The prosecutor is twisting campaign-finance law.
Donald Trump’s wayward counsel, Michael Cohen, was sentenced today as part of a plea bargain with the government. As part of that settlement, Cohen has admitted to criminal violations of federal campaign-finance law and has implicated President Trump in those violations. The press is ablaze with headlines trumpeting the president’s possible involvement in two felony campaign-finance violations. The source of these violations are Mr. Cohen’s arranging — allegedly at Trump’s direction — hush-money payments to women alleging long-ago affairs with the 2016 presidential candidate.
The Federal Election Campaign Act holds that an “expenditure” is any “purchase, payment, loan, advance, deposit or gift of money, or anything of value, for the purpose of influencing any election for Federal office.” According to Cohen and the U.S. Attorney, the hush-money payments were, it appears, made in the hopes of preventing information from becoming public before the election, and hence were “for the purpose of influencing” the election. This means that, at a minimum, they had to be reported to the Federal Election Commission; further, if they were authorized by Mr. Trump, they would become, in the law’s parlance, “coordinated expenditures,” subject to limits on the amounts that could be spent. Since the lawful contribution limit is much lower than the payments made, and the payments were not reported, this looks like an open and shut case, right?
Well, no. Or at least not in the way some might presume. To the contrary, the law — following our common sense — tells us that the hush-money payments outlined by the U.S. Attorney are clearly not campaign expenditures. There is no violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act.So what does it mean to be “for the purpose of influencing an election”? To understand this, we read the statutory language in conjunction other parts of the statute. Here the key is the statute’s prohibition on diverting campaign funds to “personal use.” This is a crucial distinction, because one of the primary factors separating campaign funds from personal funds is that the former must be spent on the candidate’s campaign, while the latter can be used to buy expensive vacations, cars, watches, furs, and such. The law defines “personal use” as spending “used to fulfill any commitment, obligation, or expense of a person that would exist irrespective of the candidate’s election campaign.” So a candidate may intend for good toothpaste and soap, a quality suit, and a healthy breakfast to positively influence his election, but none of those are campaign expenditures, because all of those purchases would typically be made irrespective of running for office. And even if the candidate might not have brushed his teeth quite so often or would have bought a cheaper suit absent the campaign, these purchases still address his underlying obligations of maintaining hygiene and dressing himself.
The settlements in this hypothetical are made “for the purpose of influencing the election,” yet they are not “expenditures” under the Federal Election Campaign Act. Indeed, if they were, the candidate would have to pay for them with campaign funds. Thus, an unscrupulous but popular businessman could declare his candidacy, gather contributions from the public, use those contributions to settle various preexisting lawsuits, and then withdraw from the race. A nice trick!
When faced with the vague, sweepingly broad “for the purpose of influencing any election” language, the Supreme Court has consistently restricted its reach to brightly defined rules. For example, in determining whether a public message was an “expenditure” made “for the purpose of influencing any election,” it has construed the later phrase to apply only to messages “expressly advocating” the election or defeat of a candidate, such as “vote for,” “vote against,” “defeat,” “re-elect,” and the like, or to other clearly defined messages that are the “functional equivalent” of that express advocacy.
In short, Michael Cohen is pleading guilty to something that isn’t a crime. Of course, people will do that when a zealous prosecutor is threatening them with decades in prison. But his admissions are not binding on President Trump, and Trump should fight these charges ferociously.
In A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More’s future son-in-law, Roper, states that he would “cut down every law in England” if it would enable him to catch the devil. To which More responds,
And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
We do ourselves no service by distorting and misapplying our campaign-finance laws in the hope of bagging Donald Trump.Comments:
In response to the emerging evidence that Donald Trump directed and participated in the commission of federal crimes, all too many Republicans are wrongly comforting themselves with political deflection and strained legal argument. The political deflection is clear, though a bit bizarre. The recent wave of news about Trump’s porn payoffs is somehow evidence that investigators and critics are “shifting focus” from the Russia investigation to alleged campaign-finance violations.
It’s almost as if the campaign-finance news is taken as some sort of evidence that Mueller’s core investigation is faltering, so the media and investigators have to find something to use to attack Trump.
But the campaign-finance investigation has little to do with Mueller. It’s run by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, and — besides — what do we want federal prosecutors to do when they discover evidence of unrelated crimes when engaged in a different investigation? Let bygones be bygones? Or refer that evidence to the proper jurisdiction — as Robert Mueller’s office did — for further investigation and potential prosecution?
