Congressional Republicans Are Gearing Up for Battle Over Expected Trump Indictment
And Ron DeSantis gets the classic Trump treatment.
Good afternoon and welcome to Press Pass, your twice-weekly look into Congress, campaigns, and the way Washington works.
The looming indictment of former President Donald J. Trump—the alleged crime in this case arising from the six-figure reimbursement he made to his former fixer Michael Cohen, who on his orders paid porn star Stormy Daniels—has sent Capitol Hill into a tailspin, and no one is even in town yet. The Senate arrives this evening, and the House gets back to business tomorrow. The grand jury is slated to reconvene Wednesday morning.
If you haven’t already, make sure to upgrade to Bulwark+ to get a full account of my conversations with lawmakers about all of this. Thursday’s edition will be exclusively for paying subscribers.
Congressional Republicans Lash Out Over Expected Trump Indictment
“We’re not talking about this in our conference,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told CNN’s Manu Raju. “You’re just asking about it. So it only dominates your asking.” This could not be further from the truth.
McCarthy himself suggested in a tweet Sunday that Republicans could potentially strip federal funding from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and other district attorneys’ offices in retaliation.
“Republicans stopped the radical DC crime law, and we will investigate any use of federal funds that are used to facilitate the perversion of justice by Soros-backed DA’s across the country,” McCarthy tweeted.
In addition, three Republican House committee chairmen on Monday signed a four-page letter promising to investigate Bragg’s potential prosecution of Trump. Reps. Jim Jordan (Judiciary), James Comer (Oversight), and Bryan Steil (House Administration) impugn Bragg’s case against Trump and demand that he testify to Congress about his actions and provide documents and communications related to the ongoing case.
Since no indictment has been announced yet, the letter is couched as speculation about details that aren’t official: “You are reportedly about to engage in an unprecedented abuse of prosecutorial authority,” the trio wrote. The letter also attacks the credibility of former Trump fixer Michael Cohen and accuses Bragg of neglecting other crimes in Manhattan.
Other congressional Republicans also lashed out at the possibility of a Trump indictment.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene made an allusion to the January 6th conspiracy theory that Trump supporter Ray Epps was an FBI plant who encouraged violence on the day of the insurrection. (As the New York Times has established, Epps actually tried to calm his fellow protesters and prevent clashes with the police during that day’s events.) Greene also unveiled new campaign swag with the inscription “Enemy of the State” printed over upside-down American flags, and she questioned why George Soros is “allowed to maintain his [U.S.] citizenship” (More on Soros in a moment.)
Matt Gaetz said the expected indictment is an “absurd abuse of the criminal process in our politics.” After describing Bragg’s potential decision to prosecute as “a disgusting abuse of power,” Senator Rand Paul called for Bragg to be “put in jail”—the irony apparently lost on Paul. The list goes on.
It is worth remembering that a hush money–related Trump indictment would likely be only the beginning of the former president’s travails with criminal prosecution. There are several other potential criminal cases against Trump being developed—including one you likely haven’t heard much about, which Kim Wehle covered in The Bulwark this week. In the coming months, Congress—particularly House Republicans—will be in constant action to undermine, discredit, and disrupt these investigations and prosecutions.
Ron DeSantis Gets the Trump Treatment—and It’s Just Gonna Get Worse
Pretty much the only Republican politician not to dance around the fact that underlying this investigation is the story of Trump’s alleged hush money payments to a porn star was Ron DeSantis. In a press conference on Monday morning, DeSantis repeatedly noted that this was about keeping a porn star quiet. But he was also talking to the GOP base who had been waiting impatiently for him to weigh in on the matter, so he made sure to add a garnish for them by noting that Bragg is a “Soros-funded” district attorney.
Liberal megadonor George Soros has indeed poured money into DA races around the country in recent years, but the invocation of his name often serves a specific purpose for right-wingers looking to insinuate that some nefarious shadow campaign is afoot (and the accusations often have more than just a whiff of antisemitism to them).
The mini-news-cycle following DeSantis’s response had all the hallmarks of a classic Trump loyalty spat.
Last week, even before news broke of the potential indictment, Make America Great Again Inc., a pro-Trump super PAC, accused DeSantis of skirting campaign laws and embarking on a “shadow presidential campaign” in a 15-page ethics complaint.
Then, when DeSantis didn’t leap to Trump’s defense, Trump World was livid. Some examples:
Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller railed against the “radio silence” from DeSantis.
Donald Trump Jr. urged his dad’s supporters to “pay attention to which Republicans spoke out against this corrupt BS immediately and who sat on their hands and waited to see which way the wind was blowing.”
PizzaGate conspiracy theorist–turned–right-wing influencer Jack Posobiec told the New York Times he’s “taking receipts on everyone,” adding, “For DeSantis to make that post yesterday, talking about the Hurricane Ian response and nothing from the personal account whatsoever about the arrest—it was a message that was received.”
Fast-forward to Monday morning when DeSantis finally weighed in on the issue. He took calculated shots at Trump’s character (cheating on his wife with a porn star) and his desire to suppress the truth (paying said porn star $130,000 to stay quiet) while simultaneously offering a sop to the base by discrediting Bragg. Naturally, Trump loyalists were less than pleased.
Trump himself responded on Truth Social, where he posted a homophobic suggestion that DeSantis could himself be “unfairly and illegally attacked” with accusations of an affair with a man; he also insinuated that the governor may have had relationships with “underage” people while a teacher in Georgia, an unsubstantiated allegation Trump has pushed repeatedly.
We’ve all watched this scenario play out over and over during the past decade. Unless DeSantis is willing to simply give up on his prospective 2024 presidential bid, there is literally nothing he can do to stop these kinds of attacks from Trump and his MAGA supporters. And those attacks will almost surely only get worse.
