Trump’s claim that he didn’t violate campaign finance law is weak — and dangerous

The case against the president would be far stronger than the case against John Edwards was.

This all suggests Trump could become a target of a very serious criminal campaign finance investigation. In response, Trump has offered up three defenses. His first was to repeatedly lie. For quite some time, he flatly denied knowledge about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels. But now he seems to be acknowledging that he knew (since his personal company reimbursed Cohen for the payment, he ought to). Now Trump and his acolytes have turned to two other excuses: They point to an earlier case involving former senator John Edwards to argue that what Trump did wasn’t a crime; and they say, even if it was a crime, it wasn’t a biggie — there are lots of crimes, so what, who cares.

The former is a very weak legal argument, and the latter a dangerous one. Indeed, the campaign finance violations here are among the most important ever in the history of this nation — given the razor-thin win by Trump and the timing of the crimes, they very well may have swung a presidential election.

Begin with the Edwards case. The former senator from North Carolina and two-time Democratic presidential candidate was charged in 2011 with multiple campaign finance felonies in connection with payments that one of Edwards’s supporters made to a woman with whom Edwards had an extramarital sexual relationship. Prosecutors alleged that this money was paid, with Edwards’s knowledge, to influence the election, and therefore that the payments were illegal campaign contributions. When the case went to trial, the jury hung on most counts and acquitted on one, which Trump’s defenders point to for support.
But the case is actually harmful for Trump — especially what the judge ruled. Edwards repeatedly argued that the payments were not campaign contributions because they were not made exclusively to further his campaign. The judge rejected this argument as a matter of law, ruling that a payment to a candidate’s extramarital sexual partner is a campaign contribution if “one of” the reasons the payment is made is to influence the election.

As a legal matter, that aspect of the Edwards case is what matters now — and it’s damning for Trump. It provides a precedent that other courts could follow in any prosecution arising out of the hush-money schemes Trump paid: The president could face criminal charges for conspiring with Cohen to make the payments because the evidence shows the payments were made, at least in part, for campaign purposes. As for what the jury concluded in the Edwards case, there’s good reason to believe that the evidence in a criminal case against Trump would be much stronger.

Edwards argued that he didn’t know anything about the payments and that, regardless, the payments in his case were intended to keep news of the affair and pregnancy from his wife — not to keep the information from voters. Trump tried the first tactic, but Cohen’s tapes eviscerated that argument. There is no reason to think that Trump’s attempt to paint these as personal payments is any less of a lie than his attempt to say he didn’t know about them.
.. Unlike with Edwards, prosecutors have noted evidence that Cohen “coordinated with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, and timing of the payments.” If Cohen had made the payments as a purely personal matter for Trump, separate and apart from Trump’s candidacy, Cohen would not have consulted with the campaign about doing so. Further, Trump was first aware of threats to publish information about this affair in 2011, when his youngest child had just been born to his new wife and at the time made no offers of money to keep the news quiet. What was different in 2016 was the election.

In the Edwards case, there was a paucity of evidence. A key witness, Bunny Melon, was 101 years old and too frail to show up at trial. There were no written legal agreements providing money in exchange for silence, as there are in Trump’s case, and no threats by the mother of the child to go public immediately if the funds were not received. That’s why one juror told the media that the evidence wasn’t there to show even that Edwards intended the money to go to Rielle Hunter. In contrast, in a bombshell disclosure this week, the public learned that AMI, the parent corporation of the National Enquirer, is cooperating with the prosecution and has stated that the payments were made to influence the 2016 election. And even more worrisome for Trump, reports emerged Thursday that Trump was the third person in the very room where Cohen and David Pecker (the head of AMI) discussed the hush money payments — making it very hard for Trump to assert a non-campaign-related purpose.

Finally, all the money that changed hands in the Edwards case came from an individual. In the scheme to prevent Karen McDougal from talking about an affair she says she had with Trump, some payments originated from a corporation — AMI. The use of corporate funds to make a contribution to a presidential campaign has been illegal for decades. That makes the offense in Trump’s case significantly more serious than the charges against Edwards, or even the already serious charges Trump could face for conspiring with Cohen to make illegal and unreported individual contributions. And because the source of the payments can ultimately be traced back to the Trump Organization, prosecutors have many robust sources of evidence to comb. Those sources already suggest there were false payments (which would likely violate federal and state tax laws) and “grossing up” of Cohen’s money to account for his personal taxes. All of this may amount to consciousness of guilt and may also be a path for prosecutors to discover who authorized the payments in the first place (likely “Individual-1” or one of his children). The evidentiary record is going to reveal how involved Trump and his family was in these payments — a corporate record that was completely nonexistent with Edwards.

