Home/ News / World/  Trump Hush-Money Case Will Likely Hinge on Evidence of Coverup

A New York judge will soon unseal criminal charges against Donald Trump related to a payment to a porn star. The alleged coverup that followed the payment is likely to be as important for the future of the case.

A Manhattan grand jury has indicted Mr. Trump after an investigation of the hush-money payment to adult-film star Stormy Daniels in the final stretch of his 2016 presidential campaign. Mr. Trump’s then-lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid Ms. Daniels $130,000 in October 2016 to keep her from going public with a story of a sexual encounter she said she had with Mr. Trump a decade earlier.

Mr. Trump has acknowledged that he reimbursed Mr. Cohen for the Daniels payment in the first year of his presidency. Trump Organization records mislabeled the money flowing back to Mr. Cohen as legal expenses for work he never performed, federal prosecutors alleged in the 2018 prosecution of Mr. Cohen.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office could unveil any number of charges, including those related to the payment to Ms. Daniels or a separate $150,000 payment to a former Playboy model who alleged that she had an affair with the former president. The grand jury has heard detailed accounts of both deals, according to people familiar with the investigation.

But among the most likely charges is falsifying business records, according to legal experts. The charge by itself is a misdemeanor but can be converted into a felony if prosecutors prove records were falsified to commit or conceal another crime, such as a violation of campaign-finance rules.

Legal experts said any successful prosecution would likely require evidence establishing that Mr. Trump tried to hide the repayment to Mr. Cohen with false book entries. Prosecutors would have to prove that Mr. Trump made or caused the false entries with an “intent to defraud."

Mr. Trump’s lawyers declined to answer questions about Mr. Trump’s knowledge of the accounting entries, as did a campaign spokesman. Mr. Trump told reporters on his plane on Saturday that initially he didn’t know that he was paying Mr. Cohen in 2017 to reimburse him for the hush money. When asked when he knew, Mr. Trump said, “Oh, later."

The former president denies any sexual encounter with Ms. Daniels, has accused her of extortion and said he relied on Mr. Cohen’s advice as his lawyer at the time. He has called the investigation by the office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, politically motivated.

Mr. Trump called Mr. Bragg “a disgrace" in an emailed statement after the grand jury voted to indict him.

“Rather than stop the unprecedented crime wave taking over New York City, he’s doing Joe Biden’s dirty work, ignoring the murders and burglaries and assaults he should be focused on. This is how Bragg spends his time!" Mr. Trump said.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Bragg said the district attorney’s office contacted Mr. Trump’s lawyer on Thursday evening to coordinate his surrender. The indictment remains under seal in the meantime. “Guidance will be provided when the arraignment date is selected," the spokeswoman said.

Clark Brewster, a lawyer for Ms. Daniels, wrote in a Twitter post after news of the grand jury vote, “The indictment of Donald Trump is no cause for joy. The hard work and conscientiousness of the grand jurors must be respected. Now let truth and justice prevail. No one is above the law."

Much has already been made public about how Mr. Cohen was allegedly compensated for digging into his own pocket to pay Ms. Daniels, via a federal charging document in the 2018 prosecution of Mr. Cohen, checks cut by Mr. Trump and his trust to Mr. Cohen and Mr. Cohen’s testimony before Congress.

Key parts of the story rely on the word of Mr. Cohen, who pleaded guilty in U.S. district court in 2018 to campaign-finance and other charges brought by federal prosecutors in Manhattan, as well as to lying to Congress on a separate matter. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

In his guilty plea, Mr. Cohen said Mr. Trump directed him to make the payment, which he said was intended to influence the 2016 election.

Federal prosecutors alleged in court documents filed in Mr. Cohen’s case that Mr. Trump, identified in the document as “Individual-1," directed and coordinated the illegal payment with Mr. Cohen.

After Mr. Cohen’s sentencing, then-President Trump said on Twitter that Mr. Cohen “was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law." Mr. Trump accused Mr. Cohen of trying to “embarrass the president."

Despite Mr. Cohen’s vulnerabilities as a potential witness in a case against Mr. Trump, former New York prosecutors said the Manhattan district attorney’s office would have circumstantial evidence and common sense on its side if it attempted to tie Mr. Trump to the reimbursement plan.

“You can think this witness is a liar, but you can also believe that his version of the story is the only one that makes much sense," said Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School and former Manhattan prosecutor.

