Last week, in their case against Michael Cohen, federal prosecutors in New York filed a sentencing brief concluding that, in committing the felony campaign-finance violations to which he pleaded guilty, Cohen had “acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1,” President Trump. And this week, prosecutors revealed that they had obtained an agreement from AMI, the parent company of the National Enquirer, in which AMI admitted that it, too, had made an illegal payment to influence the election. The AMI payment was the product of a meeting in which Trump was in the room with Cohen and AMI President David Pecker. 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 2011with 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.