- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 13, 2018

President Trump said Thursday he never told Michael Cohen to break election laws in 2016, declaring his innocence a day after his former lawyer was sentenced to three years in prison for campaign-finance violations and other crimes.

On Twitter and in an interview with Fox News, the president pushed back aggressively against mounting legal opinion that Cohen’s hush-money payments to two women who allege affairs with Mr. Trump have exposed the president to eventual felony prosecution for directing the lawyer to violate campaign-finance laws.

“I never directed him to do anything wrong,” Mr. Trump told Fox host Harris Faulkner. “Whatever he did, he did on his own. A lawyer who represents a client is supposed to do the right thing. I did nothing wrong.”

Cohen told a federal court that he paid the money to the two women at Mr. Trump’s direction. American Media Inc., publisher of the National Enquirer, also admitted in an immunity deal with prosecutors that it facilitated Cohen’s payouts to porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, saying that “its principal purpose in making the payment was to suppress the woman’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election.”

The president said of the National Enquirer, published by his close friend David Pecker, “I don’t think we made a payment to that tabloid.”

But NBC News and the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Mr. Trump was the unnamed “campaign official” in the room in August 2015 when Cohen and Mr. Pecker discussed ways that Mr. Pecker could help counter negative stories about Mr. Trump’s relationships with women. Court documents refer to an unnamed third person in the meeting that the news reports identified as Mr. Trump, citing unnamed sources.

And in another potential legal threat to people connected with the president, the Journal reported that the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office is examining whether Mr. Trump’s inaugural committee misspent some of its $107 million and whether top donors gave money in exchange for access or policy concessions from the incoming administration. The paper said the probe is at a very early stage, arising partly from records seized in the Cohen investigation.

Mr. Trump said he doesn’t believe the hush-money payments have anything to do with campaign-finance laws. He cited secret payments by Congress of more than $17 million to settle nearly 300 cases by staffers claiming sexual and other forms of harassment, arguing that those payments have never been considered illegal campaign contributions to benefit lawmakers’ careers.

“What about Congress, where they have a slush fund and millions and millions of dollars is paid out each year?” Mr. Trump asked. “Have they listed that on their campaign-finance sheets? No. I’m the only one that this happens to.”

The House passed a bill Thursday that would require lawmakers to pay sexual-harassment settlements out of their own pockets, among other changes.

Cohen pleaded guilty to tax-evasion charges on millions of income that was unrelated to Mr. Trump. The president said Cohen and prosecutors threw in the campaign-finance charges stemming from the 2016 election “to embarrass me.”

In his defense, Mr. Trump and lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani also have pointed to the case of 2008 Democratic presidential-primary candidate John Edwards, who arranged for wealthy campaign donors to pay $1 million to his mistress during the campaign to prevent her from going public about their affair, which produced a child.

Prosecutors charged Mr. Edwards, but a federal jury acquitted him on the charge of accepting an illegal campaign donation and failed to reach a verdict — resulting in a mistrial — on other charges including filing false reports with the Federal Election Commission for not declaring the payments to his mistress, who worked on his campaign staff.

During his interview with Fox, the president showed Ms. Faulkner a copy of an article written by Hans von Spakovsky, a former member of the FEC who argues that payments to alleged mistresses are neither a violation of criminal or civil law.

“These payments were relatively small given Trump’s net worth — the kind of nuisance settlement that celebrities often make to protect their reputations, especially when faced with claims that will cost far more to defend than making a quick payoff without all of the bad publicity that usually accompanies such cases,” Mr. von Spakovsky wrote for the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal. “Given Trump’s celebrity status, the potential liability to these women existed ‘irrespective of the candidate’s election campaign.’”

He said of the Edwards prosecution, “On the one previous occasion that the Justice Department tried to argue that hush money payments to a mistress were a ‘campaign-related’ expense, a jury also did not appear to buy the government’s theory.”

Further, he noted, when the FEC audited the Edwards campaign, the agency determined that the payments to his mistress “were not campaign-related expenses that needed to be reported or run through the campaign.”

“As the Edwards case shows, the Federal Election Commission does not consider payments made to a mistress to be expenditures covered by the federal campaign law, and there is nothing in the public record to suggest that the commission has changed its mind since then,” Mr. von Spakovsky said.

