Democrats to turn sights on Trump hush money affair
Donald Trump's alleged involvement in buying the silence of two women who claimed to have had sex with him is to be the focus of a major inquiry in Congress.
The House Judiciary Committee will begin the inquiry in early autumn.
And Democrats believe there is enough evidence to name Mr Trump as a co-conspirator in the episode that resulted in his former lawyer Michael Cohen pleading guilty to two campaign finance charges.
Cohen, who is serving three years in prison, testified under oath that Trump directed the payments that helped land him behind bars.
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan also described Trump's alleged role in the scheme, referring to him in court papers as "Individual-1".
But they ended their investigation this summer without any additional charges.
The committee is planning to call witnesses involved in the hush-money payments to former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult film actress Stormy Daniels as soon as next month, sources said.
The news comes as an opinion poll by Quinnipiac University found Mr Trump lagging behind leading Democratic 2020 contenders Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris by 16pc, 14pc, 12pc and 11pc.
The hush-money inquiry will open a new chapter in the House's months-long consideration of whether to draft articles of impeachment against the president.
More than 130 Democrats have called for an official impeachment inquiry, though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has cautioned that trying to remove Mr Trump would be divisive and politically risky without public support.
The new inquiry will reopen questions about the extent of Mr Trump's involvement in the payoffs, and whether he would have been charged if not for Justice Department opinions that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
"The fingerprints are all over this one - it's not like a big mystery," said committee member Jamie Raskin.
The Maryland Democrat added: "As with the evidence of obstruction of justice, the conclusion seems inescapable: [Trump] would have been tried had he been anybody else.
"Now it's left to Congress to figure out what to do with the lawbreaking and apparent impunity of the president."
Mr Trump, his aides and attorneys have made contradictory statements about his knowledge of the payments, while denying wrongdoing.
"No campaign violations were engaged in by the president," said Jay Sekulow, Mr Trump's personal attorney.
The Judiciary Committee is considering as a potential witness David Pecker, the chief executive of American Media Inc, parent company of the National Enquirer magazine, which admitted making the payment to Ms McDougal.
AMI complied with a document request earlier this year, giving the committee all communications it previously turned over to law enforcement, according to sources
However, it remains to be seen how far congressional Democrats will be able to get in their inquiry.
Mr Trump and his team have succeeded in blocking many of the House oversight investigations so far, refusing to provide information and challenging subpoenas in court.
The payoffs came in the final months of the 2016 campaign when, Cohen said, there was fear in the Trump inner circle that Ms McDougal and Ms Daniels would go public.
Cohen told prosecutors that "in coordination with and at the direction" of Mr Trump, he worked with Mr Pecker to pay $150,000 to Ms McDougal in a "catch and kill" operation.
He also said he worked "in coordination" with the then candidate to arrange a $130,000 payment to Ms Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.
Cohen told the House Oversight Committee in February: "I am going to jail in part because of my decision to help Mr Trump hide that payment from the American people before they voted."
Federal prosecutors also implicated Mr Trump, noting that the payments to the two women were essentially in-kind donations to his presidential campaign.
Karl Sandstrom, a former member of the Federal Election Commission, said prosecutors in Manhattan had an "exceedingly strong case".
"They saw fit to put Michael Cohen in jail," he said.
"Why aren't the people who authorised and paid for this culpable?"
(©2019, The Washington Post)