Trump’s legal adviser Rudy Giuliani has argued that the jury in the Edwards case vindicated Edwards, but, in fact, the jurors acquitted him on only one criminal charge and deadlocked on the others. And at any rate, as Giuliani (a former federal prosecutor before he was mayor of New York) should know, criminal jury verdicts are not legal precedents. The Edwards jury, applying the law to the particular facts of that case, did not find Edwards guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This is 100 percent irrelevant to whether Cohen’s guilty plea proves that Trump broke the law based on very different facts.

The final Trump defense being floated, that everyone breaks the law, fares no better. As its chief expositor, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), put it, “I don’t care” if the law has been broken, “all I can say is he’s doing a good job as president.” He added, “The Democrats will do anything to hurt this president. Anything.”

As individuals who have devoted their lives to nonpartisan enforcement of the law, we cannot think of a more dispiriting statement. Hatch is wrong about every aspect of this statement. The accusations against Trump come from career prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (otherwise known as Trump’s own Justice Department). But the more important point is this: We will rue the day a senator trotted out such callousness about federal felonies.

The whole idea of our criminal justice system is to enumerate those offenses that are so egregious that they demand serious jail time. Those felonies are the bread and butter of our criminal justice system. Of course, every criminal defendant seeks to minimize his crimes. But such defendants don’t have a cheering squad composed of United States senators. If Trump wants to argue he didn’t commit the crimes, as he used to assert in April, fine. He’s entitled to that defense. But the grievous minimization of serious campaign finance violations by members of Trump’s political party further corrode our commitment to our age-old ideal of being a “government of laws, and not of men.” If Hatch thinks too much activity has been criminalized, he is in a welcome position to change the laws as a member of the Senate. He shouldn’t denigrate the law in the process. After all, the campaign disclosure requirements at issue here were enacted by Congress (as key post-Watergate reforms after President Richard Nixon’s personal lawyer Herbert Kalmbach went to prison for paying hush money to potential witnesses out of secret cash campaign contributions).

The bad arguments being floated in Trump’s defense are emblematic of a deterioration in respect for the rule of law in this country. The three of us have deep political differences, but we are united in the view that our country comes first and our political parties second. And chief among the values of our country is its commitment to the rule of law. No one, whether a senator or a president, should pretend America is something less.

Stormy Daniels Lawsuit Opens Door to Further Trouble for Trump

As any longtime legal hand in the capital remembers well, it was a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by an Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones, against Bill Clinton that led to his impeachment for lying about his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky.

.. The case of the adult film actress, Stephanie Clifford, who uses the stage-name Stormy Daniels, may not get past even the first considerable obstacles. But if her court case proceeds, Mr. Trump and his longtime personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, may have to testify in depositions

.. Ms. Clifford’s agreement with Mr. Cohen stipulated that they would resolve disputes in the confidential arbitration proceedings. Assuming she does not blink — and her lawyer has said she won’t — it will fall to a judge in Los Angeles, where the suit was filed, to decide whether to compel Ms. Clifford to return to arbitration or allow the case to go forward in court

.. “A lawsuit opens the door, and judges almost always allow for a plaintiff to have a fishing expedition,” said Robert S. Bennett, the Washington lawyer who represented Mr. Clinton in the Paula Jones case. The questions could include, “Have you paid other people money?” he said.

.. perhaps intending to broaden it later to include claims that Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen coerced her into silence. “If that happened,” he said, “they certainly could seek to depose Trump.”

And in that case, he said, “I can certainly imagine how it might get broader.

And if it did, the wide array of Trump’s sexual interactions could be addressed

..  Ms. Clifford’s signature on the contract, and acceptance of the money, could count as a clear sign of agreement.

.. But other legal experts were struck by the sweeping nature of the nondisclosure agreement Ms. Clifford signed, and expressed skepticism that it would hold up in court. Beyond the circumstances of the alleged sexual relationship, the agreement barred her from doing anything, even indirectly, to “publicly disparage” Mr. Trump.

