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Trump investigation tightens

President Donald Trump has now been abandoned by two of his most powerful protectors, his longtime lawyer and the company that owns the National Enquirer tabloid, bringing a perilous investigation into his campaign one step closer to the Oval Office.

Both Michael Cohen and American Media Inc. now say they made hush money payments to a porn star and a Playboy Playmate for the purposes of helping his 2016 White House bid, an apparent campaign finance violation.

The women alleged affairs with Trump, and federal prosecutors say the payments were made at Trump's direction.

The admissions by Cohen and AMI conflict with Trump's own evolving explanations. Since the spring, Trump has gone from denying knowledge of any payments to saying they would have been private transactions that weren't illegal.

Though prosecutors have implicated Trump in a crime, they haven't directly accused him of one, and it's not clear that they could bring charges against a sitting president even if they want to because of Justice Department protocol.

Nonetheless, Trump's changing explanations have clouded the public understanding of what occurred and are running head-on into facts agreed to by prosecutors, AMI and Cohen, who pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and other crimes and was sentenced on Wednesday.

"You now have a second defendant or group of defendants saying that these payments were made for the primary purpose of influencing the election, and that it was done in co-ordination with Trump and his campaign," said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine.

Trump's first explanation of the payment that would eventually help lead Cohen to a three-year prison sentence came at 35,000 feet over West Virginia.

Returning to Washington on Air Force One, Trump on April 6 for the first time answered questions about the reports of $130,000 in hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels, issuing a blanket denial to reporters while saying they would "have to ask Michael Cohen."

Three days later, the FBI raided Cohen's office, seizing records on topics including the payment to Daniels. Furious, Trump called the raid a "disgrace" and said the FBI "broke into" his lawyer's office. He also tweeted that "Attorney-client privilege is dead!"

The raid was overseen by the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan and arose from a referral from special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian election interference. At the time, Cohen said he took out a personal line of credit on his home to pay Daniels days before the 2016 election without Trump's knowledge.

Later that month in a free-wheeling "Fox & Friends" interview, Trump acknowledged that Cohen represented him in the "crazy Stormy Daniels deal."

In May, Trump and his attorneys began saying Cohen received a monthly retainer from which he made payments for nondisclosure agreements like the one with Daniels. In a series of tweets, Trump said those agreements are "very common among celebrities and people of wealth" and "this was a private agreement."

People familiar with the investigation say Cohen secretly recorded Trump discussing a potential payment for former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal two months before the election. On the tape, Cohen is heard saying that he needed to start a company "for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David," a possible reference to David Pecker, Trump's friend and president of AMI.



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