With Cohen and AMI stating explicitly that they acted in concert to shield Trump from damaging information, the president is running out of explanations for his role in what looks increasingly like a conspiracy to violate campaign-finance laws. Although such violations are typically civil, they become criminal violations when done “knowingly and willfully” in defiance of the law. Cohen’s and AMI’s admissions also make it hard for the president to claim that the deception was not politically motivated—say, that Trump was simply trying to hide infidelity from his wife. And the non-prosecution agreement with AMI also suggests that investigators could still be in pursuit of another, bigger target.
“Together with the statements in the Cohen sentencing pleadings and in court, that suggests a potential broader conspiracy to violate campaign-finance laws that extends beyond Cohen to people at AMI and others in the campaign, possibly including the president himself,” said Randall Eliason, a law professor at George Washington University and a former U.S. attorney. “The agreement also says AMI has provided substantial cooperation, so any communications, emails, or other documents or evidence related to any coordinated action with the campaign has undoubtedly been turned over to prosecutors, which also would be very helpful in building a broader conspiracy case.”
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There’s a pattern of deception associated with the payments. At first, the president’s allies denied both knowledge of the affairs and the payments outright. Later, they insisted that Cohen was paid a monthly retainer, and acted without the president’s guidance. Before Cohen first indicated he would cooperate with authorities, Trump’s defense counsel Rudy Giuliani told cable-news viewers that Cohen “did his job” by dispensing hush-money payments to women who said they had had affairs with the president. “Imagine if that came out on October 15, 2016, in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton,” Giuliani said on Fox News in May.
After Cohen flipped and said he’d acted at the behest of the president, implicating him in a felony, Trump and his allies attacked Cohen’s credibility and called him a liar. Now he is insisting the payments were “a simple private transaction,” a claim contradicted by both Cohen’s and AMI’s admissions that they acted to influence the 2016 campaign. Most recently, the president and his allies have taken to arguing that, like the fine that the 2008 Obama campaign paid for excess contributions, this is nothing more than a civil violation.
“There is no comparison. Obama’s campaign paid a fine for a series of technical and reporting violations, like missing deadlines and failing to promptly refund excess contributions. Those kinds of errors are common for a high-profile campaign handling thousands of contributions and filing hundreds of pages of reports,” said Fischer. “There is no evidence that the Obama campaign sought to deceive voters about their funding or spending. When the errors were identified, the Obama campaign corrected them.”