.. Ms. Clifford has claimed that she met Mr. Trump at a celebrity golf tournament in 2006 and began a relationship that included sex and promises from Mr. Trump to get her on his NBC show “The Apprentice” and to give her a condominium.
.. Mr. Avenatti argues that because Mr. Trump did not sign it himself, the agreement is invalid — a point Mr. Super, the Georgetown professor, basically agreed with and Mr. Noble said might have merit.
.. The extent to which Mr. Cohen was acting on his own in striking the agreement with Ms. Clifford and paying her is crucial
.. Important factors in the case would include just how closely Mr. Cohen coordinated the payment to Ms. Clifford with Mr. Trump and whether it was intended to help the campaign avoid negative publicity.
.. But in her suit, Ms. Clifford tries to implicate Mr. Trump in the transaction, saying the offer of money was intended to buy her silence to help “ensure he won the presidential election.”
.. It could have simply been a personal matter, he said, of Mr. Trump wishing to keep a secret from his wife.

Why George Soros gets blamed for Eric Greitens’s troubles and other conservative gripes

The day after Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens was indicted by a grand jury on a felony invasion-of-privacy charge, the state’s Republican Party began pointing fingers.

Not at Greitens, whose indictment stems from alleged actions during an extramarital affair, but at Democratic-leaning billionaire George Soros.

.. Gardner launched an investigation into Greitens’s affair in January, when accusations emerged that Greitens threatened to use a nude photo to blackmail his former hairstylist, with whom he was having the affair.

.. Soros, a billionaire philanthropist and leading donor to liberal causes, has become a bogeyman to conservative figures who see him as a political machine

.. Some conservatives view the 86-year-old, who is worth about $25 billion, in a nefarious light, particularly after he donated to groups trying to stop President George W. Bush’s reelection bid in 2004 and after his vocal opposition to the Iraq War.

 .. In the years since, Soros has found himself at the center of right-wing propaganda and conspiracy theories.
..  KMOV in St. Louis published a covert recording by Greitens’s former hairstylist’s ex-husband. In it, the hairstylist is heard describing how Greitens invited her to his home in 2015 and, with her consent, taped her hands to exercise rings and blindfolded her. He then allegedly took a photo of her naked without her knowledge.Greitens then “transmitted the image contained in the photograph in a manner that allowed access to that image via a computer,” which is a felony, according to the indictment.

Was the Payment to Stormy Daniels a Campaign Contribution?

Some say the payment—far beyond federal campaign limits—had to have been coordinated with Trump; others say it would have been paid even if Trump hadn’t been running for office

The former chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission takes a different view than Mr. Cohen. Ann Ravel, a Democrat who served on the elections body from 2013 to 2015 said the timing and circumstances around the payment makes it “obvious” it was campaign-related.
“The real issue here is coordination,” she said. “How did Michael Cohen know about the relationship if not from either the candidate himself or the campaign?”

.. Charlie Spies, a Republican campaign attorney not involved with Mr. Trump, said the payment to Ms. Clifford is “an expense that would exist irrespective of whether Mr. Trump was a candidate and therefore should not be treated as a campaign contribution.”
He dismissed the notion that timing matters. “There is no precedent to indicate that a personal expense becomes a campaign expense simply because it is temporally close to the election,” he said.

.. The allegations in the Common Cause complaint filed with the Justice Department resemble criminal charges once faced by John Edwards, the former senator and Democratic presidential candidate. Mr. Edwards was charged in connection with $900,000 two of his donors allegedly spent to conceal an extramarital affair with a campaign worker during his 2008 campaign.

.. A defense against campaign violations linked to the payment to Ms. Clifford could be more challenging than Mr. Edwards’, some campaign-finance experts said. Unlike in the Edwards case, Mr. Cohen arranged to pay Ms. Clifford days before the election, as Mr. Trump faced questions about his treatment of women.

.. If Mr. Cohen made the payment with his own money and wasn’t reimbursed, his motive would be central to the legal analysis

.. But if Mr. Trump ultimately paid, prosecutors would have to demonstrate his intent was to prevent Ms. Daniels from damaging his campaign.

