Court documents say Trump violated federal laws

Michael Cohen, former lawyer to President Donald Trump, leaves his apartment building on New York’s Park Avenue, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018.  (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

The Justice Department says that President Donald Trump directed illegal payments to buy the silence of two women whose claims of extramarital affairs threatened his presidential campaign, the first time prosecutors have connected Trump to a federal crime.

In a court filing , prosecutors said former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen arranged the secret payments at the height of the 2016 campaign “in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump. Cohen has previously said Trump was involved in the hush-money scheme, but court documents filed ahead of Cohen’s sentencing made clear prosecutors believe Cohen’s claim.

The filing stopped short of accusing the president of committing a crime. Whether a president can be prosecuted while in office remains a matter of legal dispute.

But there’s no ambiguity in Friday’s filing that prosecutors believe Cohen’s act was criminal and Trump was directly involved, a remarkable disclosure with potential political and legal ramifications for a president dogged by investigations. The payments are likely to become a target for House Democrats gearing up to investigate the president next year. It’s unclear whether Trump faces legal jeopardy over his role.

Federal law requires that any payments made “for the purposes of influencing” an election must be reported in campaign finance disclosures. The court filing Friday makes clear that the payments were made to benefit Trump politically.

In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges, including campaign finance violations, and detailed an illegal operation to stifle sex stories and distribute hush money to buy the silence of porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who had both claimed they had affairs with Trump. Trump has denied having an affair.

Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, was paid $130,000 as part of a nondisclosure agreement signed days before the 2016 election and is currently suing to dissolve that contract.

Trump denied in April that he knew anything about Cohen’s payments to Daniels, though the explanations from the president and his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, have shifted multiple times since then.

Another attorney for the president, Jay Sekulow, did not immediately return a call for comment.

Trump, in a Saturday morning tweet, said: “AFTER TWO YEARS AND MILLIONS OF PAGES OF DOCUMENTS (and a cost of over $30,000,000), NO COLLUSION!

In August 2016, the National Enquirer’s parent company reached a $150,000 deal to pay McDougal for her story of a 2006 affair, which it never published, a tabloid practice known as catch and kill. In 2015, the company’s chairman met with Cohen and Trump and “offered help with negative stories” about Trump’s relationships with women by buying the rights to the stories, prosecutors said.

After McDougal contacted the Enquirer, the chairman of its parent company, American Media Inc., contacted Cohen about the story. After Cohen promised the company would be reimbursed, the Enquirer paid McDougal $150,000, according to court documents.

An audio recording released by Cohen in July appeared to capture Trump and Cohen discussing buying the rights to McDougal’s story from the Enquirer’s parent company. Trump’s lawyers have said the payments were never made.

Legal experts have said the issue of whether Trump violated the law would come down to whether Trump tried to influence the election and whether he knew it was legally improper.

Former Sen. John Edwards, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, was indicted in 2011 in connection with payments made on his behalf by a wealthy campaign donor to keep Edwards’ mistress quiet, which prosecutors argued amounted to illegal campaign contributions.

Edwards argued the payments were meant to keep his wife from learning about the affair — not to protect his campaign — and were therefore not political donations.

A jury acquitted the North Carolina Democrat of one charge and deadlocked on the rest in 2012. The Justice Department did not retry the case.

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Whitaker consults with Justice ethics officials

Acting United States Attorney General Matt Whitaker, center, and Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, second from right, attend a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker will consult with Justice Department ethics officials about “matters that may warrant recusal” amid pressure from Democrats to step aside from overseeing the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Whitaker is “fully committed to following all appropriate processes and procedures,” including consulting with senior ethics officials about his “oversight responsibilities and matter that may warrant recusal,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement Monday.

Since his appointment last week, Whitaker has faced mounting pressure to step aside from overseeing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, due to critical comments Whitaker made about the investigation before joining the Justice Department last year.

In an interview with CNN in July 2017, Whitaker suggested the Mueller probe could be starved of its resources by cutting the budget “so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”

He also penned an op-ed last year that said Mueller would be straying outside his mandate if he investigated Trump family finances. In an interview with a talk-radio host, Whitaker maintained there was no evidence of collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.

Whitaker, a Republican Party loyalist and chief of staff to just-ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was elevated last week after Trump forced Sessions out. Mueller’s investigation had been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein until Sessions’ ouster.

The Senate’s top Democrat, Sen. Chuck Schumer, called for Whitaker to step aside from overseeing Mueller’s investigation and said Democrats would seek to tie a measure protecting Mueller to must-pass legislation if Whitaker did not recuse himself.

Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats sent a letter Sunday to Lee Lofthus, an assistant attorney general and the department’s chief ethics officer, asking whether he had advised Whitaker to recuse himself.

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Follow Michael Balsamo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MikeBalsamo1 .
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Judge throws out porn actress’ suit against Trump

Adult film actress Stormy Daniels arrives for the opening of the adult entertainment fair “Venus,” in Berlin. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

A federal judge dismissed Stormy Daniels’ defamation lawsuit against President Donald Trump on Monday, saying the president made a “hyperbolic statement” against a political adversary when he tweeted about a composite sketch the porn actress’ lawyer released.

Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, sued Trump in April after he said a composite sketch of a man she said threatened her in 2011 to keep quiet about an alleged affair with the real estate mogul was a “con job.”

Trump tweeted that the man was “nonexistent” and that Daniels was playing the “fake news media for fools.” He retweeted a side-by-side photo comparing the sketch with a photo of Daniels’ husband.

In an order handed down Monday, U.S. District Judge S. James Otero said Trump’s statement was protected speech under the First Amendment.

