Anatomy of a Crime: Sex, Hush Money and a Trump Fixer’s Guilty Plea

Mr. Cohen initially struggled to come up with the $130,000 payment to Ms. Clifford, which Mr. Trump did not readily provide. Ms. Clifford then considered selling her story elsewhere.

Upon learning from Mr. Davidson about Ms. Clifford’s plans, Mr. Howard texted Mr. Cohen, urging that they “coordinate something on the matter,” or “it could look awfully bad for everyone,” the court papers said. Then, according to prosecutors, Mr. Pecker and Mr. Howard spoke with Mr. Cohen over an encrypted telephone line, persuading him to finalize the deal.

The obscure shell company Mr. Cohen used to pay her, Essential Consultants L.L.C., has since been disclosed. But then it remained secret, even after a Wall Street Journal article about Ms. McDougal’s deal with A.M.I., published days ahead of the campaign, noted that Ms. Clifford had spoken to the news media about selling her story but then disappeared.

It wasn’t until January 2017 that Mr. Cohen initiated the process of being repaid, presenting executives at the Trump Organization with records showing Essential Consultants’ payment to Ms. Clifford.

According to prosecutors, executives at the company signed off on paying Mr. Cohen $420,000, which included a $60,000 bonus, money to cover any taxes on the payment to Mr. Cohen and a reimbursement for undefined “tech services.” As prosecutors noted, Mr. Cohen would be paid in $35,000 installments. Mr. Cohen submitted invoices that falsely identified the payments as part of a “retainer agreement.”

Upon receiving the first two invoices, a company executive whom prosecutors identified as “Executive-1” forwarded the invoice to “another executive of the company (‘Executive -2’),” and the fraudulent invoice was approved, according to the prosecutors. Several people familiar with the investigation said one of those executives was Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization chief financial officer. It is unclear who the other executive was.

Even with the reimbursement, the campaign finance law views Mr. Cohen’s initial payment as an illegal contribution, in excess of limits on donations of more than $2,700 in general elections.