Federal probe of hush money to cover up Trump affairs believed ‘dead’

Several people involved in campaign finance violations case say US attorney’s office unlikely to reopen the matter, despite Trump losing presidency’s protections

This combination of file pictures shows US President Donald Trump speaking at a White House forum on March 22, 2018, in Washington, DC, and actress Stephanie Clifford, who uses the stage name Stormy Daniels, arriving to perform at the Solid Gold Fort Lauderdale strip club on March 9, 2018 in Pompano Beach, Florida. (MANDEL NGAN and JOE RAEDLE / various sources / AFP)
This combination of file pictures shows then-US President Donald Trump speaking at a White House forum on March 22, 2018, in Washington, DC, and actress Stephanie Clifford, who uses the stage name Stormy Daniels, arriving to perform at the Solid Gold Fort Lauderdale strip club on March 9, 2018 in Pompano Beach, Florida. (MANDEL NGAN and JOE RAEDLE / various sources / AFP)

NEW YORK (AP) — The federal probe of hush money paid to cover up former president Donald Trump’s alleged extramarital affairs hasn’t been restarted, even though he no longer has the legal shield of the presidency, The Associated Press has learned.

Trump’s exit from the White House last month prompted speculation that US prosecutors might revive the investigation that sent his former attorney, Michael Cohen, to prison. Trump himself had been publicly implicated by prosecutors as complicit in Cohen’s campaign finance crimes during his 2016 run for office.

But several people involved in the case say the US attorney’s office in Manhattan has made no such move, and is unlikely to do so going forward.

An attorney for one key witness described the investigation as “dead,” adding prosecutors have even returned certain evidence they collected — a likely indication no one else will be charged. The attorney spoke on the condition of anonymity because prosecutors have not discussed the case publicly.

One current and one former law enforcement official told the AP that factors beyond presidential immunity prevented Trump from being charged for his role in buying the silence of Karen McDougal and porn actress Stormy Daniels, who said they’d had extramarital affairs with him.

Stormy Daniels speaks during a ceremony in West Hollywood, California, May 23, 2018. (AP/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Trump’s departure from office has not altered that equation, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to discuss internal deliberations and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Cohen, who has cast himself as a potential star witness against his former boss, told the AP that he has not heard from the US attorney’s office in Manhattan since late 2018, when he was sentenced to three years in prison for arranging the payments.

The US attorney’s office declined to comment. A message seeking comment was sent to Trump’s attorney; his legal team is preparing for the start of his second impeachment trial.

Trump has said the payments to Daniels and McDougal were a private matter and did not amount to campaign finance violations.

Federal prosecutors infamously referred to Trump as “Individual-1” in charging Cohen with skirting campaign contribution rules by arranging six-figure payments to Daniels and McDougal, a former Playboy model, to keep them quiet about years-old affairs that Trump consistently denied.

US President Donald Trump in Washington, DC, July 18, 2018; and Playboy model Karen McDougal in Miami Beach, Florida, February 6, 2010. (AFP/Getty Images North America/Nicholas Kamm and Dimitrios Kambouris, file)

The investigation turned up evidence that Trump himself had been aware of the payments, despite his initial public claims he knew nothing about them, including a recording in which he can be heard speaking to Cohen about efforts to buy McDougal’s continued silence.

Prosecutors said “Individual-1” directed Cohen to make the payments, which they said should have been subject to campaign finance laws because they were made for the purpose of helping Trump win the election.

Trump’s lawyers maintained during his presidency that he was shielded from prosecution while in office, raising questions about his legal exposure following his tenure — and even the prospect he would preemptively pardon himself.

But prosecutors harbored other concerns, particularly over the reliability of Cohen as a witness, the former enforcement official said, adding it was “not likely for new witnesses to emerge.” As part of the same case, Cohen was also charged with lying to Congress about a Trump project in Russia.

At the time, Manhattan prosecutors said in court filings that Cohen had been “forthright and credible” but added that he “repeatedly declined to provide full information about the scope of any additional criminal conduct in which he may have engaged or had knowledge.”

Michael Cohen, US President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, speaks as he departs after testifying before a closed-door session of the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington, on March 6, 2019. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Prosecutors also believed it was far from clear that Trump could be convicted of a campaign finance crime, even if a jury believed Cohen’s allegations that he directed the hush-money payments.

Campaign finance prosecutions are fraught with challenges, as evidenced by a similar case over hush-money payments to a woman that the government brought — and ultimately dropped — against former US Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat.

Daniels’ attorney, Clark Brewster, declined to say when she last spoke with federal prosecutors in Manhattan but said this week he wasn’t aware of any new movement in the case.

Trump still faces a minefield of other potential legal issues on top of his second impeachment trial opening next week, including investigations of his business practices by the Manhattan district attorney and the New York attorney general.

The Manhattan prosecutor’s probe includes a look at the 2016 hush-money payoffs. Cohen has said that Trump greenlighted a $130,000 payment to Daniels ahead of the election and later reimbursed him for the payment with “fake legal fees.”

The AP reported last month that the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office recently interviewed Cohen for hours, quizzing him about Trump’s business dealings.

“Trump has since gotten himself embroiled in more dramatic — and potentially more easily provable — forms of criminality,” said Elie Honig, a legal analyst and former federal prosecutor in Manhattan.

Federal prosecutors in New York first revealed they had closed their investigation into Cohen’s hush-money payments in July 2019 amid a push by news organizations, including AP, to unseal search warrants relating to the FBI raid of Cohen’s office and hotel room.

That didn’t preclude them from reopening it, however, and speculation lived on that it could be revived.

Instead, prosecutors have moved on. Several assigned to the case also have left the US attorney’s office — departures that may have been delayed if they were eying a criminal case against a former president.

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