signed by Trump and the other by Don Jr. and Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg.
It was an illegal scheme in which Manhattan federal prosecutors were so certain Trump was complicit that they tagged him "Individual 1" in a Cohen sentencing memo, alleging the two men had committed campaign finance violations. They wrote that the payments were made for the express purpose of "influencing the election" and that they "struck a blow to one of the core goals of the federal campaign finance laws: transparency."
Trump did everything he possibly could to assist in covering up those payments. He did not include the payment scheme or the debt he owed to Cohen in his 2017 financial disclosure form, a statement legally requiring top federal officials to disclose their financial entanglements. In 2018, his disclosure form finally included a footnote noting a repayment to Cohen in the “category of value” of $100,001–$250,000, but that admission came after a twisted path to the truth.
When Trump was first asked directly in April 2018 aboard Air Force One whether he knew about the payments, he said no. Asked why Cohen had made the payment, Trump offered, "You'll have to ask Michael Cohen." Asked where Cohen had gotten the money, Trump responded, "I don't know."
Throughout the first half of 2018, Trump's spokespeople kept changing their stories. In March, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump had made clear that "none of these allegations are true." Then, on May 2, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani made a stunning admission that Trump had "funneled" reimbursement payments to Cohen through a law firm, asserting it was "perfectly legal."
That bombshell resulted in a series of uncharacteristic, perfectly punctuated tweets from Trump on May 3 claiming Cohen had received a "monthly retainer" related to a nondisclosure agreement with Daniels that had nothing to do with the campaign. "Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no role in this transaction," he wrote.
What changed between Trump's April 5 denial and his early May revelation? The FBI executed a search warrant on Cohen's premises on April 9. Clearly, Trump and his aides had concluded the money trail was undeniable and they had to find an explanation—a legal one.