Initial thoughts on Cohen’s guilty plea

When President Trump was asked today about the Paul Manafort convictions, he made two points: (1) that Manafort worked not only for his campaign, but also for Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole and (2) that the Manafort convictions have nothing to do with Russia collusion. Trump did not answer questions about Michael Cohen’s guilty plea.

Trump’s first point about Manafort doesn’t apply to Cohen. The sleazy lawyer was Trump’s guy, his fixer. Honorable Republicans like Dole and Reagan did not seek or require Cohen’s services.

The second point applies to the Cohen plea. He hasn’t copped to any crime related to Russia.

However, one of Cohen’s guilty pleas relates to Trump and the 2016 election. Cohen admitted violating election law by paying money to sexual partners of Trump in order to keep them quiet during the campaign. The theory is that these were illegal campaign contributions.

Let’s be clear. The fact that Cohen entered this guilty plea doesn’t mean he actually broke campaign finance laws. There is a substantial argument that the payments to Stormy Daniels and the other woman weren’t crimes. Election law expert Bradley Smith, among others, maintains that paying hush money to silence people with potentially damaging information on a political candidate does not constitute a campaign contribution. In my view, this is a murky area of the law.

Cohen simply decided not to contest the campaign finance count against him in order to avoid major prison time for violations he apparently couldn’t plausibly contest — tax evasion and bank fraud. These are violations that, unlike the election law count, carry severe sentences.

Cohen’s admission on the campaign contribution count has no legal force except as to Cohen. It doesn’t apply to Trump, though it’s quite possible that Cohen will provide testimony the prosecutors can use to argue that Trump violated the law under their theory of it.

My final point, for now, is that the payments to the women, especially Stormy Daniels, probably did more to impact the 2016 election than any action of the Russians. I’ve never thought the hacking of DNC and John Podesta emails had any appreciable impact. These were basically dry holes when it came to Hillary Clinton.

The notion that Russian social media activity affected the outcome of the election strikes me as ludicrous. That activity, some of which was anti-Clinton and some of which was anti-Trump, was a drop in the river of crap that flowed through social media during the 2016 campaign.

But a credible allegation that Trump had sex with a porn star is different. It might have cost Trump enough support among deeply religious voters to change the outcome of a very close election.

This doesn’t make the hush money payments criminal — that’s a purely legal question, one that apparently has no obvious answer. But it does suggest that the alleged violation was consequential and not your garden variety violation in which a campaign receives a bit more money than it should have.

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