Hush money. A triple X film actress. Illicit affairs. Political intrigue.
Though some of the details might seem unique to the Trump White House, the Stormy Daniels saga has echoes of the John Edwards case and reawakened some of the same questions that played out in his six-week trial that mixed the dry aspects of federal election law with dramatic flaws of human character.
The allegations from both cases raise questions about campaign finance law, and whether payments made by wealthy supporters to hide a candidate's extramarital affair should be considered campaign contributions that not only went unreported but exceeded the maximum dollar amount allowed.
One big difference between the case involving the politician who represented North Carolina in the Senate from 1999 to 2005, and the allegations against President Donald Trump, has been the behavior of prominent Republicans. Many were quick to seize on the sordid details of the Edwards affair and not only sought to publicly humiliate the one-time rising star in the Democratic Party, but some also pushed for a criminal trial.
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Their lips have tightened with the Trump case, with many either taking a pass on questions about it or offering circumspect comments claiming not to have enough details to take a stand.
Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican and head of the Freedom Caucus, has much to say on many issues, but not when it comes to the Trump-Daniels saga. “Oh, I don’t know anything about it. I really don’t. I don’t know anything about it, and that’s the best way to comment on that,” Meadows said.
One of the Republicans declining to talk about the Trump allegations is the federal prosecutor who led the criminal probe into Edwards — U.S. Rep. George Holding, a congressman from Wake County who launched his political career within weeks of the Edwards indictment.
Holding had left the prosecutor's office by the time Edwards went to trial in 2012 in Greensboro.
"When I was the U.S. Attorney, folks would try to armchair quarterback everything we did and really questions like that can only be answered by a prosecutor who has the benefit of a full investigation so they can look at the facts, look at the law and they make the prognosis," Holding said recently when asked for his thoughts on the Trump case."I'm not going to sit around and armchair quarterback anything that I just read about in the press."
Political score settling?
Edwards saw his political aspirations upended after his affair with videographer Rielle Hunter was revealed during the 2008 presidential campaign and not long after his wife, Elizabeth, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
From his base in the Eastern District of North Carolina, a 44-county region from Raleigh to the coast, Holding, a George W. Bush appointee, initiated the criminal investigation after reports surfaced that Edwards had used money from two supporters to hide his pregnant mistress during his run for the 2008 Democratic nomination.
The probe was protracted. President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 shortly after the investigation started, and though a change in administration often brings in new federal prosecutors in the top offices, Holding was allowed to stay on as the U.S. attorney through the first several years of the Obama presidency, in part to complete the Edwards investigation.
The Edwards defense team and federal prosecutors discussed a plea deal toward the end of the probe, but that fell apart at the 11th hour. Instead of leaving the matter to the Federal Elections Commission, the government proceeded to criminal charges in June 2011 with an unusual case testing the breadth and limits of campaign finance laws.
The trial, with its revelations of sex, political conniving, vast wealth and personal betrayals, raised questions about what the former presidential candidate was thinking as Hunter, former political aide Andrew Young and Young's family hopscotched the country, moving from fancy hotel to pricey villa to California mansion in late 2007 and 2008, hoping to outrun National Enquirer reporters who had wind of the scandal.
The trial also raised questions about the government’s prolonged pursuit of a case against the former Democratic U.S. senator and presidential candidate whose descent from the heights of politics was faster and deeper than his quick ascent.
From the start there were allegations from the Edwards camp that political score-settling was wrapped up in the case.
Holding, who announced his candidacy for Congress just weeks after Edwards' indictment, rode herd over a case that ultimately was tried in a different district from his own — the Middle District of North Carolina, which includes Orange and Chatham counties, where Edwards, Hunter and political aide Andrew Young lived.
Edwards' lawyers noted Holding's run for office in a 31-page memorandum in support of their September 2011 motion to dismiss the case. The memo also described Holding's role as a former staffer to Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms; his campaign contributions to the Republican Senate incumbent Edwards defeated, Lauch Faircloth; and Holding's time as a law clerk to Judge Terrence Boyle, a federal district court judge in the Eastern District whose nomination to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was blocked by Edwards.
"In this prosecution, a major figure in the Democratic Party had been brought down and, as it turns out, a Republican U.S. Attorney with political ambitions of his own has used this high-profile case to his personal benefit," the Edwards defense team said in the document.
Public integrity unit on trial, too
At the Edwards trial, his attorneys insisted the candidate, himself, did not know about the payments. They argued that Edwards wanted to keep his affair secret so his wife wouldn't know — personal and family reasons that would have been there even if he was not seeking the country's highest elected office.
As the country waited, jurors went behind closed doors in the late spring of 2012, not only deciding the fate of Edwards but in many ways reaching a verdict on the Justice Department's small Public Integrity Section. The section already was under tremendous scrutiny after the 2007 bungling of a corruption case against Ted Stevens, a Republican and former Alaska senator who died in a 2010 plane crash. In that case, prosecutors had failed to disclose key evidence to the defense and the verdict was overturned.
A jury acquitted Edwards on one of six charges alleging campaign finance fraud and conspiracy — the one based on a $200,000 check that elderly Virginia heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon had written in January 2008, the month that Edwards dropped out of the race.
The jurors could not reach unanimous verdicts on the other five charges — deadlocking 8-4 in favor of Edwards on the remaining counts of illegal contributions and 11-1 on the accusation that he caused the filing of a false campaign finance report.
Federal prosecutors decided not to seek a new trial after U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles declared a mistrial for the allegations that left the jury divided.