.. No law limits the amount Mr. Trump could spend on his own campaign, but if he ultimately paid Ms. Daniels to protect his candidacy, he would have had to disclose it as a campaign expenditure

.. Mr. Cohen or Mr. Trump could argue that Ms. Clifford was paid to guard against negative publicity, avoid embarrassment or keep Mr. Trump’s wife, Melania, and children from finding out about the allegations, Mr. Hasen said.

.. “Just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean that it can’t cause you harm or damage,” he said.

Hugh Hefner On Early ‘Playboy’ And Changing America’s Values

In 1999, Hefner told Fresh Air that his iconic magazine was inspired by his own repressive upbringing — he described his parents as typical “Midwestern Puritans.”

“I saw things in growing up in my own home and in society around me that I felt were hurtful and hypocritical,” he said. “… I believe and hope that Playboy [has] played some small part in changing the values — social and sexual — of our time.”

.. [After World War II]:

“There were powerful forces urging women to return to the home. (2:30)

.. Hefner’s first wife had an affair, which was the single most devastating experience of his life

‘I’m a Dead Man Walking’

Mark Sanford has nothing left to lose. And he’s here to haunt Donald Trump.

The president, Sanford says, “has fanned the flames of intolerance.” He has repeatedly misled the public, most recently about the national murder rate and the media’s coverage of terrorist attacks. He showed a lack of humility by using the National Prayer Breakfast to ridicule Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings on “The Celebrity Apprentice.” Most worrisome, Sanford says, Trump is unprepared for the presidency.

.. he is simultaneously something of a crusader for his causes of debt, deficits, spending and government transparency. “The thing you have to understand about Mark is that he’s both quirky and professorial about his beliefs—a lot like how Ron Paul was,

.. To understand Sanford’s irreverence toward the 45th president, his friends say, you have to understand two things about him. One is his disdain for expensive clothing. “He didn’t wear a suit to his inauguration as governor

.. His father, a prominent heart surgeon, “taught his kids that everyone is the same no matter where they’re from or what they wear, and Mark took it to heart,”

.. “I believe in a war of ideas … and I tell the staff all the time: Look, we’re in the business of crafting and refining our arguments that are hopefully based on the truth,” he adds. “Truth matters. Not hyperbole, not wild suggestion, but actual truth.”

.. he is already viewed as a leader of the GOP resistance

.. “historically there’s incredible deference to the presidency from the party in power.” He understands the reluctance of rank-and-file Republicans to criticize a president who “has a proven record of taking people down.” But, he says, there must be a muscular check on Trump from somewhere inside the GOP.

.. He is the unlikeliest enforcer of honesty in politics. He knows it.

.. When he refused to accept Obama’s stimulus money in March—a position he was eventually forced to abandon—Sanford became a household name on the right.

 .. He would have been nothing without her in that first congressional race—her and her family’s money and connections.”
.. “one buddy turned to me and said, ‘Well, the good news here is that you won’t have to wait until your funeral to find out who your friends are.’” He adds, moments later, “Now I consider myself blessed to have a number of good friends that, frankly, I can count on one hand.”
.. Sanford was itching to redeem his legacy, and a special election in his old district offered the friendliest possible opportunity to mount the unlikeliest of comebacks.
.. Riding sky-high name identification among his former constituents—and benefiting from a fractured, 16-way Republican primary field
.. At that point, Sanford made a decision: He would hoard as much campaign cash as possible and spend none unless absolutely necessary. The strategy has been successful
.. the explanation for Sanford not spending money to defeat Horne is due equally to two defining traits: cheapness and confidence.
.. Ted Fienning, a Harvard-educated entrepreneur—who, in addition to being young, wealthy and telegenic, flew fighter jets in the Marine Corps—will give Sanford the toughest test of his career in 2018.
.. (“[I] learned long ago not to try and discourage someone from something they think they might want to do,” Sanford tells me via email, “so [I] simply wished him well.”)
.. he makes repeated references to “integrity” and “honor” while taking several direct shots at the incumbent’s personal struggles.
.. “Mark at his core is a libertarian,” Felkel says, but “South Carolina is a state that can’t afford to be libertarian. … His district benefits greatly from the federal government.”
.. What I have the itch on is trying to carve out a niche on impacting the government spending.”