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Is this Playboy model keeping the biggest secret of the Trump presidency? | Will Bunch

Why did Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy pay $1.6 million to Playboy model Shera Bechard late last year with the help of Trump's fixer, Michael Cohen? Did Broidy really have an affair with the woman (which led to an abortion)? Or, as a prominent New York magazine article and others have speculated, was the president involved?

Left: President Donald Trump; Right: Shera Brechard
Left: President Donald Trump; Right: Shera BrechardRead moreAP

This is a story about a shadowy world of international lobbying, a seven-figure payoff, abortion, the man who calls himself Donald Trump's "consigliere," a pedophile posing with the president … and Playboy magazine's Playmate of the Month for November 2010 and November 2011.

Did I get your attention? Good. Because there may be even more to this story … a lot more. Some of the bombshell evidence is acknowledged fact. But some of it — and this is important to say up front — is speculation…well-informed speculation, but speculation nonetheless. How much of the current theorizing about the big-bucks influence-seeker, Elliott Broidy; the Playboy model, Shera Bechard; and the 45th president of the United States is fact and how much is fiction might determine the future of the most outlandish presidency in American history.

The story begins — but maybe doesn't end — with Broidy, a 60-year-old, L.A.-based politically connected venture capitalist who virtually no one in America had heard about until a few weeks ago. By hitching his political wagon to the unexpected rise of Donald Trump, Broidy quickly soared to become a deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee, further raising the profile of his business ventures. In the last few weeks, a slew of investigative reporting by the Associated Press and elsewhere have painted a troubling picture of Broidy's apparent connection to authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — and his influence with Team Trump.

On Monday, the AP threw open a wide window on efforts involving Broidy and George Naderthe man who, as an emissary of the princes running the UAE and Saudi Arabia, went to Trump Tower in August 2016 and told Donald Trump Jr. that the two Gulf states wanted to help elect his dad president — to leverage their clout with the new administration. Broidy is said to have met Nader at Trump's inauguration — and the two influence-seekers apparently hit it off.

In early 2017, Nader's business in the UAE wired Broidy $2.5 million that was funneled through a Canadian firm to help bankroll a public-relations campaign aimed at disrupting America's longstanding relationship with Qatar — base for about 11,000 U.S. troops, but increasingly an enemy of the rival Saudis and the UAE. As noted in this space the last time out, by spring 2017 Trump was going on Twitter to accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism and suggesting the White House was A-OK with a Saudi-UAE-led blockade of the tiny nation.

The web of intrigue involving Broidy, Nader, Team Trump and the two powerful Gulf states grew more intricate as 2017 progressed. According to the AP report, Broidy and Nader had been promised a whopping $1 billion payoff from their clients in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Meanwhile, Broidy gained an Oval Office audience with Trump last October, where he pushed various schemes including a discreet meeting between the American president and the prince of Abu Dhabi (part of the UAE).

But his associate Nader wanted even more. He wanted to prove his clout by getting his picture with Trump — a seeming impossibility, since Nader is also a known pedophile who was convicted on child sexual-abuse charges in the Czech Republic in 2003. But somehow the Trump-Nader picture happened, and a few weeks later Broidy gave $189,000 to the Republican National Committee, much more than he'd ever donated in the past and also exactly in the range of what Broidy had estimated it would take to get a picture with the president.

Broidy's donation to the RNC came on November 30, 2017. Just two days later, he gained a second one-on-one meeting with Trump, where he relayed flattering words from the Gulf states and their support for the work Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner was doing on a Middle East peace plan. A short time later, the UAE agreed to a whopping $600 million contract with a Broidy intelligence firm, and — according to the AP — the first check for $36 million would arrive in January of this year.  So what we have so far is a sordid tale of oil-soaked money and the nation's highest office — but there is also a bizarre twist.

Last month, FBI agents raided the offices and home of Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. It was an explosive turn in the ongoing probes of the Trump administration, and just four days after the raid came an out-of-left-field revelation. Broidy confirmed to Wall Street Journal that he had hired Cohen in order to negotiate and handle a $1.6 million payoff to the Playboy model, Bechard, with whom the California financier said he'd had an affair, as well as a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) intended to keep the matter secret.

