Porn star Stormy Daniels and special counsel Robert Mueller are among the most talked about figures in Washington these days. At this point, they are central figures in separate stories, but could it be long before their paths intersect?
The White House continues to wade through the political fallout from secret payments before the 2016 election to buy the silence of Daniels, who claims to have had an extramarital affair with Trump in 2006. But there are new questions about whether the salacious scandal could attract the attention of Mueller’s team, which is investigating Russian meddling and related matters.
Much of this speculation revolves around Trump’s longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen, who signed the agreement with Daniels and is also under scrutiny in the Russia investigation. Here’s a step-by-step guide of how the Daniels affair could potentially creep into the Mueller probe:
STEP 1: MUELLER INVESTIGATES COHEN’S TIES TO RUSSIA
First things first, an investigation of Cohen could open the door to examining the payments.
The New York Times reported that Cohen is under FBI scrutiny in the Russia investigation. The Washington Post reported that Mueller has requested documents and interviewed witnesses about Cohen, specifically regarding pursuit of a Russian business deal during the campaign and his involvement in an effort to craft a “peace plan” for Ukraine.
CNN has previously reported that Mueller’s team asked witnesses about the failed efforts to build a Trump-branded tower in Moscow. Cohen played a leading role in those negotiations.
Cohen is also mentioned in the controversial dossier, written by former British spy Christopher Steele, that alleges widespread collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Cohen vehemently denies all the allegations in the dossier. CNN has reported that members of Mueller’s team met last summer with Steele, presumably to learn about the dossier claims.
STEP 2: MUELLER BROADENS HIS COHEN INQUIRY
If investigators are already looking into Cohen’s activities during the campaign, it is possible they could broaden their inquiry to include his financial arrangement with Daniels.
Mueller was authorized by the Justice Department to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, any potential ties between Trump associates and the Russians, potential obstruction of justice and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
That last phrase is how Mueller could investigate the payment to Daniels. To do that, in all likelihood, Mueller would first seek permission from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the special counsel because of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal.
“Even though Stormy Daniels is not Russian, this is enough to go to Rosenstein and bring it into the orbit of the inquiry,” said Michael Zeldin, a CNN legal analyst who has worked for Mueller. “Based on the evidence that is available, prosecutors have a reasonable basis to investigate whether the payment by Michael Cohen to Stormy Daniels violated federal election laws.”
STEP 3: MUELLER FINDS WRONGDOING BY COHEN
The next step would be for Mueller to investigate the arrangement between Cohen and Daniels. This could include subpoenas to the banks involved in the payments, and interviews with Daniels and others with knowledge of the arrangement, the timing, and its purpose.
It’s already known that the $130,000 payment was made shortly before the 2016 presidential election, and that the stated purpose was to keep Daniels quiet. Buying her silence could be legally interpreted as an in-kind donation to the Trump campaign – creating a potential legal issue.
It is against the law for an individual to donate more than $2,700 directly to a presidential campaign. Furthermore, the payment was never disclosed to the Federal Election Commission.
The special counsel could consider charging Cohen with conspiracy to defraud the FEC, arguing that his actions impeded the commission’s ability to regulate political spending, Zeldin explained. If Cohen were tried and convicted on that charge, he could face five years in prison.
“Mueller has already charged people with that,” Zeldin said, referring to the new indictment brought last month against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and the indictment against 13 Russians who allegedly used social media to influence American voters in 2016.
It’s also possible Mueller could pursue other violations of campaign finance laws. At the same time, it’s possible Mueller’s prosecutors could conclude that Cohen did nothing illegal.
STEP 4: MUELLER TRIES TO SQUEEZE COHEN
Above all, Cohen is known for his unyielding loyalty to Trump and the Trump family, even once saying that he would be willing to “take a bullet” for his boss-turned-president. That means Mueller would need to apply significant pressure on Cohen if he wants Cohen to “flip” on Trump and cooperate with the broader investigation of Russian meddling and potential collusion.
“You have someone under investigation for one thing but you find out that they have done something else – so you indict them for that,” Zeldin said. “Mueller could say, ‘I have now potentially caught Cohen in unrelated criminal acts, and I’m going to use it as leverage.’”
If Mueller has the evidence, he could threaten to bring criminal charges against Cohen, stemming from the payments. At that point, Cohen would need to decide between protecting Trump and protecting himself from costly legal proceedings and potential jailtime.
That being said, in this hypothetical situation, Cohen could always fight the charges.