The nation heard this week accusations that President Donald Trump was personally involved in the decision to offer two women money shortly before the 2016 election to keep them from sharing stories of alleged affairs. Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, admitted under oath to having been instructed by Trump to work with David Pecker, chairman and chief executive of American Media Inc., to arrange a payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal. He also admitted to having been instructed by Trump to pay off adult film actress Stormy Daniels. Both payments involved felony violations of campaign finance law.
That revelation is remarkable in its own right. But it's also worth remembering that it becomes the third allegation of an effort to surreptitiously aid Trump's 2016 campaign that violated the law.
The hush money
According to the government’s delineation of how the campaign finance violations occurred (an account which Cohen attested was accurate and which has been bolstered by reports that Pecker is cooperating with authorities), AMI and Pecker’s commitment to aid Trump in burying unfavorable stories began in August 2015. The first occasion on which that effort was realized (that is publicly known) was the payment to McDougal, which was made in early August 2016. The payment was made with a commitment by Cohen to repay the money, the subject of the recorded conversation between Trump and Cohen that was released last month. In early October, Pecker called that deal off.
At about the same time, AMI allegedly tipped off Cohen about Daniels' attempts to sell her story. That payment came from Cohen himself, albeit only after Daniels' attorney threatened to take her story to another outlet.
The McDougal arrangement was a violation of campaign finance laws preventing corporate contributions. The Daniels payment was an excessive contribution by Cohen.
Last month, special counsel Robert Mueller obtained an indictment against 12 Russians believed to work for the country’s Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU. It’s this team that’s believed to have accessed the Democratic National Committee’s network and to have hacked into Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman’s email account. In June 2016, some of those files were passed to WikiLeaks, which released two sets of stolen documents in July and October.
Hacking itself is clearly illegal. The indictments charge the Russians with violations of federal conspiracy and identity theft laws.
In February, Mueller’s team obtained indictments against another 13 Russians who worked for an organization called the Internet Research Agency. It was this team that allegedly created social media accounts meant to roil the discourse around the election. Several members of the organization visited the United States before the election. They also allegedly paid Americans to unwittingly make signs or impersonate Clinton at campaign events.
Those actions, if proved in court, violated identity theft, fraud and conspiracy laws. American intelligence officials say they obtained evidence that the goal of the social-media efforts and the hacking was to aid Trump's election.
Among the other guilty pleas obtained by Mueller’s team, so far, is that of George Papadopoulos, an adviser to the Trump campaign who allegedly was told about Russia’s possession of hacked emails by a London-based professor named Joseph Mifsud in April 2016. When Papadopoulos was confronted by federal agents about his knowledge of the email hacking, he lied about the timeline of what he was told. He pleaded guilty to making a false statement in exchange for cooperating with the investigation.
We also don’t yet have a full picture of two other key points of contact between the Trump campaign and Russian actors. There’s the infamous meeting at Trump Tower in early June 2016, of course, as well as a meeting about two weeks earlier between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian named Alexander Torshin. Torshin was a gun enthusiast who worked closely with alleged spy Maria Butina. Torshin and Trump Jr. met briefly at a dinner associated with the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Kentucky in May 2016.
When considering the chain of events as described above, the question isn't whether laws were broken in an attempt to aid Trump's candidacy. It's evident from Cohen's testimony and the existence of the hacked materials that they were. The question is whether those acts made the difference in the narrowly decided contest.
That question is almost impossible to answer. It was just under 78,000 votes that gave Trump the presidency, 0.06 percent of the votes cast. But those 78,000 votes were in three states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and it’s not clear that any of the three acts outlined definitively shifted enough votes to propel that margin for Trump.
What became more clear this week is that Trump’s campaign was aided by many more surreptitious acts violating federal law than we realized — and that Trump himself is now clearly implicated in aiding at least one.