“If this Court were to prevent Mr. Trump from engaging in this type of ‘rhetorical hyperbole’ against a political adversary, it would significantly hamper the office of the President,” the judge wrote. “Any strongly worded response by a president to another politician or public figure could constitute an action for defamation. This would deprive this country of the ‘discourse’ common to the political process.”

Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, vowed to appeal the decision and said he was confident it would be reversed.

“There is something really rich in Trump relying on the First Amendment to justify defaming a woman,” Avenatti said.

But the president’s lawyer immediately hailed the ruling as a “total victory” for Trump.

“No amount of spin or commentary by Stormy Daniels or her lawyer, Mr. Avenatti, can truthfully characterize today’s ruling in any way other than total victory for President Trump and total defeat for Stormy Daniels,” Trump’s attorney, Charles Harder, said in a statement.

The judge’s ruling also entitles Trump to collect attorneys’ fees from Daniels, but the amount that Daniels would need to pay will be determined later, Harder said.

The defamation claim is separate from another lawsuit that Daniels filed against Trump, which is continuing. Daniels was paid $130,000 as part of a nondisclosure agreement signed days before the 2016 election and is suing to dissolve that contract. Daniels has argued the agreement should be invalidated because Trump’s then-personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, signed it, but Trump did not.

Lawyers for Trump and Cohen now say the deal that paid Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet was invalid, and they won’t sue her for breaking it. Trump’s attorney said the president never considered himself as a party to the agreement and doesn’t dispute Daniels’ assertion that the contract isn’t valid.

While Trump and Cohen want the court to toss out the litigation as moot, Daniels’ lawyer wants to keep the case alive, hoping to compel Trump to answer questions under oath about what he may have known about the deal.

Cohen pleaded guilty in August to campaign finance violations alleging he coordinated with Trump on a hush-money scheme to buy the silence of Daniels and a Playboy model who alleged affairs.

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Associated Press writer Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.

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Trump: FBI has ‘free rein’ over Kavanaugh investigation

Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Tom Williams/Pool Image via AP)

The woman who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct when they were students at Yale has agreed to cooperate with an FBI investigation, her lawyer said.

Deborah Ramirez’s lawyer, John Clune, said Saturday that agents want to interview Ramirez, who said Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a party in the early 1980s. Two other women have accused the appeals court judge of sexual misconduct.

Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, once seen as assured, became uncertain after the allegations and then dramatic Senate testimony Thursday by Christine Blasey Ford, who alleges that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party when they were teenagers. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of Kavanaugh along party lines Friday.

While the precise scope of the reopened background investigation of Kavanaugh remained unclear, President Donald Trump told reporters Saturday that “the FBI, as you know, is all over talking to everybody” and said “this could be a blessing in disguise.”

“They have free rein. They’re going to do whatever they have to do, whatever it is they do. They’ll be doing things that we have never even thought of,” Trump said at the White House. “And hopefully at the conclusion everything will be fine.”

The president revisited the question of the scope of the FBI’s probe in a late-night tweet Saturday, writing in part, “I want them to interview whoever they deem appropriate, at their discretion.”

In a separate action involving the FBI, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked the Justice Department and the FBI to open a criminal investigation into “apparent false statements” that were made to committee investigators alleging sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh in 1985.

A constituent contacted the office of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., alleging that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted an acquaintance on a boat in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1985, but Grassley said the person later “‘recanted’ and apologized for the allegation via social media.

Trump ordered the FBI on Friday to reopen Kavanaugh’s background investigation after several women accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct. Kavanaugh has denied the allegations.

Senate leaders agreed to delay a final vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination to allow for a one-week FBI investigation. The Judiciary Committee has said the probe should be limited to “current credible allegations” against Kavanaugh and be finished by next Friday.

Leaving the hearing this past Friday, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said it was his understanding there would be an FBI investigation of “the outstanding allegations, the three of them,” but Republicans have not said whether that was their understanding as well.

The FBI conducts background checks for federal nominees, but the agency does not make judgments on the credibility or significance of allegations. The investigators will compile information about Kavanaugh’s past and provide their findings to the White House and include the information in Kavanaugh’s background file, which is available to senators.

Kavanaugh and Ford, who says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when both were teenagers, testified publicly before the Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Kavanaugh’s high school friend Mark Judge, who Ford says was in the room when a drunken Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, said that he will cooperate with any law enforcement agency that will “confidentially investigate” sexual misconduct allegations against him and Kavanaugh. Judge has also denied misconduct allegations.

Lawyers for P.J. Smyth and Leland Ingham Keyser, two others who Ford said were in the house when she was attacked, have said their clients are willing to cooperate “fully” with the FBI’s investigation. An attorney for Keyser reaffirmed her previous statement that she doesn’t know Kavanaugh and has no recollection of ever being at a gathering or party where he was present, the Judiciary Committee said in a statement Saturday night.

A third woman, Julie Swetnick, accused Kavanaugh and Judge of excessive drinking and inappropriate treatment of women in the early 1980s, among other accusations. Kavanaugh has called her accusations a “joke” and Judge has said he “categorically” denies the allegations.

Swetnick’s attorney, Michael Avenatti, said Saturday that his client had not been contacted by the FBI but is willing to fully cooperate with investigators.

Speaking to supporters at a rally Saturday night in Wheeling, West Virginia, Trump accused Democrats of using “ruthless and outrageous tactics” against Kavanaugh and urged voters to support Republicans in November’s midterm elections.

“We see this horrible, horrible, radical group of Democrats. You see what’s happening right now,” Trump said.

“And they’re determined to take back power by any means necessary. You see the meanness, the nastiness. They don’t care who they hurt, who they have to run over to get power,” he said.

“We’re not going to give it to them,” Trump said.

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Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington, Jonathan Lemire in New York and Darlene Superville in Wheeling, West Virginia, contributed to this report.

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