- President Donald Trump is reportedly fearing the prospect of impeachment after his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen was sentenced to 36 months in prison on Wednesday.
- Federal prosecutors have implicated Trump in a scheme to violate campaign finance laws by paying hush money to two women for their silence regarding alleged affairs with Trump just weeks before the election.
- Legal and constitutional scholars aren’t convinced, however, that this week’s developments meet the constitutional burden, or will summon the bipartisan political will for impeachment.
President Donald Trump is reportedly fearing the prospect of impeachment after his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen was sentenced to 36 months in prison on Wednesday for federal offenses including two campaign finance violations in which Trump is implicated.
Citing sources close to the president, NBC News reported that Trump is increasingly “alarmed” by the possibility of impeachment, despite defiantly claiming in a recent interview with Reuters that “the people would revolt” if he were impeached in a time of economic prosperity.
The same day that Cohen was sentenced, federal prosecutors announced that they had reached a non-prosecution 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.
In their sentencing memo for Cohen, prosecutors said he acted “at the direction” of “Individual 1,” which many believe refers to Trump. Trump’s attorneys argue that Cohen’s payments to buy the silence of McDougal and 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 business.
But the non-prosecution 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.”
In a series of Thursday morning tweets, Trump entirely blamed Cohen and bad advice of counsel for the illegal payments. Defence legal experts told INSIDER that argument was unconvincing and could even work against Trump.
The AMI non-prosecution agreement referenced a third person from the Trump campaign in the room with Cohen and AMI President David Pecker when they negotiated the deal to “catch and kill” McDougal’s story. On Thursday, NBC News reported that the campaign official was Trump himself.
Even as the walls seem to be closing in on the president, not all legal and constitutional scholars are convinced yet that his alleged offenses meet the constitutional – or will summon the bipartisan political will – for impeachment.
Columbia University Law School professor and impeachment expert Phillip Bobbit told the Washington Post on Wednesday that impeachment would be justified not just by one individual offence, but “some sort of systematic campaign of disinformation on a large scale … those things would call the election into question.”
“It doesn’t seem to me that the president’s payment of hush money rises to that level. The gravity of an impeachable offence must be enormous,” Bobbit continued, adding that a consistent pattern of behaviour that compromises “the integrity and legitimacy of the state” driven by a “corrupt motive” would be necessary components for impeachment.
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 impeachment verges into the grey area where the letter of the law and the more complex realities of politics intersect.
“The evidence is starting to stack up that the president was involved in criminal activity. You have to weigh that against the very incendiary nature of impeachment, which is a reversal of an election,” he said. “There are considerations that transcend the law – the legal code is not the same thing as impeachable offenses, but impeachable offenses can also go beyond crimes.”
Democratic leaders in Congress have avoided the controversial topic of impeachment for most of the Trump administration, with some cautiously indicating they would consider exploring it when Democrats take control of the House in January.
Trump would first need to be impeached by the House and convicted by two-thirds of the Senate to be removed from office.
“I don’t think the House is going to make a straight, do-I-have-the-votes process to get there, I think it will be a much more rigorous process of discernment,” Wright said while noting this week’s events still “burn down Trump’s candle of goodwill [with Congress].”
There is also a lack of broad support for impeachment among the electorate. A Thursday CNN poll conducted in early December showed that just 43% of Americans polled believe Trump should be impeached and removed from office, compared to 50% who did not.
Wright said that while we may be far from “a tipping point” where a bipartisan supermajority of lawmakers would vote to impeach, the events of this week certainly makes the idea less “far-fetched.” The calculus could continue to change unpredictably given the rapid pace that new revelations of Trump’s alleged impropriety are surfacing.
“We’re going to get a Mueller report, we’re going to find out more about the president’s finances, there’s going to be discovery in the emoluments lawsuit out of Maryland and DC, and we’re going to learn more about his business transactions and tax burdens,” he said.
On Thursday, the the Wall Street Journal reported that federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York were launching a criminal probe into whether the Trump inaugural committee misspent some of the $US107 million it raised and brokered access to the administration for top donors.
“While it’s wise that we seek overwhelming evidence in reversing an election, it’s a legal judgment,” Bobbit emphasised. “These are questions that call upon the consciences of the congressmen and senators.”
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