Who’s who in the Trump hush-money investigation

A look at the key figures at the centre of former US President Donald Trump’s New York criminal case.

Stormy Daniels/Donald Trump
A combination photo shows adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels and former US President Donald Trump [File: Brendan Mcdermid and Joshua Roberts/Reuters]

Former United States President Donald Trump has been indicted in relation to a New York investigation into an alleged hush-money payment made to a porn star in advance of the 2016 presidential election.

After weeks of speculation, a New York grand jury voted on Thursday to indict Trump, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, making him the first former president to face criminal prosecution in US history.

Here’s a look at key figures in the case:

Stormy Daniels

A porn actor who has 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 has said was an awkward and unexpected sexual encounter with Trump at a celebrity golf outing in Lake Tahoe in 2006. Trump has denied 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 capitalise 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.

Stormy Daniels seen walking, with law enforcement behind her
The criminal charges, while sealed, result from a New York probe into hush money paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels [File: Markus Schreiber/AP Photo]

Michael Cohen

A lawyer by training, Cohen worked for the Trump Organisation 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 has said 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 a similar $150,00 payment to Karen McDougal, a model who claimed to have had a 10-month relationship with Trump in the 2000s, for the rights to her story about the alleged affair.

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 pleaded guilty and served federal prison time and is now a key prosecution witness in the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation.

Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen arrives to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee [File: Mandel Ngan/AFP]

Allen Weisselberg

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 Stormy 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 end in April.

Allen Weisselberg 
The Trump Organization’s Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg, centre, awaits a car after leaving a courtroom appearance in New York [File: Craig Ruttle/AP]

David Pecker

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 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 non-disclosure 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.

Interactive_Trump's arrest
(Al Jazeera)

Alvin Bragg

Manhattan’s first Black district attorney, Bragg could become the first prosecutor anywhere to bring a criminal case against a former US 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 percent 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 towards 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.

New York City District Attorney Alvin Bragg
New York City District Attorney Alvin Bragg attends an exoneration proceeding at the Supreme Court, in New York City [File: Steven Hirsch/Reuters]

Joseph Tacopina

A Brooklyn-born lawyer known for his sharp suits and celebrity clientele, Tacopina is the public face of Trump’s defence 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.

That was a fairly new tune for Tacopina. 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 was not aware of the payment “doesn’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 has said 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 SPAL, a team in the second tier of Italian football.

Matthew Colangelo

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 US mail service before the 2020 election.

After President Joe Biden took office, Colangelo joined the US Department of Justice and was temporarily its third in command. He then became a principal deputy to Associate US 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 US labour secretary.

Source: Al Jazeera, AP