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.

Why Michael Cohen Agreed to Plead Guilty—And Implicate the President

Prosecutors had reams of evidence and a long list of counts, which also could have included the lawyer’s wife

For weeks, the president had been distancing himself from Mr. Cohen, including by stopping paying his longtime attorney’s legal fees, making clear amid the pressure that he was on his own.

Under oath on Tuesday, before a packed courtroom, Mr. Cohen created a spectacular moment without parallel in American history when he confessed to two crimes that he said he committed at the behest of the man who would become president.

..  For the president, it opens up a perilous new legal front.

..  Mr. Trump denied he directed Mr. Cohen to buy the women’s silence. Contradicting earlier statements, the president said he became aware of the payments to the women “later on” and said Mr. Cohen was reimbursed from his personal funds, not his 2016 campaign coffers.

.. On April 5, days before the raids, Mr. Trump told reporters on Air Force One he didn’t know about the payment to Ms. Clifford, and referred questions about the matter to Mr. Cohen. “You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen,” Mr. Trump said. “Michael is my attorney.”

Mr. Cohen, who that night was staying aboard the yacht of Trump donor Franklin Haney, which was docked in Miami, grew irate on the ship soon after Mr. Trump made his remarks distancing himself from the Clifford payment, according to a person familiar with the episode. Mr. Cohen was swearing loudly as others on the boat were sipping their drinks, the person said.

.. Initially, Mr. Cohen seemed unlikely to turn on the president. Although their relationship was at times turbulent, Mr. Trump appreciated Mr. Cohen’s absolute loyalty. On the day of the raids, Mr. Trump called the move a “disgrace” and a “witch hunt.”

Soon after the April raids, Mr. Cohen’s relationship with Mr. Trump began to deteriorate.

The estrangement began over legal bills, said a person who has spoken with Mr. Cohen about the matter. The Trump family covered part of Mr. Cohen’s legal fees after the raids, but then stopped paying.

Mr. Cohen felt exposed. Public comments by Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s lawyer, put distance between the president and Mr. Cohen and further alienated the attorney, the person said.

Mr. Cohen told associates and friends he felt Mr. Trump didn’t have his back and vented that the president hadn’t personally offered to pay his legal bills in the Manhattan investigation, which he said were “bankrupting” him.
.. By then, prosecutors and the Internal Revenue Service had focused on Mr. Cohen’s personal income taxes. In conversations with a potential witness in June and July, investigators asked “very pointed” questions about various tax filings, according to a person familiar with the conversations.

“They knew what they wanted, they knew what they had, and they went after it,” the person said.

In late June, Mr. Cohen openly broke with Mr. Trump.

.. Mr. Cohen’s father urged him not to protect the president, saying he didn’t survive the Holocaust to have his name sullied by Mr. Trump
.. On June 20, Mr. Cohen stepped down from his position as the Republican National Committee’s deputy finance chairman and tweeted his first public criticism of his former boss: “As the son of a Polish holocaust survivor, the images and sounds of this family separation policy [are] heart wrenching.” The tweet no longer appears on Mr. Cohen’s Twitter account.
.. In July, a recording became public that Mr. Cohen surreptitiously made of a conversation he had with Mr. Trump in September 2016 about buying the rights to Ms. McDougal’s story. The president has denied the affair.The president’s legal team had waived attorney-client privilege on the recording, which had been seized in the April 9 raids.

.. Given the Justice Department’s policy of not indicting sitting presidents, a guilty plea from Mr. Cohen and his public implication of Mr. Trump were among the strongest outcomes prosecutors could have hoped for

.. For prosecutors, the guilty plea meant they could avoid a contentious trial and free up resources to pursue other investigations.
.. one of Mr. Cohen’s lawyers, Lanny Davis, appeared on cable news shows to say Mr. Cohen wouldn’t accept a pardon from Mr. Trump and “is more than happy to tell the special counsel all that he knows.”

Rudy Giuliani: “Truth Isn’t Truth” | Morning Joe | MSNBC

Joe Scarborough reacts to President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who spoke on Meet the Press and laid out a new position on the Trump legal team’s response to that 2016 meeting with Russians in Trump Tower.

Trump Says He Allowed White House Counsel to ‘Fully Cooperate’ With Russia Probe

Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, said in an interview that Mr. Trump had urged Mr. McGahn to cooperate “because the president is confident that he’ll just tell the truth, and the truth reveals the situation in which the president didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Did he provide anything harmful? The answer is no he didn’t,” Mr. Giuliani said. Mr. Giuliani said if he himself were to interview with Mr. Mueller, “we’d be talking for three to four days. But there would be nothing in it that was harmful to the president.”

..  Last summer, while the investigation was under way, the president sought to fire Mr. Mueller, but backed off when Mr. McGahn said he would resign rather than carry out the order, a person familiar with the matter said.

.. Mr. McGahn was also on the receiving end of a warning in April to the president from Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to fire his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing the Mueller investigation. Mr. Sessions told Mr. McGahn that he would consider resigning if Mr. Trump fired his deputy, according to a person familiar with the message.

.. Mr. McGahn was also involved in conversations with the president as Mr. Trump moved to fire Mr. Comey in May 2017. Days before the firing, Mr. Trump dressed down Mr. McGahn and Steve Bannon, his chief strategist at the time, over Mr. Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation two months earlier.

.. He is widely expected to leave the White House if and when Brett Kavanaugh, Mr. Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy, is confirmed.

.. Mr. McGahn urged other members of the White House Counsel’s Office to use his attorney, according to a person familiar with the matter, a move that left the impression he wanted to ensure his office colleagues gave consistent accounts.