Broidy even issued a public statement in which he apologized to his wife of 25 years and to his family and said of Bechard — an ex-girlfriend of the iconic Playboy founder Hugh Hefner — that "she alone decided that she did not want to continue with the pregnancy, and I offered to help her financially during this difficult period."

It was kind of a weird one-day headline — Elliott Broidy wasn't exactly a household name — and most everybody moved on. But the omnipresent Michael Avenatti, lawyer for the adult-film star Stormy Daniels with whom Cohen had negotiated a $130,000 payoff and NDA, but for Donald Trump — went on MSNBC to suggest there was more to this saga. "I think at some point we are going to find out, if in fact the client in connection with the [$1.6 million] settlement was, in fact, Mr. Broidy," he said. "I'm going to leave it at that."

Paul Campos, a University of Colorado law professor, than published a theory on the pages of New York magazine: That the man who'd had an affair with Shera Bechard was not Broidy but the president of the United States. After all, it is Trump — and not the long-married father Briody — who'd once been close friends with Bechard's ex-paramour Hefner and used to hang out at the Playboy Mansion. And the details — a young sex symbol, the possibility of unprotected sex as Trump supposedly had with Stormy Daniels — sounded like the president's past M.O.

Is such speculation fair, considering Broidy's very public and even embarrassing confession? But other good questions kept piling up. Why did the NDA use the exact same fake names — David Dennison and Peggy Peterson — as the pact between Trump and Daniels (whose real name is Stephanie Clifford)? For that matter, how did Broidy know to go to Cohen, who apparently had not done legal work for him before? Why did Bechard use the same attorney — Keith Davidson — initially used by Stormy Daniels and also Karen McDougal, another Playboy model who was paid $150,000 by the National Enquirer in what's now believed to be a scheme to bury her story?

And what about Broidy's past? In 2009, he'd pleaded guilty in a $1 million New York State bribery scandal, involving government pension funds, to charges that were eventually knocked down to a misdemeanor because of Broidy's cooperation with prosecutors. Part of that plea was that he'd paid $90,000 to cover the rent and hospital bills for a girlfriend of one of the state officials he was seeking to influence.

Now, the AP story, which lays bare the extent of Broidy's efforts to curry favor with the president, also casts the Shera Bechard saga in a whole new light. We now know that that the first installment of Broidy $1.6 million-over-two-years payments to the Playboy model was made last December 1 — one day after his $189,000 check to the RNC and one day before his second Oval Office confab with Trump. Is the timing a remarkable coincidence, or does it somehow tie into the anxiety of Broidy and his new partner Nader to strengthen their bond with the White House at the very moment that the $1 billion payday of a lifetime was on the line, halfway around the world?

These are questions that special counsel Robert Mueller needs to be answering, and my strong hunch is that he's working on it. It's quite possible that Broidy's explanation for this — bizarre though it may seem — is true. Maybe a man about to become a billionaire in a business deal thought that $1.6 million to make a messy personal problem go away was a good investment.

But what if the Paul Campos theory is correct, and Shera Bechard was yet another mistress of President Trump? If so, one could understand why her silence would be worth more than 10X the silence of Stormy Daniels. For one thing, Trump's encounter with the adult-film star was more than a decade ago, while the Bechard episode appears to coincide more closely with his rise to the presidency. More important. perhaps, is the matter of who really paid for Bechard to terminate her pregnancy right at the same time that Trump was vowing politically to strip women of their reproductive rights?

All of which points to the biggest question of all looming over the Trump era: Does any of this even matter? Let's just say out loud the worst-case scenario: What if influence-seekers paid a huge sum of money to benefit the president by silencing his mistress and paying for her abortion, in return for access to influence U.S. policy on behalf of autocratic foreign governments? Would the current GOP-led Congress even care? Could prosecutors even make a bribery case, given the way that the Roberts Supreme Court has thoroughly gutted U.S. anti-corruption laws?

There's one woman who could tell us a lot about just how bad this is, or, conversely, whether there's nothing much to it. But Shera Bechard has been paid big money to keep her mouth shut. Of course, that didn't stop either Daniels or McDougal from eventually going on network television to tell all or most of their stories. When the tale of Broidy's payment first broke, Bechard shut down her Twitter account, but she recently turned it back on for a tantalizing retweet.

Like so much else in our hellish reality show, stay tuned.