Washington • Sen. Orrin Hatch said Wednesday that allegations that President Donald Trump was involved in violating campaign finance laws doesn’t “yet” rise to the level of impeachment proceedings but added they should be taken seriously.
“Those are some serious charges, and they can’t be ignored,” Hatch told reporters. “I’m not very happy about it, I’ll put it that way, and [it] should have never happened to begin with.”
Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty Tuesday to eight crimes, including breaking campaign finance laws by paying hush money before the 2016 election to two women who alleged they had sexual encounters with Trump.
Cohen said he made the payments “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office” and “for the principal purpose of influencing the election.”
As Cohen was pleading to the crimes in a Manhattan courtroom, Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort was found guilty by a federal jury of eight of 18 charges.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing, telling Fox News that he learned of the payments “later on” and that while he reimbursed Cohen for the money paid to the women, it wasn’t a campaign violation because the money came from him personally and not the campaign.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders later said that the president “had nothing to do” with the payments to former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult-film star Stormy Daniels, who have alleged affairs with Trump before he was elected.
Hatch, who voted to impeach President Bill Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice in 1999, was asked on CNN whether he believes the allegations against Trump amount to the Constitution’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” threshold for impeachment.
“I wouldn’t go that far just yet,” Hatch responded.
The Utah Republican said that he doesn't “at this point” see a reason for Congress to launch impeachment proceedings “but we have to take these matters very seriously. People ought to be treated equivalently around here.”
Hatch, who headed the Senate Judiciary Committee during Clinton’s impeachment, was highly critical of the Democratic president. Clinton was impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate for lying under oath and attempting to cover up an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky
"This great nation can tolerate a president who makes mistakes,” Hatch said at the time. “But it cannot tolerate one who makes a mistake and then breaks the law to cover it up.”
“Upholding our Constitution — a sacred document that Americans have fought and died for — is more important than any one person, including the president of the United States,” the senator added.
Hatch during the Clinton impeachment charged that “committing crimes of moral turpitude such as perjury and obstruction of justice go to the heart of qualification for public office.”
“These offenses were committed by the chief executive of our country, the individual who swore to faithfully execute the laws of the United States,” Hatch said at the time.
Democrats on Wednesday said the latest allegations against Trump were deeply disturbing.
“The president of the United States was effectively identified by his longtime lawyer and confidant as an unindicted co-conspirator in their efforts to commit criminal campaign finance violations,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “If true, then-candidate Trump arranged payments to two women he had affairs with in violation of federal law in order to keep those affairs hidden from the American people at a most critical time, days before the election.”
Mitt Romney, a former presidential candidate and GOP candidate for Hatch's Senate seat, also said the developments with regard to Trump were alarming.
“The events of the last 24 hours confirm that conduct by highly-placed individuals was both dishonorable and illegal,” Romney tweeted. “Also confirmed is my faith in our justice system and my conviction that we are a nation committed to the rule of law.”
Romney has accepted Trump’s endorsement in the race.
Democratic Senate candidate Jenny Wilson, a Salt Lake County councilwoman, said Trump should be judged by the actions of those with whom he worked closely.
“Know a man by his friends,” Wilson tweeted. “The president cannot distance himself from the crimes of his former personal attorney or his campaign chair.”