Court documents released Thursday closely tied President Donald Trump and his former top aide Hope Hicks to hush-money payments to a porn actress ahead of the 2016 election.
But a New York judge said the investigation into the payments was closed, making it likely that neither the president nor anyone but his former lawyer Michael Cohen will be punished for them.
The FBI warrant requests released Thursday show the law enforcement agency believed Trump and Hicks were intimately involved in arranging the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels — the screen name for Stephanie Clifford.
The documents map out a flurry of phone calls and text messages in October 2016 when Cohen was arranging the payment to Daniels to keep her from going public with her claim of an affair years earlier with Trump.
The exchanges involved Cohen, Daniels’ attorney Keith Davidson, media executives David Pecker and Dylan Howard, Trump and Hicks, and came as Daniels was quietly offering to sell her story about Trump to media just weeks before a hotly contested election.
Cohen was ultimately convicted and imprisoned on campaign finance and other violations.
Numerous calls with Trump, Hicks
The documents show eight calls, including two involving Trump and three with Hicks, on October 8, 2016, as Cohen prepared a plan to buy Daniels’ silence at, he has said, Trump’s direction.
The FBI noted that before that day, Cohen had not spoken by phone to Trump or Hicks — Trump’s campaign press secretary and then his White House communications director — for several weeks.
It took weeks to finalise the deal, after communications suggested that Daniels was still preparing to sell her story to Britain’s Daily Mail.
After some panicky communications, on October 26 – two weeks before the election — Cohen spoke to Trump multiple times. Over the next two days, he created a shell company to handle the payoff and transferred the funds.
“Based on the timing of the calls … and the content of the text messages and emails, I believe that at least some of these communications concerned the need to prevent Clifford from going public,” an FBI investigator wrote.
Trump, who has alternately denied knowledge of the payments and argued they were not a crime, was implicated as “Individual-1” in court documents last year in the Cohen case, raising the possibility that he too could be charged for the hush-money payments.
The court ruled that the payment to Daniels, which Trump later repaid Cohen for, amounted to an illegal campaign contribution because it aimed to help Trump win the election.
The documents also show Cohen liaising with Trump, Hicks and White House advisor Kellyanne Conway in early November 2016 over a looming Wall Street Journal story that the National Enquirer had bought the silence of another alleged former Trump lover, Karen McDougal.
When the story gained little traction in other media, Hicks and Cohen enthused in text messages that the efforts to counter it had worked.
Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow said Thursday in a statement to media that they were pleased to see the investigation closed.
“We have maintained from the outset that the President never engaged in any campaign finance violation,” he said.
Cohen said in a statement, issued through his publicist, that Sekulow’s comments were “completely distorted and dishonest.”
“The conclusion of the investigation exonerating The Trump Organization’s role should be of great concern to the American people and investigated by Congress and the Department of Justice,” he said.