The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Michael Cohen, President Trump's former lawyer, paid an IT firm to rig online polls in his boss' favor ahead of the 2016 election.
John Gauger, the owner of RedFinch Solutions LLC, reportedly showed up at Trump Tower in 2015 to collect $50,000 for the work. Cohen reportedly gave Gauger, who is also the chief information officer at Liberty University in Virginia, a blue Walmart bag containing between $12,000 and $13,000, and a boxing glove that Cohen said belonged to a Brazilian mixed martial arts fighter.
Cohen received a $50,000 reimbursement from Trump's personal account, but he denies paying Gauger the cash. Gauger says Cohen never paid him the remaining $38,000 that he was promised. Cohen tweeted Thursday that his actions were at the direction of Trump.
Michael Rothfeld, one of the authors of The Wall Street Journal report, tells Here & Now's Robin Young that Gauger was hired to write a script that would vote for Trump many times in two online polls: the first was a January 2014 CNBC poll of influential business leaders, and the second was a poll of the presidential field conducted by the Drudge Report in February 2015.
Rothfeld says the idea was to boost Trump's public profile ahead of his presidential run, but "unfortunately for Cohen and Trump, Gauger wasn't able to do it, and Trump did not win either of the polls."
"I don't think this is a traditional method of campaigning," Rothfeld says of hiring someone to rig online polls. "I've been covering politics a long time, and that's not the kind of thing that I ever have heard of anybody doing."
During the presidential campaign, Cohen also hired Gauger to create a Twitter account called @WomenForCohen, which described the lawyer as a sex symbol.
In response to Thursday's report, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said the fact that Cohen did not pay Gauger the entire $50,000 and still asked for the full reimbursement shows that he is "completely untrustworthy."
"Rudy Giuliani is trying to undercut his credibility by saying, 'Hey, this guy is dishonest. He charged us the $50,000, but he really only spent [$12,000] or [$13,000]," Rothfeld says. " 'So you really can't trust anything that he says.' "
The report raises questions about the legality and ethics of manipulating polls and whether or not Trump violated campaign finance law by reimbursing Cohen for the money he paid.
Is It Illegal To Rig Online Polls?
"It certainly isn't ethical," Rothfeld says. "I'm not sure that there's any anything illegal about that because these are private polls, and people try to manipulate things with social media all the time and using the web. So this kind of falls into that category of online manipulation that isn't necessarily great, but it's not necessarily a crime either."
Is The Payment A Violation Of Campaign Finance Law?
"The prosecutors looked at this and they did not charge Michael Cohen in connection with it," Rothfeld says. "But if it were a campaign contribution and Cohen had spent this money, then it would have had to be reported in some fashion depending on the facts, either as an independent expenditure or as an in-kind campaign contribution. But I mean, it's unclear that it could be found to be campaign-related necessarily because it preceded the campaign. It started in January 2014 and ended in February 2015. It was definitely related to Trump's profile ahead of the campaign, but legally we don't know whether it would be a crime for sure."
Are Lawmakers Expected To Ask Cohen About This During His Testimony?
"I think the most of it will probably have to do with the campaign finance violations involving the women that Cohen either paid or helped to arrange payment to for Trump, which was Stormy Daniels, the porn actress, and Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model, both of whom were paid during the campaign for their stories of alleged encounter sexual encounters with Trump," Rothfeld says.
"I think the the campaign finance involving the hush money will probably be the main issue, and that's something that some lawmakers have said it could be an impeachable offense if the president was involved in illegal campaign finance conspiracy during the election."
This segment aired on January 17, 2019.