White House drawn into legal battle over Stormy Daniels

White House drawn into legal battle over Stormy Daniels
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The White House is being pulled into the legal fight between President TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL freezes policy barring players from protesting during anthem McConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Petition urges University of Virginia not to hire Marc Short MORE’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and the adult-film actress who claims to have had an extramarital affair with the president in 2006.

The White House denies that Trump had a relationship with Stormy Daniels, who real name is  Stephanie Clifford. 

But press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday also said the president recently won an arbitration ruling against Daniels — a statement that effectively tied Trump to the $130,000 payment made by his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, to keep Daniels quiet.

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The Daniels saga is fraught for Trump. The affair allegedly occurred around the time now-first lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpFirst lady listens to students discuss online civility Trump to visit Andrews to receive body of fallen secret service member The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE was pregnant with Barron Trump. Meanwhile, Cohen — Trump’s self-described “fixer” — sought to silence Daniels in the run-up to the 2016 election by creating aliases and a shell company to pay her off.

The media is lapping up the salacious storyline as it plays out in courtrooms and arbitration hearings across Los Angeles.

“Look, she broke the contract as part of a publicity play,” said conservative lawyer Larry Klayman. “But I don’t know what you do about it at this point. The cat is already out of the bag.”

In legal filings, Daniels's attorneys claim that she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006 in Lake Tahoe, Nev. Their relationship allegedly extended into 2007, and included a rendezvous in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Daniels's lawyers say she was eager to tell her story after the release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape at the height of the 2016 presidential race, in which Trump boasted of being able to grope and kiss women without consent because of his fame.

But Cohen and Daniels reached an agreement whereby he would pay her $130,000 to keep quiet. Cohen claims that he acted without Trump’s knowledge, used his own money and was not reimbursed by the president or his campaign.

On Oct. 17, Cohen formed a group called Essential Consultants to act as a conduit for the payment. The signed contract is between Essential Consultants, “David Dennison” and “Peggy Peterson” — aliases for Trump and Daniels, respectively.

Cohen and Daniels signed the document. While there is a line for Trump, he did not sign it. Daniels accepted the payment from Cohen anyway.

Now Daniels's lawyers claim that she is free from the nondisclosure agreement and ready to talk. They say the contract is null and void because Trump did not sign it. And they say that Cohen breached the agreement by publicly admitting to making the $130,000 payment after it was uncovered by The Wall Street Journal.

The saga took another strange twist this week when Cohen obtained a restraining order from an arbitrator prohibiting Daniels from speaking further about the matter.

“This case has already been won in arbitration,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday.

The use of the arbitrator was agreed upon in the original contract. Legal experts described it as a means of ensuring that Cohen had recourse in case Daniels took the money and then threatened to talk anyway.

But a leak of the gag order provoked a cascade of media stories about how Trump’s lawyer was trying to “silence” the adult-film star. 

Daniels's lawyers say they did not know the arbitration proceedings were taking place and didn’t have a chance to give their side, although legal experts say it was likely an emergency injunction granted in advance of a full hearing that would include both parties.

The restraining order exacerbated the conflict.

Daniels's lawyers in a subsequent court filing named the president for the first time as a defendant and accused Cohen of running a shell game to protect him.

“The attempts to intimidate Ms. Clifford into silence and shut her up in order to protect Mr. Trump continue unabated,” the filing states.

“The extent of Mr. Trump’s involvement in these efforts is presently unknown, but it strains credulity to conclude that Mr. Cohen is acting on his own accord without the express approval and knowledge of his client Mr. Trump.”

Still, there are questions swirling about Daniels's intentions and credibility.

Daniels signed a contract saying she would not speak about the allegations and accepted the payment in full before seeking a way out of it.

And last month, Daniels signed a statement saying that the allegations of the affair were false. Later, she went on a late-night talk show to insinuate that the statement she had signed was untrue.

Daniels's lawyers are claiming that she was “forced” to sign the statement denying the alleged affair.

“There were significant threats made, directed at Ms. Daniels, Ms. Clifford, that if she did not sign that various [legal] things would happen to her,” Daniels's lawyer, Michael Avenatti, said Wednesday night on CNN.

Avenatti acknowledged that the signed statement “puts her credibility at issue and raises questions about it,” but insisted that Daniels could explain once she is free from the nondisclosure agreement.

The controversy seems likely to dog the president for some time.

Avenatti has been making the rounds on the networks, with the story even breaking into popular morning shows like NBC’s “Today.”

The controversy has also caught the attention of campaign watchdogs, who have requested investigations into whether the payment to Daniels was an illegal contribution aimed at impacting the outcome of the election.

Conservative lawyers have dismissed that claim, believing that a public figure like Trump would have many reasons to pay to protect his reputation.

Still, one lawyer fumed at what he described as sloppiness on the part of Cohen.

“He doesn’t get the political world,” the lawyer said. “He spent years doing this at the Trump Organization but he was not prepared to deal with the scrutiny and accountability that comes in this arena.”

Trump’s allies are at their wit’s end over the saga.

“She’s clearly at the stage in her career where she’s looking for a last hurrah,” said a former Trump adviser. “Plus, the media needs to feed the beast, so here we are, I guess.”