“Michael Cohen Plea Agreement: Possible Meanings of the Campaign Finance Counts”

Bob Bauer at Lawfare:

Of course, in a case involving massive alleged financial and tax fraud, there is still the question of why prosecutors troubled themselves with campaign finance violations. The amounts spent represent a sliver of the total spent on the campaign. According to court documents, Trump or those close to him eventually reimbursed Cohen for the payments; the candidate did not call on donors to put up the money. Prosecutors by and large would not consider violations of this nature—involving hush money to hide affairs—to be “heartland” offenses of a law designed to redress the evils of big money in politics.

What distinguishes this case and the decision to pursue the plea is that the candidate behind the subterfuge is the sitting president of the United States. Michael Cohen pleaded Tuesday to a charge that is compelling only because of the story he has to tell, along with other evidence, about the way that Donald Trump operates. And this is not so much about Trump’s clumsy steps, in violation of campaign finance law, to prevent exposure of philandering. This episode, assuming in the instance the form of campaign finance law violations, is about the most powerful man in the country—whom prosecutors have observed displaying contempt for legal considerations and constraints, and consistently lying about his actions.

While the Daniels matter is fairly straightforward—hush money to conceal an affair—the McDougal case is a still-more-elaborate subterfuge entailing a “catch and kill” arrangement by a friendly media company to buy McDougal’s public silence with cash and a disingenuous promise of space for her own writing. As the plea agreement makes clear, this is a count involving third-party corporate contributions, not just the candidate’s personal resources. Cohen may have much to say about how this scheme was hatched, but he stated that it took place at the president’s direction. The criminal information filed Tuesday in the Cohen matters lays out the steps the Trump Organization and Cohen took to falsify documentation to cover the reimbursements he received for his hush-money expenses. The degree to which Donald Trump also directed these activities, or took other actions behind the scenes to encourage Cohen and other witnesses in a course of dishonesty and fraudulent conduct, remains to be seen.

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