According to court documents filed on Friday by New York prosecutors and the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, President Donald Trump not only knew about hush money being paid to two women whom he allegedly had affairs with but also directed his personal attorney to pay the women for their silence.
The allegations implicating Trump surfaced last week in sentencing recommendations filed in criminal cases against Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney. The filings indicated that Mueller and prosecutors from the Southern District of New York believe that Trump was an accomplice in the payments to the two women, payments that are felony violations of federal election laws.
How can money spent to quiet someone rise to the level of a federal felony?
Here’s a look at the two portions of Friday’s filings that implicate Trump in unlawful activity.
What do the filings in the Cohen case say?
Prosecutors are alleging that violations of federal campaign finance law took place when Cohen made payments to silence porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Both women alleged they had extramarital affairs with Trump. Trump has denied their claims.
According to prosecutors:
- Cohen negotiated an agreement with American Media Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer, to pay McDougal $150,000 to keep quiet about an alleged 10-month relationship with Trump. According to the plea, McDougal transferred the rights to her story to the Enquirer which did not publish the story. Cohen paid AMI to compensate the company for payments made to McDougal.
- Cohen’s $130,000 payment to Daniels, also over an alleged affair with Trump, was made with funds drawn on a home equity line of credit he took out. The plea said Cohen paid Daniels “by making and causing to be made an expenditure, in cooperation, consultation, and concert with, and at the request and suggestion of one or more members of the campaign (identified as Trump, though not by name) … to ensure that she not publicize damaging allegation before the 2016 presidential election and thereby influence that election." Cohen said during the plea that he “participated in this conduct for the principal purpose” of influencing an election and did it at the “direction of a candidate for federal office.”
What are the violations?
The crimes include a charge of making a campaign contribution in excess of the $2,700 individual limit set by federal campaign law and unlawful corporate contributions.
The violation of the $2,700 contribution limit came when Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about the alleged affair with Trump. The unlawful corporate contribution charge refers to Cohen’s promise to pay the parent company of the National Enquirer which purchased the rights to McDougal’s story of an affair with Trump but never published it.
How does money paid to keep someone quiet become a campaign contribution?
Under federal campaign finance law, individual campaign contributions are limited to $2,700 per individual, or $5,400 for a couple, for each election cycle.
Federal law bars direct corporate contributions to federal candidates. The money paid to Daniels – $130,000 – was moved through a limited-liability company called Essential Consultants. Cohen created the company a few weeks before the election.
The payment to Daniels was a campaign contribution, according to Cohen, who said in court that when he paid Daniels off, he was acting on behalf of the campaign with the aim of helping Trump win the presidency.
In McDougal’s case, Cohen paid AMI to compensate the company for payments made to McDougal.
Cohen testified at his August plea hearing that he orchestrated payments to McDougal and made payments to Daniels weeks before the 2016 presidential election so that the affairs would not become public, and that he did so “for the principal purpose of influencing the election.”
He also said Trump knew about the payments. Both of those payments far exceed the $2,700 limit.
Trump, on the other hand, said the payments were “simple private transactions” not campaign contributions, and that the payments were meant to spare his family embarrassment, not influence an election.
If Trump were to be charged, prosecutors would have to prove that he knew certain campaign finance laws prohibited what he was doing and that he then willfully violated those laws.
Cohen originally said he acted on his own and had not been reimbursed by the Trump Organization, or by the campaign for the payments. He recanted that statement in August, saying he was reimbursed for the payments by Trump who had directed him to make them.
“I used a company under my control to make the payment (to Daniels)” Cohen told the judge, adding that “the monies used were later repaid by the candidate.”
What does the law say about this case?
What we know is that prosecutors believe Trump directed Cohen to violate campaign finance laws. What we don’t know is if Trump knowingly violated the law.
According to the Federal Election Campaign Act, while individuals are limited to making donations of $2,700 to presidential candidates, candidates can use or loan their personal funds for campaign use. While those contributions are not subject to limits, they must be reported on campaign finance forms filed with the Federal Elections Commission. Companies may not make campaign contributions, and it is a felony to conspire to make a campaign contribution that exceeds $25,000.
What is the statute of limitations for these crimes?
For the violations cited in the filings, there is a five-year statute of limitations.
Will Trump be charged?
Trump will not likely be charged with crimes while he is a sitting president.
Legal opinions that have directed Justice Department procedure say a sitting president will not be indicted because criminal charges would undermine the job he or she does.
A president could be charged after he leaves office as long as the statute of limitations on the crimes the person is alleged to have committed have not expired.
Will he be impeached?
Bringing articles of impeachment and impeaching a president are two different things.
The U.S. House drafts articles of impeachment, but the U.S. Senate, with the chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding, holds a trial to examine the charges and votes on whether a president is impeached.
It requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate for impeachment.
It is possible that the House could start impeachment proceedings against Trump. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, has suggested that Trump’s actions, according to what was revealed in the filings, would rise to the level of an impeachable offense.
“Until now, you had two different charges, allegations, whatever you want to call them,” Nadler of New York, the incoming Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in an interview on Saturday. “One was collusion with the Russians. One was obstruction of justice and all that entails. And now you have a third — that the president was at the center of a massive fraud against the American people.”
The House Judiciary Committee would be the committee that would draft impeachment charges against Trump if it came to that.
What does the White House say?
The White House said Friday's news has nothing to do with them. Trump said “thank you” in a tweet on Friday, saying he had been exonerated concerning campaign finance.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.