On Tuesday, Stephanie Clifford, better known as Stormy Daniels, took to Twitter to celebrate the latest extraordinary development in her civil case against President Trump. The adult-film star’s alleged affair with Trump has been at the center of legal troubles for those surrounding the president — in particular his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen.
That afternoon, Cohen told a federal court that President Trump directed him to pay off women with whom he’d allegedly had affairs ahead of the 2016 election. He pled guilty to eight charges, including tax evasion and violations of campaign finance laws.
Amid the news, Daniels tweeted:
She also thanked her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, who has also taken center stage in the national drama. The duo celebrated the unequivocally bad day for Trump and Cohen. Of greater significance to the presidency, Cohen’s guilty plea could strengthen one of their civil cases against Trump, increasing the president’s legal vulnerability and echoing the litigation that led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment by the House in 1998.
“We’ve tolerated quite a number of personal attacks over the last six months,” Avenatti said in an interview Wednesday, the day after Cohen pleaded guilty to eight charges, including tax evasion and violations of campaign finance laws. “I have tolerated a lot of criticism of the way I have approached this case and the fact that I’ve tried it in the media, and it is very satisfying to see the result, which I know would not have occurred but for the efforts of my client and I.”
Cohen’s plea directly implicated the president: He said he violated campaign finance law at Trump’s direction “for the principal purpose of influencing the election.”
Legal experts said Cohen’s statement could strengthen Daniels’s primary case and accelerate its movement through a federal court, creating the opportunity for Avenatti to depose Trump.
Andy Wright, a former litigator and an associate White House counsel in the Obama administration, put it like this:
Daniels is suing Trump to void the 2016 nondisclosure agreement that formally binds her from speaking about their alleged affair. She is also bringing a defamation case over a Trump tweet accusing her of a “con job” after Daniels said she was threatened in 2011 to keep silent about their relationship.
Trump’s “main potential legal liability stems from two things — one, from the information Michael Cohen might be able to provide, and two, the information that I may ultimately be able to disclose to the American public,” Avenatti said.
Daniels did not respond to requests for an interview.
Wright said Cohen’s plea casts the debate over the nondisclosure agreement — NDA, in legal shorthand — in a new light.
“If the NDA was part of a criminal conspiracy, then that’s going to very strongly bolster the idea that the contract itself might be void. . . . The NDA was basically the instrument of the payoff in the illegal scheme to protect the electoral interests, under that theory,” he said.
Trump faces a separate defamation suit in New York state from Summer Zervos, a former contestant on his old reality show, “The Apprentice,” who said he lied after she claimed he forcibly kissed and groped her in Los Angeles in 2007. The president has denied both Zervos’s and Daniels’s allegations.
These civil cases have operated under the radar compared with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and potential involvement of the Trump campaign. But the lawsuits are poised to draw the spotlight as plaintiffs seek to compel testimony from a sitting president.
Trump would be only the fifth president to be deposed while in office, according to legal experts. The last was former president Clinton.
Avenatti indicated this week that he expects U.S. District Judge S. James Otero in Los Angeles to lift his stay in Daniels’s nondisclosure agreement case, allowing their side to begin discovery.
“I would hope to be able to depose Cohen before Dec. 1,” Avenatti said. “We want both of these depositions to take place as quickly as possible. So we’re going to be pushing. I would take the depositions tomorrow if I was permitted to. We anticipate that they are going to oppose our efforts to depose both of them, so it could be a number of months.”
Otero denied Avenatti’s request for Trump to sit for a deposition in March and delayed the case while the federal investigation into Cohen, who is named as a defendant, concluded in New York. The next scheduling conference is set to take place Sept. 10.
Avenatti is likely to face opposition as he pushes for the deposition to actually take place.
“Michael is correct that this type of allegation [by Cohen] can strengthen a demand for a deposition. However, it’s very difficult to expedite depositions with sitting presidents,” said Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School.
“It took a considerable length of time to finally get Bill Clinton in that chair,” he said. “The courts are highly deferential to the schedule and the demands of the presidency.”
Trump could be headed for a deposition sooner in New York. In June, a judge there ruled that he could be deposed in Zervos’s case and ordered that the interview take place by early 2019. If that timetable holds, the lawsuit could be headed to trial next summer.
Overshadowing each legal fight is the Paula Jones case, in which Jones, a former employee of the state of Arkansas, sued Clinton for alleged sexual harassment in 1994. The Supreme Court found that Clinton was not immune from civil litigation as a sitting president, and it was Clinton’s false statement during a deposition denying he had sex with a White House intern that led to his impeachment.
A deposition “creates real legal risk for Donald Trump,” Wright said.
“They’ve been operating under this idea that it’s not a crime to lie to the American people,” he said. “That may be true, but when you have a [deposition] transcript out there showing that you made statements contrary to what you said in the past, you have exposure to perjury.”