Trump’s Woes Grow With Grand Jury Probe of Porn Star Hush Money
(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump faces new legal jeopardy after Manhattan prosecutors convened a state grand jury to investigate any role he may have played in making hush money payments to a porn star on the eve of the 2016 election.
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Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office was to begin presenting evidence to the grand jury on Monday, according to a person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because it isn’t public.
Bragg has been investigating whether Trump and his company falsified records to conceal the payments to pornographic film actor Stormy Daniels, intended to keep her from going public about her alleged affair with Trump. Trump has denied the affair.
The empaneling of a grand jury is a major escalation of Bragg’s probe of Trump’s activities, reviving a line of inquiry that appeared to take a back seat as the DA focused instead on tax violations at the Trump Organization. That investigation resulted in a guilty plea from the company’s longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, and the conviction of two Trump business units.
Read More: Trump’s NY Tax Fraud Hit Eclipsed by Impact of Felony Conviction
The empaneling was reported earlier by The New York Times.
‘Radical Left’ DA
In a post on his Truth Social platform, Trump said the new probe was the work of a “Radical Left Manhattan D.A.” who is still going after the Daniels “Bull….!”
Danielle Filson, a spokeswoman for Bragg, declined to comment on the investigation.
The probe comes shortly after Georgia’s special grand jury investigating Trump’s effort to overturn that state’s 2020 election results wrapped up its work, with the results imminent.
Read More: Trump Grand Jury in Georgia Wraps Up, Urges Report Be Released
Meanwhile, Trump faces a criminal investigation of his handling of classified documents and a $250 million civil suit against the Trump Organization by New York Attorney General Letitia James, like Bragg a Democrat. The AG claims Trump and three of his children inflated the value of the family firm’s assets and is seeking penalties including a permanent ban on the four running companies in the state.
The new grand jury inquiry also comes almost a year after two veteran prosecutors hired to investigate Trump by Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., quit after Bragg concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him at the time. Vance said in an interview in December that as his term in office drew to a close, he believed the Trump investigation would proceed under the two — Carey Dunne, who served as his general counsel, and Mark Pomerantz, a former federal prosecutor he recruited for the work.
“We were not stopping the investigation,” Vance said in the interview.
Trump has called all the lawsuits and probes baseless political vendettas.
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Bragg has said publicly his investigation was “ongoing” and announced in December that he had hired a former senior Justice Department official to work on the office’s most important investigations. Vance commended the move, saying it was “maybe later than I would have wanted, but I think this is a good step.”
In a July podcast, Pomerantz said he was convinced there was a viable prosecution of Trump. His book “People vs. Donald Trump,” about his efforts to prosecute the former president, is due out next week.
One likely key witness for the new grand jury, and any criminal charges that may result, is former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, who helped arrange the hush money payments, pleaded guilty to campaign finance and other violations in 2018 and was sentenced to three years in prison.
Cohen said Monday he has met with Bragg’s office 14 times, most recently two weeks ago.
Cohen and Hush Money
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, alleged that she had a sexual relationship with Trump a decade before he became president. The hush money payment, intended to keep her story out of the news just before the election, became public after she sued Trump to get out of a confidentiality agreement she had signed to keep the deal quiet.
Cohen was a key player in the alleged scheme, admitting he facilitated payments and was reimbursed by the Trump Organization for advancing the money to Daniels.
Although federal prosecutors in Manhattan investigated Trump over the payments and even identified him as “Individual-1” in Cohen’s sentencing papers, they never charged him.
Read More: Trump Sued by New York Over ‘Fraudulent’ Asset Valuations
The Federal Election Commission in 2021 closed its own inquiry into the payoff after its members deadlocked. The FEC had started its probe after several groups, including campaign finance watchdogs and Democratic organizations opposed to Trump, filed complaints alleging that the payment was an illegal contribution by Cohen, well above the $2,700 limit in force at the time for individuals.
They also claimed that the campaign should have reported the expenditure.
Trump and the Tabloids
The FEC that year fined a tabloid publisher, which had paid $150,000 in 2016 to a woman who claimed she had an affair with Trump, for making an illegal campaign contribution. A360 Media LLC, the successor to National Enquirer publisher American Media Inc., was ordered to pay a $187,500 fine for using prohibited corporate funds in an effort to influence a federal election. The payments were made to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model, to purchase the rights to her story, which American Media never published. Trump’s campaign wasn’t penalized.
Former American Media chief David Pecker, a longtime friend of Trump, struck an immunity deal in 2020 with federal prosecutors as part of their investigation of Cohen. The company, which agreed to sell the Enquirer, entered into a related nonprosecution agreement covering crimes including perjury and obstruction of justice. The deals stemmed from the company’s alleged efforts to aid Trump by purchasing the rights to potentially damaging stories and declining to publish them, a practice known as “catch and kill.”
In a December 2018 interview, Cohen rebuffed Trump’s assertions that he had acted on his own. He said it was Trump who had him make hush money payments to two women claiming affairs with the candidate and that it was done to avoid fallout during the campaign.
“Nothing at the Trump Organization was ever done unless it was run through Mr. Trump,” Cohen said. “He directed me.”
--With assistance from Greg Farrell and Mark Niquette.
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