If former porn star Stormy Daniels wins her lawsuit against “David Dennison” — aka Donald Trump — she’ll finally be able to tell the world all about their alleged affair. But her victory could also open the president up to charges of violating U.S. election law.
After her alleged affair with Trump from 2006 to 2007, Daniels signed a non-disclosure agreement that prevented her from discussing the details — like how she purportedly spanked Trump with a Forbes Magazine with his own face on the cover, for example. The president’s lawyer Michael Cohen also admitted to “facilitating” giving Daniels $130,000 in hush-money in 2016, during Trump’s campaign for the presidency.
But Daniels claims in a lawsuit filed in California court on Monday that the non-disclosure agreement doesn’t matter because “Dennison” (Trump’s code name) never signed the document. Daniels’ complaint also alleges that Trump knew about his attorney’s efforts to keep her quiet. If that’s true, government watchdog groups say, the lawsuit could prove that Trump broke federal campaign finance laws.
“The facts that have come out of this lawsuit could definitely push forward many of the complaints or requests for investigation into this situation,” said Jordan Libowitz, communications director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
Just days before Daniels filed her lawsuit, CREW had requested that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) look into whether Trump “held a beneficial interest” in a limited liability company that Cohen reportedly used to pay off Daniels. If Trump had an interest in that LLC, CREW alleges, the president would’ve had to reveal that in the public financial disclosure reports he filed with the Office of Government Ethics during his candidacy. The watchdog is still looking into whether Daniels’ lawsuit would affect that complaint, Libowitz said.
“What are all the assets? Where does he hold interest? What could be a force motivating him on policy? Where could he owe things? Who could influence him? If he is leaving things off of that disclosure, that’s a real problem, because we already know so little from the lack of tax returns,” Libowitz said. “We don’t know who he’s in bed with, to use a terrible metaphor.”
For his part, Cohen said he used his own money to “facilitate” paying off Daniels and later complained that Trump, nor the Trump Organization, ever reimbursed him, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal. (Cohen called that article “fake news.”) Aside from the money, Daniels’ lawsuit alleges that Cohen filed a restraining order against her and “further threatened” her, according to her lawyer.
Written statement last night by Pres Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen about 2016 payment to porn actress "Stormy Daniels." pic.twitter.com/yvQwP0GezI
— Mark Knoller (@markknoller) February 14, 2018
Common Cause, another transparency group, has also filed a complaint with the FEC that asks the watchdog group to investigate whether Trump paid the $130,000 himself in exchange for Daniels’ silence about the affair. That also would have broken campaign finance law. Stephen Spaulding, who served as special counsel for the FEC and now works as Common Cause’s chief of strategy, pointed out that Daniels was purportedly paid off in October 2016.
“That was a week after the Access Hollywood tape leaked,” Spaulding said. “So there was a lot of reason to believe that this was hush money, essentially to keep out money at a very important time in the campaign.”
But the FEC finding evidence of wrongdoing is far from certain — Spaulding called the agency “one of the most dysfunctional” in D.C. And even if the FEC does, Trump would only be slapped with a fine, Spaulding said. Common Cause also filed a complaint with the Justice Department over the alleged $130,000 payment, but it’s unclear whether that will move forward.
Breaking election laws can be a criminal offense though: Former Democratic North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, for example, was indicted for allegedly paying off his mistress. Although the president can be sued, it’s unclear whether he can be criminally indicted.
Still, Spaulding has hope. To start an FEC investigation, the agency needs only to decide that “there might have been” a violation of campaign finance law.
“We’ve fully passed that test,” Spaulding said. “Of the hundreds of cases that I reviewed when I was at the FEC, I can say I think it’s one of the clearest places where there should at least be an investigation.”