.. The current wave of news reports is largely driven by court filings, and those court filings don’t represent a shift in law-enforcement focus on Trump but rather an arena of additional inquiry. The sad reality is that the Trump operation was a target-rich environment for any diligent investigator.
.. The Edwards prosecution failed not as a matter of law but of fact. The prosecution simply didn’t produce sufficient evidence to prove its case. Here’s Conway, Katyal, and Potter on the contrasts between the Edwards and Trump cases:
A key witness, Bunny [Mellon], 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
..So far, the best available evidence indicates that Trump’s commitments to Stormy Daniels didn’t exist “irrespective” of his campaign but rather because of his campaign. That’s Michael Cohen’s assertion. That’s AMI’s assertion. The affairs were relatively old — and so was the threat to his family — but the payments were new, rendered at a crucial time in a very close presidential contest.
.. Moreover, Cohen has indicated that prosecutors have a “substantial amount of information” that corroborates his testimony. And what is that information? Well, as the Wall Street Journal has already reported:
Mr. Trump was involved in or briefed on nearly every step of the agreements. He directed deals in phone calls and meetings with his self-described fixer, Michael Cohen, and others. The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan has gathered evidence of Mr. Trump’s participation in the transactions
Here is the fundamental reality, Republicans — there is already far more evidence of legal culpability against Trump than ever existed against Edwards, and a federal judge permitted the Edwards case to go to trial. It is true that, if Trump does eventually face indictment, a different judge may have a different view of the law, but if Trump is counting on a favorable legal ruling, he’s playing a dangerous game indeed.
.. Campaign-finance law is constructed from the ground up to require candidate transparency and guard against corruption. Thus, it is purposefully very hard for candidates to find a way to legally and quietly use substantial sums of money to cover up dirty deeds. In his essay, Smith argues, “Indeed, it is quite probable that many of those now baying for Trump’s scalp for illegal campaign contributions would be leading a charge to prosecute Trump for illegal ‘personal use’ of campaign funds had he made the payments from his campaign treasury.”
That’s likely correct — and evidence that campaign-finance law is working as intended. In other words, if you’re a campaign-finance lawyer, and a candidate asks your advice on how to buy the silence of a porn star and hide that payment entirely from the American people, your best response should be, “Have you considered not running for office?”
While President Trump publicly fought with women leading up the the 2016 election, in private he directed schemes to silence their stories of two alleged affairs. Here’s a timeline of Trump’s personal involvement.
the enmity between the two men was long-standing and bitter. After the Helsinki summit, earlier this year, McCain called Trump’s joint press conference with Vladimir Putin “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American President in memory.” If, after all this acrimony, Trump had said something positive about McCain, it would have rung hollow.
But messing with the flag that flies above the White House was different. The flag represents the United States and the office of the Presidency, not Trump personally. After the death of a prominent U.S. politician, such as a former President or prominent senator, it is standard practice for the sitting President to issue a proclamation ordering the flag to be lowered to half-staff until the burial, which, in this case, will be next Sunday.
Whatever one thinks of McCain’s political views, his record—five and a half years in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp, thirty-one years in the Senate, and two Presidential bids—surely merited such an honor. As Mark Knoller, of CBS News, noted on Monday morning, Trump failed to order the proclamation. Evidently, there is no limit to his smallness.
The outcry was immediate and broad-based, and, in this instance, Trump backed down.
.. Who persuaded Trump to change course? Was there a rebellion in the West Wing? The initial reports about the reversal didn’t say. But it was clear that the last thing the White House needs right now is another public-relations disaster. Although McCain’s death knocked the saga of Michael Cohen’s guilty plea off the front pages, at least temporarily, the past week was a disaster for the White House, and a reminder that Trump’s pettiness is only exceeded by his deceitfulness. Is there anybody in the entire country who now believes anything he says about the payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal that Cohen helped orchestrate?
.. For habitual liars, telling untruths is “partly practice and partly habit,” William Hazlitt once wrote. “It requires an effort in them to speak truth.” Trump seldom makes the exertion.
