Experts Debunk Trump's Claim That Cohen's Campaign Violations Are Similar To Obama's
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
One of the ways President Trump and his allies have tried to downplay Michael Cohen's actions is by comparing them to President Obama. In a tweet this week, President Trump described hush money payments to women claiming they slept with Trump as a simple private transaction. And he argued that these campaign finance violations are similar to reporting errors from Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.
We're going to look at that claim now with Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
RICK HASEN: Good to be with you.
SHAPIRO: Experts have debunked President Trump's claims that these violations were similar. But I'd like you to help us dig into why. First, what was the Obama campaign's violation in 2008?
HASEN: Sure. So you have to understand that a presidential campaign is a an operation involving hundreds of millions if not a billion dollars these days. And so there's a lot of paperwork that needs to be filed. And both the Obama campaign and the McCain campaign ended up paying fines because they were a little late on getting some reports in. In the period close to the election, you have to file reports of certain expenditures within 48 hours of making them.
And on some of these, the campaigns missed the filing deadline, filed as soon as they could and then just paid a fine for doing that. It's a civil thing. It's run through the Federal Election Commission - not based on any one willfully violating the law but instead just the kind of paperwork errors that are inevitable when you're talking about such a large operation on such a tight timeframe.
SHAPIRO: So the Obama campaign reported the violation, paid the fine. In contrast, what did we see with the Trump campaign?
HASEN: Well, so you have to understand that Trump has made conflicting arguments in his tweets this week. On the one hand, he's arguing these are not campaign related. They're totally private. We don't need to report anything. And then on the other hand, he's saying, my lawyer didn't report them. He should have reported them. But if he did, it's just a civil matter, and it's no big deal. The way it normally works when you have a campaign filing and it's late, as we saw in the Obama and McCain campaigns, is you quickly fess up to your error. And then you file the correct reports and take your lumps. And that's that.
Here what we had was Trump denying the payments for over a year, the payments being funneled through a limited liability corporation - or through the National Enquirer's corporation - paying to these women with money being paid back masqueraded as retainer payments or payments for technical services, structured across a series of $35,000 payments over a year. That's not the kind of thing that you would see if someone committed a technical violation of the campaign finance law. Instead, they would just admit they did it, pay the fine and be done with it.
SHAPIRO: One of today's legal developments really seems to undercut the argument that this was a personal private transaction. And that was a legal agreement that prosecutors reached with AMI, the parent company of National Enquirer. The magazine's owners admitted to paying $150,000 to ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal. And the line from the Justice Department announcement that really stood out to me was this. AMI further admitted that its principal purpose in making the payment was to suppress the woman's story so as to prevent it from influencing the election. How does that shape our understanding of this?
HASEN: Well, Cohen also made a similar statement when he said that he made the payments to Stormy Daniels for the purpose of influencing the election. The reason for that coming from both Cohen and AMI is that if it were purely personal - if these payments were being made to protect Trump reputation, then they're not campaign finance payments at all. They don't need to be reported by anyone, and there's no violation. So it was really important for the prosecutors to be able to say that the primary purpose of making these payments was in order to influence the election.
SHAPIRO: I want to play you a clip from NBC's "Meet The Press" on Sunday when Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul effectively argued that this kind of thing happens all the time.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")
RAND PAUL: I personally think that if someone makes an error in filing paperwork or not categorizing a campaign contribution correctly, it shouldn't be jail time. It ought to be a fine. And so it's just like a lot of other things that we've done in Washington. We've overcriminalized campaign finance.
SHAPIRO: Professor Hasen, what do you think of Senator Paul's argument here?
HASEN: I think there are some good arguments to be made that campaign finance is too complicated. There's a lot of paperwork that needs to be filed, especially involving people who are engaged in very small-scale operations. But that's not what this situation is at all. And in fact if it was willfully done, it exposes the president's potential criminal liability.
SHAPIRO: So Michael Cohen is headed to three years in prison. There's this admission from National Enquirer's parent company. What does all of this mean legally for the man referred to in legal documents as individual one, President Trump?
HASEN: Well, if he were not the president, I would expect that what would follow next would be an indictment of him for violating these campaign finance laws. And then he'd be able to put on his defenses, be able to argue this was purely personal - or I didn't have the right mental state, the right intent. But because he's president, they're both legal and political reasons why this might not go forward.
Legally there's the question of whether a sitting can be indicted. Politically there's a question of whether the Department of Justice, which answers to an attorney general who answers to the president, would go ahead and bring charges against the president. And even for the sake of thinking about the new Democratic House and impeachment, it's not clear that this is serious enough or outrageous enough for Democrats to go along and say, this is something for which we want to bring down the Trump presidency.
SHAPIRO: UC Irvine law professor Rick Hasen, thanks so much.
HASEN: It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.