While the Justice Department isn’t bound by FEC guidelines, he said, “It seems pretty clear that the Federal Election Campaign Act wasn’t meant to cover what Cohen has pleaded guilty to, which is why the Edwards prosecution failed.”

A spokesman for Cohen, Washington Democratic operative Lanny Davis, said Cohen knew the payments to the women were illegal.

“He said to the prosecutors, ‘Yes, I knew it was about the election,’ ” Mr. Davis said Thursday on Fox. “I don’t know what his advice was to Mr. Trump.”

Andrew Napolitano, a former New Jersey state judge and Fox News legal analyst, said Wednesday that federal prosecutors with the Southern District of New York indicated in the Cohen case that they think they can prove Mr. Trump has committed a felony.

“The felony is paying Michael Cohen to commit a felony,” Mr. Napolitano said. “It’s pretty basic.”

Federal campaign law limits individual donations to a candidate to $2,000 per year. Cohen arranged for payments of $130,000 to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, and $150,000 to Ms. McDougal, far exceed the limit.

Former Obama White House counsel Bob Bauer said a key element in proving the violation of campaign finance law is “an attempt to disguise or conceal financial activity.”

“Along these lines, prosecutors have detailed the elaborate, if clumsy, steps that Cohen took — allegedly at the president’s direction — to set up shell companies and enter into secret agreements with AMI to hide their spending arrangements,” Mr. Bauer wrote on the Lawfare blog.

The president sized up the potential legal tangle while still working to find a new chief of staff, a key position for running day-to-day White House operations amid the heightened challenges.

Mr. Trump said he had narrowed the field to five finalists and called them “really good ones” and “terrific people.”

But he didn’t give a timeframe for making a decision on who will replace departing Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, who was forced out amid an apparent deteriorating relationship with the president.

The original frontrunner, Nick Ayers, the vice president’s chief of staff, passed on the job over the weekend. That started an intense search, with Mr. Trump saying many top people were interested.

“We are interviewing people now,” Mr. Trump said during a meeting with governors-elect at the White House.

Likely contenders include David Bossie, former deputy campaign manager for Mr. Trump in 2016, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is a former federal prosecutor, and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin.

All three have a personal friendship with Mr. Trump.

“I want somebody that’s strong, but I want somebody that thinks like I do,” he said earlier in an interview with Fox News. “It’s my vision, after all.”

Other names mentioned include White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and GOP fundraiser Wayne Berman.

Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, was considered a strong candidate, but Mr. Trump cut him from contention in a phone call Wednesday.

The president told Mr. Meadows that he is more valuable to the White House if he stays in Congress.

Mr. Trump also lashed out Thursday about prosecutors’ handling of the case of another former adviser, ex-White House national security adviser Michael Flynn. A federal judge has asked prosecutors to turn over all documents related to the case in preparation for sentencing the retired general for lying to the FBI about the extent of his contacts with Russia prior to Mr. Trump’s inauguration.

Prosecutors have asked the judge to give Flynn no jail time, and Mr. Trump told reporters that it points to turmoil between the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

“The FBI said Michael Flynn, a general and a great person, they said he didn’t lie,” the president told reporters. “And Mueller said, well, maybe he did. But now they are all having a big dispute. So I think it is a great thing that the judge is looking into that situation.”

On Twitter, Mr. Trump said, “They gave General Flynn a great deal because they were embarrassed by the way he was treated — the FBI said he didn’t lie and they overrode the FBI. They want to scare everybody into making up stories that are not true by catching them in the smallest of misstatements. WITCH HUNT!”

Regarding Cohen, who has been called Mr. Trump’s “fixer,” the president said the lawyer did “very low-level work” for the Trump Organization and was more involved in public relations. He said he hired Cohen after the lawyer supported him on a committee of condominium owners at Trump World Towers.

“I thought he was really a nice guy. He was very supportive,” Mr. Trump said. “And I liked him, and he was a lawyer, and because of that, I did it. And you know what? In retrospect, I made a mistake.”

⦁ Gabriella Muñoz, Jeff Mordock and Rowan Scarborough contributed to this report.

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