A federal judge sentenced Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, to three years in prison last week. His misdeeds include criminal violations of campaign-finance law, to which Cohen connected the president. Specifically, Cohen, in league with the National Enquirer, paid or arranged payment for women to conceal their allegations of affairs with Trump, which otherwise might have emerged shortly before the 2016 presidential election. These unreported contributions count as illegal assistance to a political campaign. Cohen alleges that he committed this crime at the direction of Trump.
This is not trivial wrongdoing, no matter how Trump may now try to minimize it. Even before raising the question of possible criminality, it is clear that his campaign perpetrated a fraud against the voters. The information Cohen paid to conceal may or may not have changed the outcome of the election, but voters should have been permitted to decide that for themselves. There’s a reason Trump has been serially dishonest about the matter.
As details have emerged, some Republicans rushed to the president’s defense. “There are thousands and thousands of rules,” said Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. “You can make anything a crime under the current laws,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. To “say there’s an impeachable offense because of a campaign-finance problem, there’s a lot of members of Congress who would have to leave,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, in a worrying statement in its own right.
Whether Trump committed a crime is not clear from available information. On Twitter on Thursday, Trump argued that he relied on Cohen’s legal expertise, so it was not his fault if his fixer broke the law. Campaign-finance violations have to be willful. But the president has nevertheless been credibly accused of orchestrating a crime. That matters, for two reasons.
First, this was not some minor oversight, a failure to check a box on a bureaucratic form. It was a conspiracy to withhold information from the voting public. Combating the underhanded use of private cash is one reason for campaign-finance laws. Flouting these laws, willfully or no, undermines the democratic system.
Second, the president is sworn to uphold the law. When a president is credibly connected to the commission of a crime, he should apologize and recognize that he must be held to the highest expectations. His party, a supporter of law and order when it is convenient, demeans itself now by declaring some lawbreaking to be acceptable.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE WASHINGTON POST