Inside the Hush-Money Payments That May Decide Trump’s Legal Fate

McDougal, who is named as “woman one” in the indictment documents, did not respond to a request for comment this week. When she spoke with me in 2018 for a New Yorker story and again in 2020 for the podcast, she expressed regret. “Knowing now what’s going on behind the scenes,” McDougal told me, “I feel like I was part of a major coverup in history.”

Prosecutors have charged Trump with thirty-four felony counts of falsifying business records, apparently related to payments reimbursing Cohen after he paid Clifford. Prosecutors will seek to establish that the offenses, which would typically be classified as misdemeanors, were undertaken with the goal of commissioning another crime, allowing them to be charged as felonies. The person with knowledge of Bragg’s investigation noted that prosecutors are not required by law to specify that second crime. “Flexibility and options are key,” that person told me. Prosecutors intend to “save that decision” for when they “feel like it’s most prudent.” In a press conference this week, Bragg referenced multiple potential second crimes, including violations of state and federal election law.

Trump, in his own press conference this week, said that the charges were a politically motivated attempt by Bragg, a Democrat, to prevent him from winning reëlection. “Everybody that has looked at this case, including RINOs and even hardcore Democrats, say there is no crime and that it should never have been brought,” he said. Cohen and Pecker, who are both expected to testify on behalf of the prosecution, did not respond to requests for comment.

Sajudin, now in his fifties, sports a goatee and slicked-back hair. He grew up in Brooklyn in a large Italian American family. Sajudin told me that he spent his youth working in construction and asbestos abatement, witnessing mob associates pay off building inspectors. In 2008, he began working as a doorman at Trump Tower. “Whenever Trump would come to the building, he would quite often give everybody a hundred-dollar bill,” he recalled in the 2019 interview. On the other hand, he said, “It’s like a corporate mob, so to speak.” He added, “They’ll try to be nice to you in the beginning, to try and get what they want. And then, if that doesn’t work, they try to strong-arm you.”

At Trump Tower, Sajudin clashed with a woman who worked as the building’s concierge and who had previously been Trump’s housekeeper. Sajudin recalled her making lavish purchases that seemed incongruous with her income and said that she enjoyed impunity from the building’s management. “Every time she had an argument with somebody, the first words to come out of her mouth is, ‘I will call Mr. Trump. I will call Mr Trump,’ ” Sajudin told me. He said that he raised the matter with superiors, including Matthew Calamari, Trump’s longtime bodyguard, who’d risen through the ranks of the Trump Organization to become its C.O.O. Calamari, he said, “got really loud and rude and told me, he says, ‘You know, you need to, like, let it go.’ He says, ‘If you had Trump’s kid, you could do whatever you want.’ ” The next time Trump arrived at the building, Sajudin said, he received an unusually large tip from Calamari. “Several hundred bucks,” Sajudin recalled. “I assumed he was being so nice to me because he wanted me to be quiet.”

When Sajudin, agitated by his disputes with the concierge, continued to press the subject, he said that Calamari called him into a second meeting, in a dim office with the blinds drawn. Sajudin recalled that Calamari told him, “We think of you like family. We work together. But you need to let this situation go.” Calamari then shook his hand and asked, “Are we clear?” “He wouldn’t let go of my hand,” Sajudin added. “It was like a movie. You know, it was like watching ‘Goodfellas.’ ” (Calamari has declined repeated requests for comment.)

After his encounter with Calamari, Sajudin felt that his standing in the Trump Organization deteriorated. “I definitely feel I was blacklisted,” Sajudin told me. “They probably don’t want a person with this information working in a building in Manhattan.” Sajudin eventually departed the organization—he said by mutual agreement. As he sought another job, it occurred to him that he could monetize the rumor. He contacted Globe, and then the Enquirer. A reporter from the Enquirer responded quickly, offering him six figures, which was later reduced substantially when Sajudin said that he didn’t want his name attached.

In the fall of 2015, Sajudin found himself in a hotel room in rural Pennsylvania, taking a polygraph test for the Enquirer, which he passed. He signed an initial agreement with the tabloid to grant it exclusive rights to the story. Soon after, during a meeting with an Enquirer reporter at a nearby fast-food restaurant, he also signed a revised contract, which included a more robust nondisclosure clause. “If I did speak on the story, I could be subject to a million-dollar fine,” he said.

A.M.I. employees were divided as to the truth of the underlying rumor. Some questioned Sajudin’s credibility. In 2014, a Web site registered through a service that obscures the identity of the author claimed that Sajudin had made similar accusations against a Trump Tower resident. Sajudin told me that he continued to believe the Trump paternity rumor and defended his credibility. “When I tell you it’s the truth, it is the truth,” he said. “No one would risk all this to make up stories.”

Eight months after the payment with Sajudin, A.M.I. finalized its deal with McDougal. Several months after that, Michael Cohen paid off Stormy Daniels. Soon after, Trump was elected President.

In April, 2018, F.B.I. agents raided Cohen’s hotel and office, in part to gather information on the A.M.I. scheme, and The New Yorker published my initial reporting on the payment to Sajudin. “Oh, shit,” Keith Davidson, the lawyer who represented both McDougal and Clifford, told me in 2019, describing his reaction to the raid. “Oh, shit, shit, shit.” Cohen was ultimately convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for campaign-finance violations, tax evasion, and lying to Congress. A.M.I. admitted to the scheme, and struck a non-prosecution agreement with federal authorities. Trump was not charged at the time. (Cohen and Davidson did not respond to requests for comment this week.)

During our interviews, McDougal told me that she believed that “catch and kill should be illegal in a lot of situations and positions.” She added, referring to elected officials, “If you’re working for your country, you have to be up front with this stuff.” Sajudin told me that he had been taken aback by the escalating significance of his story. As the trial of the former President proceeds, interest in A.M.I.’s transactions related to Trump will likely intensify. “I thought this was just, like, a tabloid,” Sajudin told me. “Now I see it’s a lot more than that.” ♦

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