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.

So, I Asked People in Saudi Arabia About Their Mad, Murderous Crown Prince

The U.S. has leverage over Riyadh. Let’s use it.

In fact, I’ve felt reasonably safe in Saudi Arabia. Officials were respectful and courteous even when I was painfully frank. But people also seemed more afraid to speak to a journalist than before, and mingled with the oppressiveness, there was an aggrieved nationalism in the air.

.. Senior Saudis privately accept that M.B.S. ordered Khashoggi’s death but insist that the Saudi-U.S. relationship is more important than one man’s life. For the sake of stability in the region, they say, America should stand by Saudi Arabia.

To which my answer is: The problem is not only that M.B.S. is a murderer, but also that he has destabilized the region, starved Yemeni children and undermined the interests of Saudi Arabia and the United States alike. Everything he touches, he breaks.

President Trump and Jared Kushner have placed their bets on the prince, and in a narrow sense they may be right. King Faisal managed to oust his incompetent predecessor, King Saud, in 1964, but I saw no sign that M.B.S. is in jeopardy of losing power.

My most interesting interaction was with a group of young professionals who believe that I am getting it all wrong.

“I don’t know why the media focuses on the bad side,” protested Tariq Buhilaigah, a consultant in Riyadh. Sure there have been missteps, he said, but the most important things going on are the modernization of the country and the diversification of the economy away from oil.

Felwa AlBazie, who is preparing to get her driver’s license, said she doesn’t know why the women’s rights activists are detained but added, “The big picture I’m seeing is that every woman in life benefits from driving, and women and men benefit from social progress.”

.. But modernity isn’t just about cappuccinos and iPhone apps; it’s also about human dignity and the rule of law. While M.B.S. is bringing social progress, he’s also recklessoppressive and brutal, and I am skeptical of his economic competence. He hasn’t even been able to organize an initial public offering for Aramco.

Trump’s bizarre defense of the prince reflects what has been wrong with the U.S.-Saudi relationship. It has become all transactional. The Saudis have treated us like body guards, and we have treated them like gas station attendants.

I suspect the real reason Trump and Kushner embrace M.B.S., aside from the hope that he will back their Middle East peace plan, is business: the belief that Saudis will invest in their personal real estate projects for decades to come.

The truth is that as Saudi Arabia’s significance as an oil producer diminishes, we need Saudi Arabia less. In 25 years, if we’re freed from the tyranny of imported oil, we may not need it at all.

Some Saudis kept trying to suggest to me that if we block weapons sales to Riyadh, the kingdom will turn to Moscow. That’s absurd. It needs our spare parts and, more important, it buys our weapons because they come with an implicit guarantee that we will bail the Saudis out militarily if they get in trouble with Iran.

 

With Sessions Out, What Happens to Mueller?

Congress and the public must now push for protections for the special counsel.

As ethics experts, we believe Mr. Whitaker should recuse himself from the investigation. If we have ever seen an appearance of impropriety in our decades of experience, this is it: a criminal subject president appointing his own prosecutor — one who has evidently prejudged aspects of the investigation and mused about how it can be hampered.

.. Whether or not Mr. Whitaker steps aside, Mr. Trump’s audacity now demands additional safeguards. Congress must quickly put in place a plan to protect the Russia investigation before President Trump makes any further efforts to control the special counsel’s office.

.. Our proposed solution is based upon one devised by, of all people, Robert Bork when he was the acting attorney general during Watergate. Mr. Whitaker or whoever becomes the next acting attorney general must provide the same protections against interference that Mr. Bork provided to the special Watergate prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, in a 1973 Justice Department order. Mr. Jaworski received the protections as part of agreeing to replace the previous prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who was fired in the infamous Saturday Night Massacre.

The Bork order contained much stronger provisions to protect the independence of the special prosecutor investigation than is now found in the Department of Justice guidelines that govern the Mueller inquiry. These enhanced protections should be demanded from any new person given responsibility to oversee the Mueller investigation:

● The attorney general, acting or permanent, will not remove the special counsel except for extraordinary improprieties.

● The special counsel shall not be subject to the day-to-day supervision of any Justice Department official. The attorney general shall not countermand or interfere with the special counsel’s decisions or actions.

Sen. Rand Paul: It’s time to rethink America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia — It is not our friend

The fate of Khashoggi might come as a shock to many Americans, but it’s nothing new. A U.N. report reveals that over “3,000 allegations of torture were formally recorded” against Saudi Arabia between 2009 to 2015, according to The Guardian, with the report also noting a lack of a single prosecution of an official for the conduct.

I have been attempting to expose this for many years. Others in the U.S. government know it, but either won’t admit it or attempt to brush it aside. It’s a fact that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the largest sponsor of radical Islam on the planet, and no other nation is even close.

.. Since the 1980s, over $100 billion has “been spent on exporting” Wahhabism (the brand of Islam that controls Saudi Arabia and is most prevalent in madrassas). According to Foreign Policy Magazine, an “estimated 10 to 15 percent of madrassas are affiliated with extremist religious or political groups,” while the number of madrassas in places like Pakistan and India has increased exponentially – from barely 200 to over 40,000 just in Pakistan.

Even the State Department noted during the Obama administration that Saudi Arabia was the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” and said Qatar and Saudi Arabia were “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups.”

.. Of course, this isn’t new, as the previously classified 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission report can also tell you.

The Saudis have exported this radical ideology worldwide. They have also committed war crimes in their Yemen war – a war for which American taxpayers are being used as unwitting accomplices.

The Yemen war, fought with American weapons and logistical support, has killed tens of thousands and, according to The Washington Post, left 8 million more “on the brink of famine,” in what it calls “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

.. There is ample evidence of mass incarceration, indefinite detention, torture, and a complete lack of the rule of law and due process within Saudi Arabia. As a matter of understatement, this is antithetical to American ideals.