President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he paid two women during the 2016 campaign to stay quiet about affairs they say he had with them — essentially admitting that he committed a federal crime.
His former personal lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges on Tuesday, acknowledging he violated campaign finance law in order to influence the 2016 presidential election at the direction of Trump. In other words, Cohen said Trump authorized him to pay off Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels so that they wouldn’t hurt his chances of becoming president.
In an interview with Fox News’ Ainsley Earhardt on Wednesday, Trump acknowledged that he was involved (emphasis added).
EARHARDT: Did you know about the payments?
TRUMP: Later on I knew. Later on. But you have to understand, Ainsley, what he did ― and they weren’t taken out of campaign finance. That’s a big thing. That’s a much bigger thing. Did they come out of the campaign? They came from me. I tweeted about it. I don’t know if you know, but I tweeted about the payments.
But they didn’t come out of the campaign. In fact, my first question when I heard about it was, did they come out of the campaign? Because that could be a little dicey. They didn’t come out of the campaign, and that’s big. It’s not even a campaign violation.
Trump comes very close to admitting he committed a felony. He doesn’t seem to recognize that it’s possible to commit a campaign finance violation without routing money through an official campaign account. He seems to think that everything is aboveboard because no official campaign funds were used to pay off the women.
Trump has it backward. Had he used his own money to pay off Daniels and McDougal and routed it through his presidential campaign, there wouldn’t be a legal issue. (Publicly disclosing payments to Daniels, an adult film star, and McDougal, a Playboy model, of course, would have undermined the purpose of the payments, which was to keep the allegations secret.)
The campaign is allowed to make large payments. But Cohen pleaded guilty to making one excessive contribution to the campaign by paying $130,000 to Daniels out of his own pocket and facilitating a $150,000 excessive and illegal corporate contribution from the publishing company American Media Inc. These payments constituted in-kind donations, according to Cohen’s plea agreement, and thus exceeded the $2,700 individual campaign contribution limit. One came from a corporation, which may not donate directly to presidential campaigns. Neither of these two illegal donations was disclosed by the Trump campaign.
The other issue is that, according to Cohen’s guilty plea, the payments were made to benefit Trump’s campaign. Cohen admitted that he used his money to pay off the women under the belief that a corporation ― the Trump Organization ― would reimburse the expenditures.
The key question about the payments was their motivation. Trump’s best legal cover would be insisting that he would have made the payments regardless of his presidential campaign in an effort to protect his reputation or perhaps save his wife, Melania Trump, from embarrassment. This is the argument that saved former Sen. John Edwards when a very similar case was brought against him.
Instead, just as Trump blew up the official reason for the firing of FBI Director James Comey, the president seems to have stepped over the legal justification for the payments by acknowledging that the money came from him (or, more accurately, the Trump Organization).
Also, Trump lied in the interview when he said he didn’t know about the payments until “later on.”
Last month CNN released a September 2016 recording of him talking to Cohen about the scheme to buy McDougal’s silence. The plan was that the National Enquirer would buy the rights to her story and then never publish anything about it. In the recording, Trump can be heard discussing the plan with Cohen and talking about how to make the payments.
In April of this year, Trump denied knowing anything about the payment to Daniels. But that statement is now known to be false as well, by Trump’s admission Wednesday that he had become aware of the payment to her.
McDougal and Daniels are not named in Cohen’s plea agreement, which mentions only “Woman-1” and “Woman-2.” The time frames and payments to the women match those for McDougal and Daniels.
At a briefing on Wednesday, reporters asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders about those previous statements by Trump. She called the suggestion that he lied a “ridiculous accusation” and referred further questions to Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
The payments, in large part, served their purpose. “As a result of the payments solicited and made by MICHAEL COHEN,” his plea agreement states, “neither Woman-1 nor Woman-2 spoke to the press prior to the election.”
And the rest is history.