Mr. Cohen’s version begins in the office of the Trump Organization’s then-chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, after the 2016 election. Mr. Trump had acknowledged his debt to Mr. Cohen, and now Mr. Cohen and Mr. Weisselberg worked out the particulars of how Mr. Cohen would be repaid, Mr. Cohen later testified in Congress.

A bank statement Mr. Cohen gave to Trump Organization executives in January 2017 showed the $130,000 Mr. Cohen had wired to Ms. Daniels’ lawyer. He had handwritten an additional request for $50,000 for “tech services," according to a charging document filed in the 2018 federal criminal case against Mr. Cohen.

Mr. Cohen would receive a total of $420,000 in monthly installments of $35,000, according to the 2018 charging document. The total accounted for the taxes he would have to pay on the reimbursement for the $180,000, as well as a $60,000 bonus, the document says.

The plan, according to Mr. Cohen, was that he would file phony invoices for legal services he hadn’t provided Mr. Trump to justify the monthly checks in the Trump Organization’s books and hide their true purpose, Mr. Cohen said in his 2019 testimony before the House Oversight Committee.

By that time, Mr. Cohen had left the Trump Organization, where he had been executive vice president and special counsel since 2007, and returned to private practice as Mr. Trump’s personal attorney.

Mr. Cohen said he was unhappy about being made whole in monthly increments, but Mr. Weisselberg insisted, he told the House panel.

“I obviously wanted the money in one shot," Mr. Cohen said in his 2019 testimony. “But in order to be able to put it onto the books, Allen Weisselberg made the decision that it should be paid over the 12 months so that it would look like a retainer."

Mr. Weisselberg has told people close to him that he didn’t know that he was reimbursing Mr. Cohen for the hush money, these people said.

Mr. Weisselberg hasn’t commented publicly about the matter. He is serving a jail sentence after pleading guilty in another Manhattan case involving off-the-books perks he received from the Trump Organization. His lawyer declined to comment.

Mr. Cohen testified that Mr. Trump knew the details of the plan and blessed them.

“We discussed it. Everything had to go through Mr. Trump, and it had to be approved by Mr. Trump," Mr. Cohen testified in 2019.

Joe Tacopina, a lawyer for Mr. Trump, said on Good Morning America earlier this month that “there was no false record made."

In their case against Mr. Cohen in 2018, federal prosecutors were more circumspect about who decided how Mr. Cohen would be reimbursed for the hush money. The charging document says only that unnamed Trump Organization executives determined the amount and manner of the repayment.

The charging document and emails described to The Wall Street Journal offer specifics about the mechanics of the plan, however.

Mr. Cohen sent the first phony invoice to Trump Organization controller Jeffrey McConney on Feb. 14, 2017, according to the charging document and emails. Mr. McConney forwarded the invoice to Mr. Weisselberg, who approved payment to Mr. Cohen, the charging document and emails show.

Mr. McConney later that day emailed instructions to another Trump Organization employee, according to the charging document and people familiar with the matter. “Post to legal expenses. Put ‘retainer for the months of January and February 2017’ in the description," Mr. McConney wrote.

Mr. McConney is among the witnesses who have testified before grand jurors in Manhattan this year, according to people familiar with the probe. A lawyer for Mr. McConney didn’t respond to requests for comment. Mr. McConney, who no longer works at the Trump Organization, declined to comment.

Mr. Cohen was eager to be paid and upset that the money hadn’t arrived when he visited the White House in February 2017, soon after Mr. Trump’s inauguration. Mr. Trump told him the checks were in the mail, Mr. Cohen testified in 2019.

“Don’t worry, Michael. Your January and February reimbursement checks are coming. They were FedExed from New York. And it takes a while for that to get through the White House system," Mr. Cohen recalled in his testimony Mr. Trump telling him.

The first check Mr. Cohen received, for $70,000, covered the months of January and February 2017. It came from Mr. Trump’s trust and was signed by Mr. Weisselberg and Mr. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.

Mr. Cohen continued to send false invoices to the Trump Organization, which in turn cut checks for Mr. Cohen and booked them as legal expenses for work Mr. Cohen hadn’t performed, according to the federal charging document in Mr. Cohen’s case.

Mr. Trump signed at least six of the checks personally, according to documents Mr. Cohen provided to lawmakers and to the media.

The last check from Mr. Trump was signed in December 2017.

The next month, the Journal reported the existence of the hush-money agreement with Ms. Daniels, sparking the federal investigation of the scheme.

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