Donald Trump hush money case draws misleading Clinton comparisons
Conservative politicians, websites and commentators claim Donald Trump's supposed payout to porn star Stormy Daniels is no different from former US president Bill Clinton's settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit in the 1990s. This is misleading; the cases differ in that Clinton paid to resolve a publicly known civil suit while Trump is alleged to have bought Daniels's silence on an unknown affair, which may form the basis for criminal charges in New York City.
"Bill Clinton Paid Paula Jones $850,000 in Hush Money -- Was Never Charged," says the headline of a March 18, 2023 article from the Gateway Pundit.
The conservative website, which AFP has fact-checked numerous times, goes on to say the case "stands in stark contrast" to reports of a potential indictment against Trump relating to Daniels in 2016.
Other voices on the right aired similar claims after the former president said on Truth Social that he would be arrested March 21, a prediction that did not pan out.
"If you're Bill Clinton and you give $850,000 to Paula Jones in a civil settlement -- which we all agree was a civil settlement -- nothing happens to you," said Congressman Andy Biggs, a Republican from the US state of Arizona, in a March 20 interview with Newsmax.
"But if you're Donald Trump and you give money in a civil settlement, a somehow crazy theory emerges from a radical leftist DA supported by George Soros to say, 'Well, we're going to have to go after Donald Trump.'"
The comparison gained traction across social media and conservative news outlets amid speculation over whether Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg would indict Trump, bringing the first criminal charges against a former or sitting US president.
The investigation centers on $130,000 paid weeks before the 2016 election to allegedly stop Daniels from going public about an affair she says she had with Trump years earlier. Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer, says he made the payment and was later reimbursed.
The payment to Daniels, if not properly accounted for, could result in a misdemeanor charge for falsifying business records. That might be raised to a felony if the false accounting was intended to cover up a second crime, such as a campaign finance violation.
Legal experts told AFP that Trump's case is fundamentally different from Clinton's 1998 settlement with Jones, who had sued the former president for sexual harassment four years prior.
"A legal settlement to long-standing litigation, filed in court and made part of the litigation, is not the same as hush money paid covertly to silence someone," said Nisha White, executive director of the Rutherford Institute, a conservative Christian law firm that backed Jones's lawsuit.
Bruce Green, director of the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics at Fordham University, agreed.
"The situations are as different as night and day," he said in a March 22 email. "When Bill Clinton arranged to pay Paula Jones, she had already made her allegations in a publicly filed lawsuit -- there was nothing to cover up."
Bragg had not announced any charges against Trump as of 1930 GMT on March 23.
The Jones settlement
Clinton's agreement to pay Jones ended a four-year legal saga that provided fodder for tabloid coverage and ammunition for House Republicans to impeach the former president.
In her 1994 complaint, Jones alleged that Clinton propositioned her and had exposed himself at a hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas three years earlier, while he was governor and she was a state employee. Jones sought $700,000 in damages.
Clinton, who was in the White House by this time, denied any wrongdoing and accused Jones of being an opportunist. He tried to delay the trial until he left office, but the US Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that sitting presidents are not immune to civil litigation that arises from events that predate their term.
Jones's legal team filed hundreds of pages of documents. Clinton himself was deposed in the case, leading to an independent counsel investigation and, eventually, his impeachment.
In 1998, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying Jones failed to show damages. Jones appealed that decision months later, prompting Clinton's offer to pay her in exchange for dropping the case.
"Bill Clinton after consulting with his attorneys eventually agreed to settle the case for $850,000 rather than risk further legal jeopardy," said White of the Rutherford Institute.
AFP reached out to the Clinton Foundation for comment, but a response was not forthcoming.
The Daniels payout
While Clinton settled a civil case against him, Trump allegedly paid Daniels in private.
Daniels says she first crossed paths with the real estate mogul in 2006 during a charity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, on the border between the US states of California and Nevada. She was 27 at the time and Trump was 60.
According to Daniels's account, Trump -- who was married to his third wife Melania -- invited her to dinner in his suite. She claims they went on to have what "may have been the least impressive sex I'd ever had."
Trump has denied they ever had sexual relations, accusing Daniels of "extortion" and a "total con job."
A decade later, when Trump was the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, The National Enquirer discovered Daniels was seeking bidders for her potentially damaging story about her relationship with Trump. The tabloid newspaper, owned by a Trump ally, put her in touch with Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer at the time.
Cohen has acknowledged arranging a $130,000 "hush money" payment to Daniels -- whose real name is Stephanie Clifford -- in exchange for her silence about their relations in 2006.
In 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts in connection with the payout. He acknowledged payments to Daniels and another woman could violate campaign finance laws because they were aimed at preventing a disclosure that could affect the election.
Daniels and Trump -- under the respective pseudonyms Peggy Peterson and David Dennison -- were the parties to a non-disclosure agreement prepared by Cohen that has emerged in court filings. The payment was revealed by The Wall Street Journal in January 2018 and forms the basis for the charges Trump may face in New York.
"Clinton's payment was meant to settle Jones' civil claims, not to buy her silence," said Green of Fordham Law School. "In contrast, Trump paid for Stormy Daniels' silence -- and, in particular, her silence in the weeks leading up to the presidential election, which is why the Manhattan grand jury has been investigating whether this was a disguised campaign contribution."
AFP reached out to Trump's attorney for comment, but a response was not forthcoming.