Adult-movie star Stormy Daniels stops at Rooster's Country Bar in Delhi, La. on Friday, July 3, 2009.
Arely D. Castillo/AP Photo/The News-Star

Did Trump World’s porn-star payment break campaign-finance rules?

The Rachel Maddow Show, 1/18/18, 9:50 PM ET

Trump lawyer used shell company to pay porn star: WSJ

Michael Rothfeld, reporter for The Wall Street Journal, talks with Rachel Maddow about new reporting that Donald Trump lawyer Michael Cohen used a private company to pay $130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels.
It’s been about 10 days since we first learned about Donald Trump’s lawyer reportedly paying a former porn star $130,000 – shortly before the 2016 presidential election – in order to buy her silence about an alleged extramarital affair. Putting aside salacious details, the most meaningful questions continue to surround the money.

Those questions took an interesting turn yesterday, when a watchdog group argued that Trump World’s deal with Stormy Daniels may have violated campaign finance laws. The Washington Post  reported:

In a pair of federal complaints, Common Cause, a nonprofit government watchdog group, argued that the settlement amounted to an unreported in-kind contribution to Trump’s campaign. The group called on the Justice Department and Federal Election Commission to investigate. […]

This settlement should have been considered a campaign expense “because the funds were paid for the purpose of influencing the 2016 presidential general election,” Paul S. Ryan, a campaign finance expert at the group, said in a letter addressed to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.

The pair of complaints filed by Common Cause said that the source of the $130,000 payment remains unknown, but they added that regardless of where it originated – even “if Donald J. Trump provided the funds” – the money was aimed at affecting the election and then never reported.

Michael Cohen told the Post, “The Common Cause complaint is baseless along with the allegation that President Trump filed a false report to the F.E.C.” Cohen, who has denied there was an affair but who has not specifically denied paying the adult-film star, reportedly created an LLC in Delaware in order to quietly make the $130,000 payment.

Note, the Common Cause charge isn’t that Team Trump improperly spent campaign funds to pay Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. In fact, the argument is largely the opposite: the allegation here is that no matter where the money came from, the problem is that the Trump campaign failed to report it to the FEC.

And while others with greater expertise in campaign finance law can speak to the charge with more authority than I can, at face value, this hardly seems like an outrageous argument. If Trump and people close to him chose to pay Daniels in order to bolster the Republican’s candidacy, this might very well be the kind of in-kind contribution that should have been reported.

As we discussed yesterday, Vice President Mike Pence believes all of these allegations are “baseless,” though it’s unclear how and why he came to that conclusion.

Donald Trump, FEC and Scandals

Did Trump World's porn-star payment break campaign-finance rules?