.. Some of Trump’s defenders are complaining that the Feds, having failed to nail the President on the charge of conspiring with Russia to influence the 2016 election, are now “trying to Al Capone the President”—that is, get him on a technicality. Others in the Trump camp are falling back on the legal argument that a sitting President can’t be indicted, or that Hillary Clinton’s campaign also violated campaign laws. But, apart from Trump himself, virtually nobody seems to be claiming that he didn’t direct the payoffs.
.. Here’s a quick reminder of the rap sheet. Turning a blind eye to money laundering at his New Jersey casinos. Operating a bogus university that bilked middle-income seniors out of their retirement savings. Stiffing his suppliers as a matter of course. Selling condos to Russians and other rich foreigners who may well have been looking to launder hot money. Entering franchising deals with Eastern European oligarchs and other shady characters. For decades, Trump has run roughshod over laws and regulations.
To protect himself from whistle-blowers, financial cops, and plaintiffs, Trump relied on nondisclosure agreements, lax enforcement, and his reputation for uncompromising litigiousness.
Beyond flipping, Trump addresses Michael Cohen’s charges by repeatedly emphasizing that the hush money payments at the center of his guilty plea were not made with campaign funds. There’s just one problem: That doesn’t exonerate him.
In context, Trump appears to be trying to say that this proves his innocence, but the opposite is the case — you can’t just evade campaign finance rules by paying for your campaign expenses with non-campaign funds. If you could, the rules would be meaningless.
.. A separate issue, however, is that while a private citizen is free to make a secret hush money payment to his former mistress if he likes, a political campaign is required to disclose what it’s spending money on.
.. If Trump had reported a cash payment to Stormy Daniels to the Federal Election Commission, that naturally would have raised questions about why he was paying her and somewhat defeat the purpose of making hush money payments in the first place. So what Trump and Cohen seem to have decided to do is avoid using campaign money, thus allowing them to avoid disclosure rules.
.. But just like lying on the disclosure form would be illegal and refusing to do the disclosure would be illegal, paying for campaign expenses out of a non-campaign account and then declining to report that as a contribution to the campaign is also illegal. Simply put, there is no legal way to spend money on your election campaign without disclosing that fact.
“Later on I knew,” Trump said. “Later on. But you have to understand, Ainsley, what he did — and they weren’t taken out of campaign finance. That’s a big thing. That’s a much bigger thing. Did they come out of the campaign? They came from me. I tweeted about it. I don’t know if you know, but I tweeted about the payments. But they didn’t come out of the campaign. In fact, my first question when I heard about it was, ‘Did they come out of the campaign?’ Because that could be a little dicey. They didn’t come out of the campaign, and that’s big. It’s not even a campaign violation.”
.. Cohen explained that he committed the campaign-finance violations “at the direction of the candidate” and with the “purpose of influencing the election.”
.. Based on Trump’s interview on Fox, he seems to think that a campaign-finance violation would have occurred if campaign funds were used to pay off Daniels and McDougal, rather than his personal cash, which was used to reimburse Cohen for the initial Daniels payment. The reverse of this is true, as The Huffington Post first reported.
.. If Trump had routed money through his campaign to pay off women, it would be legal. Campaigns can spend unlimited amounts of money. The problem would have been that if Trump did use his campaign to pay off any women, it would have defeated the purpose of making the payment, which was to ensure silence. Such an expenditure would have had to be reported to the Federal Election Commission and publicly disclosed.
.. Trump’s best defense is one that Cohen claimed was true earlier this year, and one that Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has also latched onto: That the arrangement was made not to boost Trump’s candidacy but to shield his family, particularly his wife, Melania Trump, from the embarrassing information. That argument was what helped former Democratic Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina in a similar case.
But Cohen’s testimony, backed up by what the government says is evidence that corroborates it, hurts that narrative.
The conviction of his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort on tax evasion and bank fraud charges undercut Mr. Trump’s assertion that his was a campaign and a presidency that would “drain the swamp” of the unsavory professional political class.
Mr. Manafort was and is of precisely that political class. The actions for which he was convicted had nothing to do with his work for the president, yet the optics are, to say the least, unhelpful for Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump can and will distance himself from both Mr. Manafort and the felonies of which he now has been convicted. Indeed, after landing in West Virginia for a campaign rally, Mr. Trump expressed sympathy for Mr. Manafort but said “this has nothing to do with Russian collusion.” He continued to describe the hunt for a Russian connection as a “witch hunt.”
It will be much harder to create distance from Mr. Cohen.