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Trump echoes popular right-wing talking point: Michael Cohen crimes aren’t crimes

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Donald Trump
Donald Trump.
Spencer
Platt/Getty Images


  • President Donald Trump has echoed a popular right-wing
    talking point in recent days.
  • He says the campaign-finance crimes to which his former
    longtime lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty aren’t
    crimes.
  • The argument was first made by right-wing radio host
    Mark Levin.
  • Campaign-finance experts said this argument was
    “nonsense.”

President Donald Trump has echoed a popular right-wing talking
point in recent days as his latest defense from the plea deal to
which his former longtime lawyer Michael Cohen agreed earlier
this week.

The campaign-finance crimes Cohen pleaded guilty to? Well, they
aren’t actually crimes, Trump and others say. It’s an argument
that campaign-finance experts say is “nonsense.”

In cutting a deal with federal prosecutors, Cohen pleaded guilty
on Tuesday to five counts of tax evasion, one count of making a
false statement to a financial institution, and two counts
related to campaign-finance violations. Cohen said under oath
that Trump directed him to violate campaign-finance laws just
before the 2016 presidential election to boost his candidacy.

The latter two charges were in connection to payments to the
former Playboy model Karen McDougal and the porn actress Stormy
Daniels to silence their allegations of affairs with Trump. Cohen
said that at Trump’s direction, he moved to keep both former
Playboy model Karen McDougal and porn star Stormy Daniels from
publicly disclosing damaging information that would hurt Trump’s
campaign. He said under oath that the payments were for the
purpose of benefiting Trump’s candidacy.

“Directing” Cohen to commit such a crime would make Trump a
co-conspirator, legal experts say.

Prosecutors
wrote
 that they could back up Cohen’s
admissions through evidence obtained from the FBI’s April raids
on Cohen’s home, office, and hotel room. The evidence, they
wrote, included documents, electronic devices, audio recordings
made by Cohen, text messages, messages sent on encrypted apps,
phone records, and emails.

Later this week, it was revealed that American Media Inc. CEO
David Pecker, who purchased McDougal’s story, and Trump
Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg were both given immunity to
provide testimony in the Cohen investigation.

Focusing on the payments to women, Trump first tweeted that they
weren’t actually a crime on Wednesday morning.

“Michael Cohen plead guilty to two counts of campaign finance
violations that are not a crime,” he wrote.


michael cohen
Michael
Cohen.

Craig Ruttle/Associated
Press


The crimes ‘don’t exist’?

He later expanded upon his thoughts in an interview with “Fox and
Friends.”

“By the way, he pleaded to two counts that aren’t a crime. Which
nobody understands,” Trump said. “In fact, I watched a number of
shows. Sometimes you get some pretty good information by watching
shows. Those two counts aren’t even a crime. They weren’t
campaign finance.”

Trump seems to be referencing an argument first made by
right-wing talk radio host Mark Levin on Fox News host Sean
Hannity’s Tuesday night show.

“I wanna help the law professors, the constitutional experts, the
criminal defense lawyers, the former prosecutors, and of course
the professors, I wanna help them understand what the law is,”
Levin told Hannity. “The general counsel for the Clinton mob
family, Lanny Davis, he had his client plead to two counts of
criminality that don’t exist.”

Levin says that if a candidate were to, for example, pay for a
nondisclosure agreement “because I don’t want this person to
attack me during the campaign for something that occurred before
the campaign,” that is a “perfectly legal” expenditure and not “a
campaign expenditure.”

He said that such a matter was one that was personal in nature,
and whether or not it benefitted the campaign is irrelevant.

Levin also interviewed former Republican Federal Election
Commission chairman Bradley Smith on the matter, who said he
agreed with Levin’s assessment. Smith said if the such hush-money
expenditures
“incidentally” benefitted the campaign, there
would be no issue.

‘The argument is nonsense’

But the payments were made with the express purpose of
benefitting the campaign, as Cohen said in court and prosecutors
said they could corroborate based on the evidence they had
gathered.

The campaign’s benefit wasn’t a bug of the payments — it was the
feature.

Additionally, the payments exceeded the maximum-allowed
contribution, and they were not reported. Both are illegal. Cohen
admitted in court he knew at the time that he was breaking the
law.

“These were not just allegations by the government,” Larry Noble,
senior director and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center
and former general counsel of the FEC, told Business Insider in
an email. “Cohen admitted to the violations of federal law under
oath and a federal judge accepted the plea. So, Trump is not only
attacking the SDNY for getting the felony plea, but he is also
saying a federal judge wrongly approved that plea.”

“In a word, the argument is nonsense,” added Paul S. Ryan, vice
president for policy and litigation at Common Cause, in an email
to Business Insider. “Literally, the argument does not make
sense.”

Ryan said the enforcement section of the Federal Election Campaign Act makes
it clear that what Cohen did was criminal.

“Cohen admitted and pleaded guilty to committing crimes,” he
said. “The Trump/Levin argument is so inane it boggles my mind.”

Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center and a
Republican former chairman of the FEC, wrote in The Washington Post that Trump
and others were wrong about whether or not Cohen had admitted to
actual crimes.

“For election law purposes, the two crucial facts in” Cohen’s
admission under oath “are that the payment was ‘for the purposes
of influencing the election’ and that it was done ‘in
coordination and at the direction of’ Trump,” he wrote.

“What we know about the facts would provide substantial evidence
to any jury that these payments were all about influencing the
election at a crucial moment, rather than purely personal matters
— and thus, the payments were violations of federal election
laws,” he wrote.

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