It may prove to be the most-talked-about secret payment in American political history — the $130,000 that President Trump’s lawyer Michael D. Cohen paid to the pornographic film actress Stephanie Clifford to keep quiet about an alleged affair with Mr. Trump before he became president.
That payment to Ms. Clifford, known professionally as Stormy Daniels, was a mere 0.005 percent of the $2.4 billion spent on the 2016 election. But it could have an outsize impact on the presidency: The payment has helped spur a lawsuit by Ms. Clifford against Mr. Trump and a federal investigation into Mr. Cohen. Campaign finance watchdogs assert the transaction was the result of a secret, and illegal, effort to subvert election spending laws on behalf of the president.
Mr. Trump on Thursday rejected any notion that payments to Ms. Clifford had violated campaign finance laws, though in the course of his defense he contradicted earlier statements that he hadn’t known of payments to the actress.
The story behind the payment to Ms. Clifford — when Mr. Cohen paid it, how he paid it, whether he was paid back and by whom — will be critical to both the lawsuit and investigation, not to mention others that may come.
Below is what we know about what happened, how the explanations have evolved and why it all matters.
Cohen forms a shell company in Delaware
Oct. 17, 2016
Mr. Cohen sets up a new company in Delaware, Essential Consultants L.L.C., from which he will later pay Ms. Clifford.
Delaware has minimal disclosure requirements for people who create companies there, making it hard to know their identities.
Many companies incorporate in Delaware. The location of Essential Consultants could become legally significant if investigators establish that Mr. Cohen used Essential Consultants to evade campaign finance laws requiring full disclosure of campaign donations and disbursements. Mr. Cohen and lawyers for Mr. Trump have denied wrongdoing.
Money is moved, and aliases are involved
Oct. 26, 2016
Mr. Cohen communicates with his bank, First Republic Bank, about a payment to Ms. Clifford through his Trump Organization email account. Ms. Clifford’s lawyer Michael Avenatti has pointed to Mr. Cohen’s use of that account to argue he was working on the payment in his official capacity working for the Trump Organization. Mr. Cohen has said that “neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction.”
Oct. 27, 2016
Keith Davidson, then Ms. Clifford’s lawyer, receives a $130,000 wire transfer in his client-trust account at City National Bank in Los Angeles.
Oct. 28, 2016
Mr. Cohen and Ms. Clifford sign a contract that effectively promises Ms. Clifford money in exchange for not talking about the alleged affair with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump’s name does not technically appear on the document.
According to a draft amendment to the original contract, which was shared with The New York Times, Ms. Clifford was referred to as “Peggy Peterson.” Mr. Trump was named as “David Dennison” in the document.
Mr. Clifford’s lawyer later contends that in failing to sign the document himself, Mr. Trump rendered the contract null and void.
A close call just before the election
Nov. 4, 2016
The Wall Street Journal publishes an article about a $150,000 deal between the tabloid company American Media and another woman alleging an affair with Mr. Trump, the former Playboy model Karen McDougal, to keep silent during the campaign. That article makes glancing mention of Ms. Clifford, reporting that she was considering sharing her story with ABC News but abruptly disappeared on the network before doing so.
The election is held four days later. The story about Ms. Clifford’s payment does not get any real attention for another 14 months.
The secret deal is secret no more
Jan. 12, 2018
News reports reveal that Mr. Cohen arranged the deal to pay Ms. Clifford $130,000 during the campaign and that a contract amendment identifies Ms. Clifford as Peggy Peterson and Mr. Trump as David Dennison.
Mr. Cohen responds in a statement, “These rumors have circulated time and again since 2011. President Trump once again vehemently denies any such occurrence as has Ms. Daniels,” and forwards a denial from Ms. Clifford. A White House official says, “These are old, recycled reports, which were published and strongly denied before the election.”
Feb. 13, 2018
Mr. Cohen tells The Times that he paid the $130,000 to Ms. Clifford out of his own pocket, adding that neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign reimbursed him.
The implication: Mr. Cohen struck the deal with Ms. Clifford on his own and without the knowledge of the president. The watchdog group Common Cause alleges that Mr. Cohen’s payment was in effect a campaign contribution made to help protect Mr. Trump from negative news toward the end of his campaign; individual donations to candidates were limited to $5,400 per election cycle in 2016.
March 6, 2018
Ms. Clifford files a lawsuit, and reveals that Mr. Cohen took her to arbitration to secure a restraining order to silence her, which her lawyer declares invalid because Mr. Trump never signed the contract.
March 7, 2018
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, says, “There was no knowledge of any payments from the president,” adding, “I’ve had conversations with the president about this.” She says, “He has denied all these allegations.”
Cohen: The secret payment was from a home loan
March 9, 2018
Mr. Cohen provides a detailed account of the payment to Ms. Clifford, describing where the money used for the payment came from. “The funds were taken from my home equity line and transferred internally to my L.L.C. account in the same bank,” he said.
Mr. Cohen repeats his statement that he was not reimbursed by either the Trump Organization or the Trump campaign.
Trump denies knowing about the payment: ‘You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen’
April 5, 2018
Reporters on Air Force One ask Mr. Trump if he knew about the payment to Ms. Clifford. He responds, flatly, “No.” Asked why Mr. Cohen made the payment, Mr. Trump says: “You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney.” He says he does not know where the money for the payment came from.
Trump reverses his stance
April 26, 2018
Mr. Trump, in an interview on “Fox & Friends,” acknowledges knowing that Mr. Cohen represented him in dealing with Ms. Clifford. “He represents me, like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal, he represented me,” he said.
May 2, 2018
Mr. Trump’s new lawyer, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, tells Sean Hannity of Fox News that the “the president repaid it,” referring to the payment Mr. Cohen made to Ms. Clifford. In fact, he says, “they set up a reimbursement, $35,000 a month.”
In a tweet the next morning, Mr. Trump acknowledges paying Mr. Cohen a monthly retainer. He reiterates that the retainer had nothing to do with his campaign.