Couldn’t happen to a nicer DeSantis.
I will keep posting this comment until every writer STOPS CALLING THIS HUSH MONEY TO KEEP STORMY DANIELS QUIET!
She was trying to SELL HER STORY to the National Enquirer, not keep it quiet. They bought the story, Cohen paid her for the story via the National Enquirer and Trump paid Cohen back. It was a CATCH AND KILL operation.
PLEASE STOP USING TRUMP’S LANGUAGE!
Here’s the long version.
The Popular Information Substack summed it up quite well yesterday.
“ Daniels met Trump at a July 2006 celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. (There is a photo of the two of them together at the event.) Daniels says Trump invited her to his hotel room and said he could secure her a spot on his reality show, The Apprentice. She alleges that they then had a sexual encounter, which Trump denies. Afterward, according to Daniels, Trump would call her and invite her to other events, including the 2007 launch of Trump Vodka.
Daniels sought to sell the story about her alleged relationship with Trump to media outlets beginning in 2011 when Trump raised his profile by making baseless accusations about Obama and publicly contemplated a presidential run. Daniels gave Life & Style an extensive interview in exchange for $15,000. That would have been the end of it, but when Life & Style contact the Trump Organization for comment, Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, threatened to sue. Life & Style killed the story and did not pay Daniels. (The full Life & Style interview was published in January 2018.)
Daniels tried to shop the story again in 2016, when Trump emerged as the Republican nominee, but did not receive an offer. Everything changed in October 2016 when the Washington Post published the infamous Access Hollywood tape that featured Trump's lewd comments about groping women. Trump's sexual mores were now at the center of a closely contested campaign. And his ability to win the election hinged largely on Trump changing the subject before Election Day.
Dylan Howard, then-editor of the National Enquirer, reached out to Daniels' agent and asked her to make another proposal for Daniels' story. What Daniels didn't know is that David Pecker, the publisher of the National Enquirer, Howard, Trump, and Cohen, had reached a secret agreement at the outset of Trump's presidential campaign to work together to "catch-and-kill" negative stories about Trump. The purpose of the agreement was to boost Trump's chances in the campaign.
Howard reached a tentative agreement to pay Daniels $120,000 for her story. But Pecker had recently paid Karen McDougal, another woman who alleged she had an affair with Trump, $150,000. Pecker wasn't prepared to shell out any more cash. So Howard advised Cohen that he would need to take care of it himself. Cohen conferred with Trump and Pecker and negotiated a $130,000 deal to purchase Daniels' silence.
Daniels, in other words, never tried to extort Trump. Instead, she was targeted by a "catch-and-kill" operation set up by Trump and his associates prior to the campaign to hide damaging stories.
Cohen had successfully negotiated a deal for Daniels' silence, but he had a big problem: where was he going to come up with $130,000? On October 25, 2016, two weeks before Election Day, Daniels' attorney, Keith Davidson, told Cohen that he was canceling the deal and Daniels would resume shopping it to media outlets.
This put Trump, and his campaign, in a dire situation. Not only could Daniels reveal the story of her affair with Trump in the critical days before the election, but she could also reveal the botched scheme to buy her silence. Had the truth emerged in October 2016, it could have played a decisive role in an election determined by about 70,000 votes across a handful of states.
That didn't happen. After consulting with Trump, Cohen withdrew $131,000 from a home equity line of credit and transferred it to a recently formed shell company, Essential Consultants. The shell company transferred $130,000 to Davidson on October 27.
There was a great deal of effort to obscure Trump's involvement with the payment. In the non-disclosure agreement itself, Trump was referred to by a pseudonym, David Dennison (DD). A separate side agreement identified Dennison as Trump.
A few days later, Trump won the presidency.
Over the course of the next year, Cohen invoiced the Trump Organization $35,000 per month to both reimburse him for the payment to Daniels and compensate him for his role in defusing a threat to the campaign. Cohen was paid a total of $420,000 by the company, and the checks were personally signed by Trump.
The public first learned of the hush money payments to Daniels from a story in the Wall Street Journal in January 2018. Trump repeatedly lied about his involvement.
On April 5, 2018, Trump was asked if he knew anything about the payments from Cohen to Daniels. He claimed he knew nothing:
Q. Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?
TRUMP: No. No. What else?
Q. Then why did Michael Cohen make those if there was no truth to her allegations?
TRUMP: Well, you’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney. And you’ll have to ask Michael Cohen.
Q. Do you know where he got the money to make that payment?
TRUMP: No, I don’t know. No.
Federal prosecutors determined the scheme that was directed by Trump and executed by Cohen was illegal. Among other things, the payments by Cohen, which were ultimately reimbursed by the Trump Organization, constituted unlawful corporate contributions to Trump's campaign. Cohen pled guilty to campaign finance violations and other crimes and was sentenced to three years in prison for his role.
Federal prosecutors declined, however, to prosecute Trump. This decision might have been based on an opinion by the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel stating that "the indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would unconstitutionally undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions." But federal prosecutors did not charge Trump after he left office either.
Whether the same scheme also violated New York State law is a separate question. If Bragg decides to charge Trump, he will have to make the case in detail. But Trump's conduct was not unmeaningful, and efforts to hold him legally accountable are not outrageous.
Trump schemed to conceal relevant information from the voting public in the days before the election, engaged in an elaborate coverup, and then lied about his involvement. This deceit was a subversion of the democratic process and may have changed the course of history. ”
And one last little fun fact. Per a book by former SNDY chief prosecutor, Geoffrey Berman, Trump was originally listed in the Cohen indictment as “Individual One” and was removed at the request of main DOJ.