House Democrats to hold hearings on Stormy Daniels hush-money case

Democrats are highlighting a case in which they believe prosecutors would have enough evidence to charge Trump with a crime if not for Justice Department policy.
Image: Stormy Daniels exits the U.S. District Court Southern District of New York
Stormy Daniels exits the U.S. District Court Southern District of New York for a hearing related to Michael Cohen on April 16, 2018 in New York.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

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By Ken Dilanian

The House Judiciary Committee plans to hold public hearings as soon as October on President Donald Trump’s alleged role in hush-money payments to two women during the 2016 election, a committee aide familiar with the matter told NBC News.

The push by House Democrats, first reported by The Washington Post, is designed to highlight a case in which they believe prosecutors would have enough evidence to charge Trump with a crime if not for the Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president, the aide said. The hearings are part of the panel's investigation into whether to recommend articles of impeachment against Trump, according to another committee aide.

House Democrats have been blocked so far from presenting many key witnesses in the Russia investigation. But because the payments to former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult-film star Stormy Daniels occurred before Trump became president, Democrats believe they will be able to compel the testimony of key witnesses without the delays they have experienced in the Russia matter, the first aide said.

In the latter investigation, key witnesses like former White House counsel Don McGahn have refused to testify, and it could take months or years of litigation before the courts render a final judgment on whether the committee can force them to do so.

In the prosecution of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, prosecutors endorsed Cohen’s account: that Trump ordered him to make payments that amounted to felony campaign violations. Cohen pleaded guilty to the felony and his serving three years in prison.

Trump cannot be charged under existing Justice Department policy. As the policy was interpreted by special counsel Robert Mueller, prosecutors shouldn't even accuse the president without charging him.

Daniel Goldman, the former federal prosecutor and NBC News analyst now advising the House Intelligence Committee, wrote in December that “based on what we know right now … as well as my decade of experience as a prosecutor in the SDNY, I believe there is sufficient evidence to charge Donald Trump” with campaign finance violations because the payments were designed to silence the women in order to boost Trump’s election chances.

Trump initially said he didn’t know anything about the payments, but court records were subsequently released showing he was in the room when Cohen and then-National Enquirer publisher David Pecker discussed ways Pecker could help counter negative stories about Trump's relationships with women. Nonetheless, Trump and his lawyers have denied doing anything illegal regarding the payments.

Democrats believe the hush-money scandal is an easier and clearer case to present to the public than the question of whether Trump obstructed the Russia investigation, the aide said. The Judiciary Committee voted in July to authorize several subpoenas, including for Daniels' former lawyer, Keith Davidson, Dylan Howard, who oversees the National Enquirer, and Pecker.

Alex Moe contributed.