As Donald Trump fought his way to victory in the 2016 presidential campaign, key allies tried to smooth his bumpy path by paying off two women who had been thinking of going public with allegations of extramarital encounters with the Republican.
The payoffs, and the way that Trump’s company accounted for one of them, are believed to be at the center of a grand jury investigation that led to a criminal indictment and could result in the first-ever criminal prosecution of a former U.S. president.
Here’s a look at key figures in the case:
A porn actor who’s also had bit parts in mainstream films like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” Daniels was paid $130,000 to keep quiet about what she says was an awkward and unexpected sexual encounter with Trump at a celebrity golf outing in Lake Tahoe in 2006. Trump denies having sex with Daniels.
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, was paid the money in the final weeks of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign after her representative said she was willing to make on-the-record statements to the National Enquirer or on television confirming a sexual encounter with Trump.
Daniels attempted to capitalize on her newfound notoriety after news of the payment became public, embarking on a nationwide strip club tour in 2018. During a stop in Columbus, Ohio, Daniels was arrested on suspicion of inappropriately touching an undercover officer, but the charges were dropped hours later.
Her former lawyer, Michael Avenatti, is serving 11 years in prison for extortion and fraud, including a conviction for stealing $297,000 in proceeds from Daniels’ 2018 book, “Full Disclosure.”
A former Playboy model who said she had a 10-month affair with Trump in the mid-2000s, McDougal was paid $150,000 in 2016 by the parent company of the National Enquirer for the rights to her story about the alleged relationship. Trump denies any affair.
The story never ran. The company suppressed McDougal’s story until after the election, a dubious journalism practice known as “catch and kill.” American Media Inc. has acknowledged that its payments to McDougal were done specifically to assist Trump’s election bid and were made “in concert” with his campaign.
McDougal has said Trump tried to pay her after their first sexual tryst at a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 2006. McDougal said she continued the relationship with Trump for about 10 months and broke it off in April 2007 because she felt guilty.
A lawyer by training, Cohen worked for the Trump Organization from 2006 to 2017, serving as Trump’s fixer. He once proudly proclaimed he’d “take a bullet” for his boss.
Cohen took the lead in arranging the payment to Daniels, passing it through a corporation he established for the purpose. He says he was then reimbursed by Trump, whose company logged the payment and related bonuses as “legal expenses.”
A few months earlier, Cohen had also arranged for the publisher of the National Enquirer to make the similar $150,00 payment to McDougal for the rights to her story about an alleged affair with Trump.
Cohen made recordings of a conversation in which he and Trump spoke about the arrangement to pay McDougal through the tabloid publisher. At one point, Trump said: “What do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?” Trump denies the affair.
After Trump became president, Cohen held himself out as someone who could potentially advise corporate clients on the new administration, collecting hefty fees from companies seeking influence in the new White House.
Federal prosecutors in 2018 charged Cohen with evading taxes related to his investments in the taxi industry, with lying to Congress and with campaign finance violations related to the hush money payments.
Cohen, who blamed Trump for his legal problems, pleaded guilty and served about a year in prison before being released to home confinement because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He is now a key prosecution witness in the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation.
The longtime chief financial officer at the Trump Organization, Weisselberg made key decisions in how the company kept its books, but did not appear to be cooperating with the hush-money investigation.
During testimony before Congress in 2019, Cohen said it was Weisselberg who decided how to structure his reimbursement for the payment to Daniels. Cohen said Weisselberg paid the money out over 12 months “so that it would look like a retainer.”
Federal prosecutors gave Weisselberg limited immunity from prosecution in exchange for his grand jury testimony in their investigation of the payments. But the Manhattan district attorney’s office ultimately brought unrelated charges against Weisselberg for dodging income taxes on job perks he got from Trump’s company, including a rent-free apartment and a luxury car.
He pleaded guilty and is serving a short jail term set to expire in April.
The National Enquirer’s former publisher and a longtime Trump friend, Pecker testified twice before the grand jury about the tabloid’s involvement in suppressing negative stories about Trump.
Pecker met with Cohen during Trump’s 2016 campaign and said the Enquirer’s parent company would help buy and bury potentially damaging stories about Trump’s relationship with women.
Pecker, who was the Enquirer’s chairman and chief executive at the time, agreed to keep Cohen apprised of any such stories. In June 2016, he alerted Cohen that McDougal’s lawyer had approached the publication seeking to sell her story about an alleged affair with Trump.
The Enquirer’s owner at the time, American Media Inc., then agreed to pay McDougal for “limited life rights” to the story of her relationship with “any then-married man.” The publisher said it would feature her on two magazine covers and print more than 100 of her articles in exchange for $150,000.
Cohen signed an agreement to buy the nondisclosure part of McDougal’s contract for $125,000 through a company he formed, but Pecker later called off the deal and told Cohen to tear up the agreement.
