- President Donald Trump finds himself facing mounting legal and political trouble in the face of his former lawyer’s claim that he committed campaign finance violations meant to influence the 2016 election at Trump’s direction.
- The lawyer, Michael Cohen, on Wednesday was sentenced to three years in prison for his crimes, and the nature of the offenses is putting more pressure on Democratic lawmakers, who will control the House in January, to explore impeachment.
- One Department of Justice veteran said Cohen’s actions “show a pattern of purposeful concealment with the sole intent of hiding the truth from the electorate a month before the election.”
- Another legal scholar said that while he didn’t believe these crimes themselves warranted impeachment proceedings, “six months from now if there have been nine more indictments, three more bombshell revelations, and a Mueller report, that could look very different.”
Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former longtime lawyer, was sentenced to three years in prison in the Southern District of New York on Wednesday after pleading guilty to tax evasion, bank fraud, and campaign finance violations earlier this year.
The same day, federal prosecutors announced that they had reached a nonprosecution agreement with American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer, which spent $US150,000 to purchase the rights to, but not publish, the account of Karen McDougal, the model who said she had a 10-month affair with Trump.
When Cohen admitted to violating election law, he said he did so at Trump’s direction. But Trump’s attorneys argue that Cohen’s payments to buy the silence of McDougal and of the porn star Stormy Daniels, who Cohen paid $US130,000 in October 2016 to keep her from discussing what she says was a 2006 affair with Trump,were a “simple private transaction” and did not constitute campaign finance violations because they were made to protect Trump’s family and businesses.
But election-law experts and former federal prosecutors aren’t convinced that Trump, who has denied having an affair with either woman, was concerned about the women’s stories solely for personal reasons.
“The timing and surrounding facts, which include a NPA with the Enquirer, show a pattern of purposeful concealment with the sole intent of hiding the truth from the electorate a month before the election,” Jeffrey Cramer, a former longtime federal prosecutor in Chicago, told INSIDER.
‘One by one, the career DOJ prosecutors are removing possible Trump defences’
Both Trump and Republican members of Congress have downplayed the significance of the campaign finance violations, asserting that all federal candidates make paperwork mistakes and citing President Barack Obama being fined by the Federal Election Commission for reporting errors in his financial disclosures for his 2008 presidential campaign.
But Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine who is an expert in campaign finance, drew a distinction, telling CNN that the Cohen payoffs were “not in the same league” as the Obama campaign’s errors.
“When you are dealing with a $US1 billion operation, there are going to be some clerical mistakes,” he said of Obama’s campaign.
“An administrative error or taking a few thousand dollars over the legal limit are violations, but nobody should go to prison,” he said.
In Cohen’s and Trump’s case, he added, “the fact that it could have influenced an election is certainly part of the calculus in taking this criminal versus civil route.”
Trump’s lead attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has cited the case of former US Sen. John Edwards while defending Trump. Edwards was indicted on suspicion of exceeding campaign contribution limits and filing false disclosures to pay off a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair and a child.
Edwards claimed that the payments, which were made as he was ending his 2008 presidential campaign, were intended to protect his family. A jury acquitted Edwards on one count and declared a mistrial on the others.
But the nonprosecution agreement with AMI says the company “further admitted that its principal purpose in making the payment was to suppress the woman’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election.”
“One by one, the career DOJ prosecutors are removing possible Trump defences,” wrote Neal Katyal, the former acting US solicitor general. “Now it isn’t just Cohen, but also AMI, saying these hush money payments were made to influence the 2016 Presidential election, and knock out the so-called ‘Edwards defence.'”
Cramer echoed that view.
“This is not the same as the John Edwards case,” he said. “Difference of timing and intent.”
‘A crime against the political process’
Justice Department guidelines advise against indicting a sitting president, citing Congress’ oversight role and ability to impeach the president as a mechanism to hold an executive accountable for “high crimes and misdemeanours.”
Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law School who is an expert on criminal law, told INSIDER the “conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws is, like the Russian interference, evidence that the political process was severely disrupted.”
“What unites these together is a crime against the political process and one that might demand the ultimate political response from House Democrats: impeachment,” he added.
While Democrats have been wary of discussing impeachment, the implications of the campaign finance violations that prosecutors say Trump directed – and that some scholars suggest may have propelled him to the presidency – prompted some Democrats to say they were open to exploring impeachment.
Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, who will most likely become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in January, told The New York Times in a recent interview that he planned to investigate the election-law violations and determine whether they were “serious enough” to warrant impeachment.
Rep. Adam Schiff, who will most likely be chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, wrote on Twitter that Cohen’s sentencing “demonstrates that nobody is above the law,” including Trump.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported Wednesday that other House Democratic leaders such as the presumed incoming speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and incoming majority leader, Steny Hoyer, were facing mounting pressure to explore impeachment as more legally problematic information involving Trump and his campaign trickled out.
Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, who introduced impeachment articles in 2017, told Bloomberg that evidence of campaign finance fraud was “going to be such that they will have no choice but to support impeachment.”
Democrats may hold back now, but things ‘could look very different’ down the road
Andy Wright, a former associate White House counsel to Obama and assistant counsel to Vice President Al Gore, told INSIDER in a Wednesday phone interview that while members of Congress might be hesitant to impeach now, “the evidence is starting to stack up that the president was involved in criminal activity.”
At the same time, he said, “you have to weight that against the very incendiary nature of impeachment, which is a reversal of an election.”
Wright added that while Cohen’s admissions and sentencing represented a “clear-cut case of potential criminal conduct” and raised the likelihood that Trump would be impeached, “I don’t think we’ve gotten to the tipping point yet, where there’s a bipartisan supermajority that’s going to remove the president from office, in the Senate certainly.”
“If you hold everything constant now, it probably wouldn’t be the right calculus for the Democrats to move forward with impeachment,” he said. “But six months from now if there have been nine more indictments, three more bombshell revelations, and a Mueller report, that could look very different.”
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