IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why the timing of Cohen's Stormy Daniels payment matters

It's getting easier to believe Donald Trump and his lawyer have a real campaign-finance controversy on their hands.
Image: 2018 Adult Video News Awards - Arrivals
LAS VEGAS, NV - JANUARY 27: Adult film actress/director Stormy Daniels attends the 2018 Adult Video News Awards at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on January...

As the Stormy Daniels scandal unfolded, we learned that the former adult-film star was initially prepared to go public with her story about an alleged affair with Donald Trump, but she changed her mind after receiving $130,000 in hush-money from the then-candidate's personal fixer, Michael Cohen.

But the timeline of events matters, because the process was not an especially smooth one. In Sept. 2016, two months before Election Day, Daniels -- whose real name is Stephanie Clifford -- was represented by Keith Davidson, who spoke with Cohen about a possible payment. The Republican candidate's lawyer balked.

But as the Wall Street Journal  reported overnight, Cohen adopted a new posture a month later -- apparently as a result of one important development.

A day after the recording surfaced of outtakes of Mr. Trump speaking to a host of NBC's "Access Hollywood," Mr. Cohen, then Mr. Trump's senior counsel, told a representative for the performer that he was open to a deal, according to a person familiar with the conversation.Within days, Stormy Daniels, whose given name is Stephanie Clifford, signed a nondisclosure agreement that provided her $130,000 for her silence. Mr. Cohen had resisted paying Ms. Clifford when it was floated in September 2016, the person said.Federal prosecutors in New York view the "Access Hollywood" tape as a trigger that spurred Mr. Cohen to bury potentially damaging information about his boss, as they investigate whether the payment amounted to an illegal, in-kind contribution or an expenditure that should have been disclosed by the campaign, people familiar with the matter said.

Cohen has already conceded having created an LLC to make the hush-money payment, but he's long maintained that the payoff was completely unrelated to the campaign. He was just playing the role of Trump's fixer, the argument goes, making a problem go away by making a secret payment to a porn star.

And though Trump said he knew nothing about it, the president later reimbursed Cohen.

But this latest reporting reinforces the importance of timing and context.

Cohen didn't want to pay Stormy Daniels two months before the election, but after the "Access Hollywood" tape created a crisis for his boss, Cohen grabbed his checkbook one month before the election. The takeaway for prosecutors is what we've wondered all along: it sure looks like the hush-money was directly related to the campaign.

And that, in turn, raises the prospect of a significant campaign-finance violation, which the sitting president may have been directly involved in.

When former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) faced related criminal charges after his own presidential bid, his lawyers persuasively argued that his hush-money payments were personal, not political. The payoffs, he argued, were intended to protect his family, not advance his professional ambitions.

Given the specific details, Trump World may find it difficult to rely on the same defense.