A little before 10 a.m. on Jan. 23, a single tweet opened up a Pandora’s Box of snarky jokes and ironic commentary on Twitter.
President Trump is accused of paying $130,000 in hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels to hide an affair a month before the election. In what is probably just a coincidence, the Trump campaign transferred $130K to the Trump businesses a month after the election. pic.twitter.com/KKknIC9ClC
— Citizens for Ethics (@CREWcrew) January 23, 2018
But what is Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW)? And what does the payment document really mean for the Trump administration? Here are three questions and answers to help you break down what is going on.
1. What is CREW?
Founded in 2003, CREW is a watchdog group based in D.C. whose mission is to use “aggressive legal action, in-depth research, and bold communications to reduce the influence of money in politics and help foster a government that is ethical and accountable.”
Melanie Sloan — one of CREW’s founders and its first executive director — told the Penn Political Review back in 2014 that the watchdog group was created as a response to the “Tom Delay era” of Washington, referring to the time during the Bush administration in which Delay, the Republican House majority leader at the time, was embroiled in a number of political controversies regarding campaign finance and election law.
Over the last 15 years, CREW has frequently been portrayed in the press as a biased liberal watchdog group, a label they oppose but has been the subject of much debate in the national media. CREW is also recognized for their annual reports listing Washington’s most corrupt members of Congress and the nation’s worst governors.
2. What do they have to do with Trump?
CREW has essentially been on President Trump’s case since the day he assumed office.
As The New York Times reported, on the day of Trump’s inauguration, the group filed a complaint with the General Services Administration over the Trump Hotel in D.C. alleging that it was in violation of the ground lease of the Old Post Office building.
The Monday after they filed that complaint, CREW filed a suit in New York’s Southern District court that claimed the money that Trump gains from his businesses is in direct violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause. Trump’s son, Eric, called this suit “[pure] harassment for political gain.”
CREW’s case was an uphill battle from the beginning, as The New York Times reported that CREW would most likely have trouble demonstrating that it had suffered direct injury due to Trump’s violation of the clause. The suit was dismissed on Dec. 21 of last year by a federal judge in Manhattan for exactly this reason.
The watchdog group also sued Trump and the Executive Office of the President this past summer, alleging that he and White House staffers are in violation of the Presidential Records Act. The suit claims that Trump deleting tweets he sent out on his personal Twitter account and that staffers’ use of certain encrypted messaging apps for internal communication violates the Act.
CREW also sued the U.S. Justice Department earlier this month in relation to the controversy surrounding the texts between two former special-counsel investigators that were disclosed to reporters before Congress.
The suit claims that the department was in violation of the Freedom of Information Act and that they were obligated under it to release all communications surrounding who made the decision to release the texts to the media the day before Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein testified before the House Judiciary Committee.
3. So did they find the smoking gun?
While embroiled in all these lawsuits against Trump and adjacent federal bodies, CREW revealed a shocking bit of evidence on Tuesday. It seemed to suggest that the $130,000 — which the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, arranged as hush money for porn actress Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about her past relationship with the president–might have been discovered in a document outlining a Trump campaign payment to Trump Tower during the 2016 election.
The tweet ends with a line that could be perceived as snark, but actually reveals an important detail of CREW’s finding. What has been less noted is that CREW later emphasized that point in a later threaded tweet.
To be clear, we’re not alleging anything nefarious took place. It was, as we said, probably a coincidence. But, as with other interesting FEC payments we flag, it’s an interesting one and one worth asking about.
— Citizens for Ethics (@CREWcrew) January 23, 2018
As The Washington Post reported via a statement from CREW spokesman Jordan Libowitz, the “coincidence” line really was not meant to be sarcastic. Rather, the group thought that considering the WSJ report, the payment is an “interesting coincidence” that is “worth looking into.”
That same report from the Post also points out a tweet sent by Daily Kos contributing editor Georgia Logothetis, who responded to CREW’s tweet by pointing out that the accumulated $130,000 payment is consistent with public data on Trump’s campaign’s rent payments to Trump tower from other periods of time.
So, CREW may not have really found conclusive evidence that Trump had a relationship with Stormy Daniels. And it may not have been successful in suing Trump the first time around.
However, if this first year was any indication, we can all expect to be hearing a lot more from them in 2018.