"FEC cases are very tough cases," Holding said recently. "White collar cases are hard in general. White collar cases that involve public figures are even more difficult. Then election law is really complex. So you’re trying to convey all that ultimately to a jury."
Holding noted that the U.S. attorney's office in North Carolina's Eastern District prosecuted the case alongside the Public Integrity Section, which agreed to move ahead with the case while Obama was president and Eric Holder was the U.S. attorney general.
"The Public Integrity Section, they’re beyond politics," Holding said.
The lead prosecutor at the Edwards trial was Robert J. "Bobby" Higdon, a former assistant U.S. attorney under Holding who now has ties to the Trump administration. After leaving the federal prosecutor's office during the Obama administration and working in private practice for a while, Higdon has returned to the Eastern District office after Trump nominated him for the top prosecutor job there..
Higdon "politely declines" to comment on the allegations against Trump, Don Connelly, a spokesman for the prosecutor, said.
Edwards, who has returned to private practice with his former law partner, David Kirby, also is not talking publicly about the allegations lodged against Trump by Stormy Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford.
His spokeswoman said Edwards is involved with many interesting cases of his own and chooses to focus his attention on them.
For campaign or personal benefit?
Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and co-author of “The Prosecution and Defense of Public Corruption," questioned the Justice Department's decision to pursue the Edwards case after the 2012 trial, and this month questioned any pursuit of similar charges against Trump given what had been revealed at the time.
But Henning drew distinctions between the Edwards case and details coming from the Daniels allegations, the recent lawsuit she filed and the non-disclosure agreement that she signed but says Trump did not.
Key details of the Daniels-Trump case that had emerged before Saturday are these:
Daniels was paid $130,000 in the waning weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign in what she has called a "hush agreement" to conceal the sexual relationship she alleges she had with Trump starting in 2006.
Though the White House has denied the affair, Trump’s lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, has acknowledged making the payment himself. Cohen also recently obtained a restraining order to prevent Daniels from speaking publicly about Trump.
"Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly," Cohen said in a statement to The New York Times.
Daniels filed a lawsuit last week, claiming the agreement linked to the nondisclosure order that she signed last year had been breached, and that Trump never signed it.
Her lawsuit contends that Trump must have been involved with Cohen's decision to transfer the "hush agreement" money. The suit contends that Trump would have known that fallout from her story and any text messages or photos she might have could have had a negative impact on his campaign just as it was dealing with the aftermath of the release of an old "Access Hollywood" recording on which Trump is heard bragging about groping women.
Then on Friday, NBC News reported that Cohen, Trump's longtime ally, had used a Trump Organization email address to arrange the payments for Daniels. The news outlet received a copy of an email from a banker at First Republic Bank sent to Cohen at a trumporg.com email address, which was then forwarded to Cohen's private Gmail account, and from there to Daniels’ attorney.
Paul S. Ryan of Common Cause, which filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission questioning the Cohen payment as an unreported Trump campaign contribution that exceeded election law limits, noted on Twitter that corporations and labor organizations (including officers, directors or other representatives acting as agents of corporations and labor organizations) are prohibited from facilitating the making of contributions to candidates or political committees.
Hampton Dellinger, a North Carolina lawyer who attended most days of the Edwards trial, said on Saturday that he thought there are enough questions about facts in the Trump-Daniels saga to warrant an investigation by either the Federal Elections Commission or the U.S. Justice Department.
"The Edwards case wasn't dismissed by a judge," said Dellinger, a Democrat who has run for office before. "It went to a jury. I certainly had concerns about the Edwards prosecution because it was so seemingly novel. My recollection was that you had a range of people involved in those payments to a third party. You had more of an arm's length between the candidate and the payments. I think there appears to be enough questions to merit a real look."
While Trump could borrow a defense similar to the one used by Edwards — that he was trying to hide an affair from his wife and family — if the porn star's allegations are true, there now are questions about the limited liability company that Cohen created called Essential Consultants, through which the $130,000 payment was made.
"The Edwards case was more or less salacious," Henning said. "There are more moving parts with the Trump side."
It remains unclear whether Trump was aware of the payment.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders all but confirmed Trump’s involvement on Wednesday when she said a recent arbitration proceeding — one resulting in a temporary restraining order against Daniels — was "won in the president’s favor."
The non-disclosure agreement with Daniels repeatedly refers to "property" that she agreed to turn over to Trump, including all video images, still images, emails and text messages, according to national media reports.
If Daniels has such images or text messages, government watchdog groups have said, the president could be vulnerable to blackmail.
Henning said investigators might also want to look into any possibilities of money laundering related to the use of the limited liability account to move the payment.
Don McGahn, who was a member of the Federal Election Commission during the questions about the Edwards case, now is Trump’s White House counsel. At a 2011 FEC meeting, McGahn concluded that the gifts were "not reportable," also saying that it would be "odd" to deem such payments as gifts to Edwards’ campaign.
Brad Smith, the chairman and founder of the Institute For Free Speech who served on the Federal Elections Commission, said at the time of the Edwards trial that he did not think the payments made by the wealthy donors should be viewed as campaign funds, and had similar views about the Trump case from what details he knew.
"What we said then," Smith said referring to the Edwards case, "was that generally speaking, not everything that benefits a a candidate is a campaign expense."
Smith, a Republican, said one has to weigh whether the expense would have been made outside the realm of the campaign such as a "$400 haircut."
"One of the things with the Trump campaign is I think you have to say that certainly it might have been done anyway," Smith said. "I think it really can't be viewed as a campaign finance."