Trump lawyer floats “Melania defense” in Stormy Daniels case — and claims he’s the real “victim”

Trump attorney Joe Tacopina claims the hush-money payment was to avoid "embarrassing" himself and his wife

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published March 14, 2023 9:04AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Melania Trump on July 20, 2022 in New York City. (JNI/Star Max/GC Images/Getty)
Donald Trump and Melania Trump on July 20, 2022 in New York City. (JNI/Star Max/GC Images/Getty)

Former President Donald Trump's attorney claimed that the $130,000 hush-money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 campaign was not related to the campaign ahead of possible criminal charges in Manhattan.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is reportedly inching closer to indicting Trump in the case after interviewing a growing list of witnesses before a grand jury, including former Trump fixer Michael Cohen, who testified that the former president reimbursed him for the payment to Daniels.

Trump attorney Joe Tacopina claimed in an interview with ABC News on Monday that the former president was the victim of an extortion attempt and that the payment was not directly related to his presidential bid.

"I don't know since when we've decided to start prosecuting extortion victims," Tacopina said. "He's vehemently denied this affair, but he had to pay money because there was going to be an allegation that was going to be publicly embarrassing, regardless of the campaign."

Tacopina said the payment was "not directly related" to the campaign.

"He made this with personal funds to prevent something coming out [that was] false but embarrassing to himself, his family, his young son," Tacopina said.

Bragg's office is reportedly considering charging Trump over financial records that falsely reported the payment as a legal expense to Cohen, which is a misdemeanor in New York. But prosecutors could charge him with a felony if they show an "intent to commit or conceal a second crime," which in this case would be a violation of state campaign finance laws.

"There was absolutely no false records made, to my knowledge," Tacopina told ABC News.

Tacopina's argument that the payment was to avoid embarrassment rather than to protect his political aspirations, which Vice News' Greg Walters dubbed the "Melania defense," has been repeatedly floated by Trump's inner circle to beat back the potential criminal liability but has been shut down by the former president in the past.

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Trump pushed back on the advice before because such a claim would force him to have to explain why he was willing to spend so much money to prevent his wife from learning about a sexual tryst that he has claimed for years never happened, Rolling Stone reported last month.

Tacopina denied the alleged affair but argued that Trump was so concerned by the false allegation that he spent personal funds to make it go away.

"The DA is going to have to prove that the payment was in furtherance of the campaign, and that Trump did have criminal intent," New York election lawyer Jerry Goldfeder told Vice News.

Independent legal experts have said for years that Trump's best defense in the case would be to frame the payment as unrelated to the campaign.

 "Trump's best strategy would be to say that he routinely paid off women and that the purpose of paying them was to avoid the embarrassment it would cause for his wife and the rest of his family," former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti told Law & Crime in 2018 after Trump's pushback on the defense strategy was first reported.

But a recording of Trump and Cohen discussing a separate payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal, in which the pair discuss financing and the former president floats paying the women in "cash" to keep quiet about an alleged affair, could complicate the defense.

"The Cohen tape tells a different story. It was very campaign orientated and the shell game to finance it, and lies that repayment were for legal fees, are a problem," former prosecutor Bob Bianchi told Law & Crime at the time. "To me, the evidence is compelling he knew what he was doing was illegal."

Bianchi added that Trump's best course of action is to stay quiet about the matter.

"In the end, the sage legal advice is always (innocent, or not) to remain silent," he said. "It is about as 'golden' a rule as there is in the law. I would advise the President to follow it."

Trump, who has repeatedly denied both affairs and any wrongdoing, lashed out after Bragg restarted the years-long probe into the hush money payments last month.

"With respect to the 'Stormy' nonsense, it is VERY OLD & happened a long time ago, long past the very publicly known & accepted deadline of the Statute of Limitations," Trump wrote on Truth Social.

Daniels cited the post as an admission of guilt.

"Thanks for just admitting that I was telling the truth about EVERYTHING," she wrote.

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Aggregate Alvin Bragg Donald Trump Melania Trump Michael Cohen Politics Stormy Daniels