In the landslide of news last week about guilty pleas, immunity deals and criminal convictions, you no doubt heard something astonishing: President Donald Trump’s ex-lawyer said in open court that Trump directed him to pay a pornographic film star quite a bit of money not to tell the world that they had sex.
Other than that, you might be somewhat hazy on the details.
After all, the porn star in question, Stephanie Clifford, whose screen name is Stormy Daniels, is not the only figure from the adults-only section to have made a cameo appearance during Trump’s time in office. (There has also been a onetime Playboy model and a former procuress, the Manhattan Madam.)
Moreover, Trump’s own statements about the arrangement with Clifford — a $130,000 payment given to her by the president’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen — have, shall we say, evolved over time.
On Tuesday, Cohen’s guilty plea in federal court in Manhattan brought to light new revelations about the payoff — and the efforts to conceal it.
Here’s everything that we now know — and don’t — about Trump’s deal with Clifford.
It all started with a golf tournament and “Shark Week.”
Clifford, now 39, first met Trump in July 2006 — four months after his son Barron was born — at American Century Championship, a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
At that point, she was a porn star with more than 60 credits to her name in movies like “Slave to Love” and “The Witches of Breastwick.” She had gone to the event to promote her adult-film company, Wicked Pictures.
According to an interview Clifford gave to In Touch magazine, she and Trump shared a golf-cart ride, after which he asked her to dinner. Dressed for an evening on the town, she said she showed up at Trump’s hotel room where, she claims, the married mogul greeted her from the couch while watching “Shark Week” on TV in his pajamas.
They dined in his room and eventually had sex, she said. (“Textbook generic,” as she put it.)
Clifford claims the two met again, including at Trump’s private bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles.
Trump has denied the affair.
Remember that “Access Hollywood” video?
Clifford gave the In Touch interview in 2011, but given its sensitive subject, the magazine decided not to publish it at the time.
Cut to five years later, when Trump, now running for president, was besieged by questions about his relationships with women.
Many had come forward that year to accuse him of everything from unwelcome advances to groping and harassment.
The furor culminated on Oct. 7, 2016, when The Washington Post published the explosive “Access Hollywood” video in which Trump was heard declaring that, as a “star,” he had license to grab women “by the pussy.”
It was then, prosecutors say, that Clifford’s agent, Gina Rodriguez, decided it was time for her client to try again to publicize the tale of what she said was her affair with Trump.
According to court papers, one day after the video was released, Rodriguez reached out to someone she thought could help her: a top editor at American Media Inc., a conglomerate whose flagship publication was the National Enquirer.
Her message to the editor was clear: Clifford, as the government later put it, was “willing to make public statements and confirm on the record” her assignations with Trump.
How a supermarket tabloid protected Trump.
Even though the National Enquirer was a supermarket tabloid, known for publishing gossip, it turned out to be the worst place possible to take a story about Trump’s infidelities.
David Pecker, the publication’s owner, was not only a longtime friend of Trump. More to the point, as the presidential race was heating up, Pecker had turned the Enquirer into something like an early-warning system for Trump-related scandals, prosecutors said.
Whenever the tabloid heard “negative stories” about Trump’s relationships with women, the government said, Pecker and his staff would work to have them “purchased and their publication avoided” — a tactic that was known as catch-and-kill.
In approaching the Enquirer, Rodriguez and Clifford triggered this early-warning system.
Instead of rushing into print their scoop about a major party’s candidate for president, Pecker, having caught the story, sent it to be killed by somebody he trusted: Trump’s lawyer and fixer, Cohen.
A contract, but no signature.
It was not the first time Cohen had done this.
A few months earlier, prosecutors said, Cohen had worked with Pecker to catch and kill the story of former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who had also claimed an affair with Trump.
Although that deal — for $150,000 — was never sealed, McDougal was represented in the negotiations by a lawyer from Los Angeles, Keith Davidson.
As it happened, Davidson also represented Clifford. And with the presidential election only a month away, he and Cohen went to work again, quickly striking a deal to keep Clifford quiet.
Under the terms of the deal, Cohen agreed to pay Clifford $130,000 through Essential Consultants LLC, a shell company he created. (He got the money, prosecutors said, through a fraudulently obtained home-equity loan.)
Clifford, in turn, agreed to sign a nondisclosure contract with Trump. In it, she was identified as Peggy Peterson and he as David Dennison.
There was just one problem: Trump never signed the papers. That omission could cause him future legal problems because Clifford’s current lawyer, Michael Avenatti, has sued him.
Avenatti is claiming that the nondisclosure contract that Clifford signed is void because Trump never bothered putting his signature on it.
The story gets out anyhow.
Two things happened at this point.
First, Trump was elected president. Second, shortly after his inauguration, In Touch finally published Clifford’s account of the affair.
When Cohen learned that the interview was about to released, he scrambled to book Clifford on Sean Hannity’s Fox News television show, according to a separate lawsuit that Avenatti filed in June against Cohen and Davidson.
Cohen wanted Clifford “to lie to the American public about her relationship with Mr. Trump,” according to the lawsuit.
But after a series of frantic texts to Davidson — “Can you call me please?” “Please call me” — Cohen abruptly changed his mind about putting Clifford on TV.
The lawsuit quotes him as sending a cryptic text to Davidson.
“The wise men all believe the story is dying,” Cohen wrote, “and don’t think it’s smart for her to do any interviews.”
Trump’s story keeps changing.
During the campaign and after, Trump’s aides repeatedly denied that he slept with, let alone paid, Clifford, attacking the idea with words like “outlandish” and “absolutely, unequivocally” false.
But the president’s position on the matter, like that of those close to him, has gradually shifted over time.
In May, for instance, Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told Hannity on Fox that the president not only knew about the hush-money payment, but had also reimbursed Cohen for his expenses.
On Tuesday, Cohen pleaded guilty to, among other things, working with Pecker to pay Clifford, at Trump’s behest, to influence the election.
Then, on Wednesday, Trump made his latest statements on the scandal. Going on Fox himself, he acknowledged that, yes, he knew about the payoff — but only after Cohen had made it.
Contrary to established law, he went on to insist that, even though he had paid the $130,000 back to Cohen, none of it amounted to a crime.
The payments did not “come out of the campaign,” Trump said. “They came from me.”