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Letter appears to contradict key Cohen testimony against Trump

By Ben Marquis
March 23, 2023

Former President Donald Trump is reportedly facing imminent criminal indictment over a 2016 payment of "hush money" through then-personal attorney Michael Cohen to former porn actress Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet about an alleged affair with Trump years earlier.

A recently revealed 2018 letter from Cohen's own attorney at the time contradicts that narrative, though, as it indicates that Cohen made the payment with his own money and was never reimbursed by Trump, the Daily Mail reported.

That revelation would seemingly undercut the argument of Democratic Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg that the hush money payment from Cohen, later reimbursed by Trump, constituted an illegal campaign contribution because it benefited Trump's bid for the presidency.

The 2018 letter from Cohen's then-lawyer

In a post on Wednesday to his Truth Social account, former President Trump wrote, "Wow, look what was just found -- A Letter from Cohen’s Lawyer to the Federal Election Commission. This is totally exculpatory, and must end the Manhattan District Attorney’s Witch Hunt, immediately. Cohen admits that he did it himself."

That post included a screenshot of a Feb. 2018 letter to the Federal Election Commission from Cohen's then-attorney Stephen Ryan that disputed complaints to the FEC at that time that Trump and/or his campaign had reimbursed Cohen for the 2016 "hush money" payment of $130,000 to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

"In a private transaction in 2016, before the U.S. presidential election, Mr. Cohen used his own personal funds to facilitate a payment of $130,000 to Ms. Stephanie Clifford," Ryan wrote. "Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed Mr. Cohen for the payment directly or indirectly."

"Contrary to the allegations in the complaint, which are entirely speculative, neither Mr. Cohen nor Essential Consultants LLC made any in-kind contributions to Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., or any other presidential campaign committee," the attorney continued.

"Mr. Cohen has not been a government employee during any of the relevant time period," Ryan added. "The payment in question does not constitute a campaign contribution or expenditure and, therefore, the FEC lacks jurisdiction over this matter. The complainants have not and cannot present any evidence to the contrary. Accordingly, the complaint should be dismissed."

Letter contradicts sworn testimony

While former President Trump and some of his supporters have seized upon that letter as evidence that he had no real involvement in any actual crime, others have dismissed it as being completely contradictory to the prior facts and narratives surrounding the incident, according to the U.K.'s Independent.

Just six months after that letter was sent to the FEC, Cohen pleaded guilty to a federal indictment on multiple charges that included tax evasion, making false statements to banks, and campaign finance law violations, which stemmed from the payments Cohen made to Daniels and one other woman to buy their silence about alleged affairs with Trump.

Cohen later testified under oath in court -- as well as before Congress, per the Daily Mail -- that the payments had been directed by Trump and were later reimbursed personally through him.

Surprise grand jury testimony from former attorney

It is unclear where that 2018 letter came from, but it could be related to the surprise testimony on Monday before the Manhattan DA's grand jury from another former Trump-connected attorney, Robert Costello, who previously served as a legal adviser to Cohen, CNN reported.

Costello told reporters after his testimony that he had countered Cohen's own prior anti-Trump testimony to the grand jury and had submitted as evidence hundreds of documents and emails that undercut Cohen's claims.

He further asserted that District Attorney Alvin Bragg had knowingly withheld from the grand jury evidence that was exculpatory for Trump and that Cohen had previously informed him that he was unaware of any sort of criminal activity committed by Trump.

CNN noted that in a letter to prosecutors from Trump's legal team to request Costello's testimony before the grand jury, one of Trump's lawyers wrote, "Given the central role Mr. Cohen’s testimony plays in this grand jury investigation, we believe this testimony -- that Mr. Cohen previously stated that he was unaware of any criminal activity by President Trump -- is crucial to allow the grand jury to exercise its 'role … as a buffer between the accused and the government.'"

Wrench thrown in Bragg's plans

The Daily Mail noted that both the 2018 letter and Costello's testimony on Monday likely upended DA Bragg's reported plans for the grand jury to issue an indictment against Trump.

Indeed, without any explanation, Bragg canceled a scheduled Wednesday meeting for the grand jury, though it may reconvene on Thursday, as his entire case, which revolves around the testimony of the less-than-credible star witness Cohen, may be on the verge of complete collapse.