One of the “it’s so horrible it’s funny” things about the Trump era has been all the “Wow! Pence better get ready because this time we’ve got him for sure” stories. Trump says something, a scandal breaks, the media reports that an anonymous person who may or may not exist has revealed a shocking crime and it’s supposed to be all over! Yet, like Jason from the Friday the 13th series, Trump shrugs off the media’s ax to the forehead or Democrats’ shotgun blast to the chest like it’s nothing and he’s back doing what he does five minutes later while they pull their hair out.
The latest story of this sort is Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen pleading guilty to a number of crimes, all of them unrelated to Trump except for a campaign finance violation. Cohen paid off the porn stars Trump slept with and Trump paid him back.
First of all, is this a campaign finance violation at all? That is arguable because campaign finance laws, beyond the basics, are a murky, byzantine mess that only highly specialized lawyers can navigate and even they only get definitive answers when a judge rules.
Trump’s argument will probably be something akin to, “My personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid off those women I slept with and I reimbursed him. No campaign funds were used. Michael Cohen told me it was legally fine and I did it because I didn’t want to cause any embarrassment to my family.” Is this true? We can’t know for sure at this point, but it certainly seems to be an extremely plausible argument. That is doubly so because Trump has a history of setting up nondisclosure agreements and paying out what could be considered “hush money.”
Cohen claimed that this was done to influence the election, likely because he was promised less time in jail on his other charges if he’d be willing to agree to something that could be used to implicate Trump. If this were to go further, you’d be likely to see a he said/she said argument. Cohen, who’s just been convicted of numerous crimes, will claim his client knew he was breaking the law, did it specifically for purposes of influencing the election, and told him to do this. Trump will say that isn’t true and that he had no reason to believe anything illegal was going on because his lawyer, whose advice he trusted, told him it was perfectly fine.
All of this is on top of the fact that whether this is even a campaign finance issue is extremely dubious. Apparently, no campaign funds were used. Cohen was paid back and using your own lawyer to coordinate that kind of payoff seems reasonable. Pretty clearly, no married man would want that kind of information out there, so you can’t even definitively say it was done for the sake of the campaign.
That being said, some people might compare this to payoffs to a mistress from a John Edwards donor, but it’s not really the same thing. Trump ultimately used his own money to pay off the women via his lawyer. Edwards didn’t pay back his political donor, which made it much easier to argue that it was a backdoor campaign contribution. Yet and still, Edwards wasn’t convicted in court over that allegation and Obama’s Justice Department dropped the case.
So, if Democrats retake the House, could they move to impeach Trump over this? Theoretically yes, because impeachment is a political question, not a legal question. They could call for impeaching Trump over this just as Republicans could have called for impeaching Obama over the 2008 campaign finance violation his campaign committed. If Democrats took power, they could try to impeach Trump for jaywalking if they wanted, but they wouldn’t have enough votes in the Senate to get him out of office and it’s a dangerous course of action politically. Republicans learned that the hard way when the House impeached Bill Clinton and faced a political backlash from the American people. Barring stunning evidence of crimes that have yet to be publicly revealed, if Trump gets pushed out of the White House, it’s not going to be because of Robert Mueller claiming that he engaged in obstruction of an investigation into a crime that didn’t happen or a dubious campaign finance violation; it’ll be because he loses at the ballot box. That’s how it’s supposed to be.