Federal prosecutors agreed in 2018 not to prosecute American Media in exchange for its cooperation in the campaign finance investigation that led to Cohen’s guilty plea and prison sentence. The Federal Election Commission fined the company $187,500, deeming the McDougal deal as a “prohibited corporate in-kind contribution.”
Pecker stepped down as CEO of the publisher in 2020.
Manhattan’s first Black district attorney, Bragg could become the first prosecutor anywhere to bring a criminal case against a former U.S. president. The Democrat inherited an investigation of Trump when he took office in January 2022.
Bragg grew up in Harlem during the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic, where he says he was held at gunpoint six times — three times by police. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he previously worked as a federal prosecutor, chief deputy state attorney general, civil rights lawyer and law school professor.
Bragg campaigned for office as a progressive reformer. He was elected with 83% of the vote in deep-blue Manhattan.
After taking office, Bragg paused an investigation into Trump’s business dealings that had been seen as gathering momentum toward a possible indictment. But after his prosecutors won a trial last year in which Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, was convicted of tax fraud, Bragg convened a new grand jury to examine the hush money payouts.
A Brooklyn-born lawyer known for his sharp suits and celebrity clientele, Tacopina is the public face of Trump’s defense team.
Trump is just the latest big name to turn to Tacopina, whose past clients have included the rappers Meek Mill, Jay-Z and A$AP Rocky and baseball great Alex Rodriguez.
In recent weeks Tacopina has been making the former president’s case on TV news shows, questioning Bragg’s investigation and motives, challenging Cohen’s credibility as a star witness and suggesting Trump was extorted.
It wasn’t always like that. In a TV appearance in 2018, long before Tacopina started representing Trump, he told CNN that the payment to Daniels appeared to be “illegal” and a “potential campaign finance issue.” He told the network that claims Trump wasn’t aware of the payment didn’t “pass the straight-face test.”
Trump hired Tacopina in January, initially to defend him against a civil lawsuit brought by magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll, who says Trump raped her in the mid-1990s. That case is scheduled to go to trial next month.
Tacopina played ice hockey in college and later dabbled as a player agent. He owns S.P.A.L., a team in the second tier of Italian soccer.
Necheles is a New York City defense lawyer who represented Trump’s company at its tax fraud trial last year and has been working behind-the-scenes on the former president’s criminal defense, meeting with prosecutors in an attempt to head off potential charges.
In the past she served as counsel to the late Genovese crime family underboss Venero Mangano, known as Benny Eggs, and defended John Gotti’s lawyer, Bruce Cutler, in a contempt-of-court case in the early 1990s. In recent years, the Yale Law School graduate has represented liquor heiress Clare Bronfman in the NXIVM cult case.
Like Tacopina, Necheles is a former Brooklyn prosecutor.
During the Trump Organization trial, she made a point of referring to Trump as “President Trump.”
“This is not a political statement,” she explained to jurors. “My parents were immigrants and migrants,” she continued. “And in my home we referred to all former presidents as presidents out of respect for the office, whether we supported him, or disagreed with him.”
Bragg hired Colangelo in December to lead the investigation. They previously worked together on Trump-related matters as senior officials at the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James.
During his tenure with the attorney general’s office, Colangelo worked on a lawsuit that resulted in the closure of Trump’s charitable foundation for misusing funds. He was also part of a wave of state litigation against Trump administration policies, resulting in dozens of lawsuits that challenged everything from diluted environmental standards to changes to U.S. mail service ahead of the 2020 election.
After President Joe Biden took office, Colangelo joined the U.S. Justice Department and was temporarily its third in command. He then became a principal deputy to Associate U.S. Attorney General Vanita Gupta. Previously, Colangelo served as deputy assistant to President Barack Obama, was a deputy director of the National Economic Council and a chief of staff for the U.S. labor secretary.
JUAN MANUEL MERCHAN
A respected jurist and former prosecutor, Merchan is the judge in Trump’s criminal case — the latest in a string of Trump-related cases he’s presided over.
Merchan, an acting justice in the criminal division of New York’s trial court, was the judge in the Trump Organization’s tax fraud trial last year and a related case against the company’s longtime finance chief, Allen Weisselberg.
Merchan, 60, is the supervising judge of the grand jury that indicted Trump and is presiding over a border wall fraud case against longtime Trump ally Steve Bannon. He is also the judge of Manhattan’s mental health court.
Merchan steered the negotiations that led to Weisselberg’s guilty plea last summer, which called for him to testify against the Trump Organization in exchange for a five-month jail sentence.
During the company’s trial, Merchan was calm and considered but irked the defense with some rulings they felt were favorable to the prosecution.
Merchan, a graduate of Hofstra law school, worked in the trial and investigations divisions of the Manhattan district attorney’s office in the 1990s and held various roles in the state attorney general’s office before being appointed to the bench in 2006.
Merchan started as a family court judge in the Bronx. In 2009, he was appointed to the court of claims, which deals with lawsuits against the state, and assigned to his current role, as an acting justice in the trial court, which in New York is known as Supreme Court. He is not elected to the post.
The Associated Press