So, either Rudy Giuliani screwed the pooch, or he saved Michael Cohen and the president. There’s not much in-between.
Last night, on Hannity, Giuliani made several claims. First, he claimed that Cohen’s payoff to Stormy Daniels had nothing to do with the election campaign — it was just a normal guy’s-lawyer-paying-off-the-porn-star-he-screwed-a-decade-ago arrangement, unfortunately timed for a month before the election. Second, he claimed that Trump had repaid Cohen in installments, presumably through his monthly retainer. Third, he claimed that Trump didn’t know why he was reimbursing Cohen — it had just been an “expense.”
If all of Giuliani’s contentions were true, then both Cohen and Trump would be off the hook legally. There are two campaign finance issues that the Stormy Daniels payment implicates.
- In-Kind Contributions. The rule is that in-kind contributions in campaigns are limited to $2,700. So if Cohen “gave” Trump $130,000 by paying off Daniels in order to help Trump’s campaign, then he violated campaign finance law. Cohen’s case would be (a) the payment had nothing to do with the election; or (b) Trump reimbursed him, and there are no limits to giving to yourself during a campaign. While Trump reimbursing Cohen would alleviate the in-kind contribution limit issue, it wouldn’t fully alleviate it — it’s illegal to give a loan to a campaign in excessive amounts as well.
- Contribution Reporting. If this was Trump giving money to his own campaign via Cohen, he had to report it. He didn’t report it to the FEC. Rudy’s defense, therefore, is that Trump was just handing Cohen cash, as he often did.
Why would Giuliani put Trump into this position? Why not leave Cohen out there to hang? Before these comments, Cohen was the only one in legal jeopardy; now Trump has some legal issues to worry about, too. This may mean that Trump was attempting to use Giuliani to convey to Cohen that help was on its way, and not to turn on Trump in the larger FBI investigation.
So, what does all of this mean for Trump? Not much, unless the FBI has gathered information showing that Trump saw the Cohen payoff as a campaign issue. If they have evidence that he did, then he could be caught up in the campaign finance issue. Cohen will likely remain under investigation regardless of Giuliani’s revelations, since loans to campaigns can also exceed finance regulations.
Politically, this doesn’t mean much for Trump either. Everyone with half a brain assumed Trump was lying when he said he didn’t pay off Daniels. Trump lies frequently and fluidly. That’s not a justification for his lying. That’s a fact. And it is also a fact that most Americans have already priced in Trump’s dishonesty. Trump’s garbage with women in his personal life, and he always has been. He’s dishonest about his personal life, and he always has been. He should be condemned for that. But there’s no groundshift in anyone’s judgment about Trump based on the Stormy Daniels affair.
Culturally, this marks yet another odd moment for the conservative right that cannot stand cognitive dissonance. It’s one thing to say you like Trump’s policy and say that he is a rotten scoundrel with regard to women — that’s honest. It’s another thing to deny that he’s a rotten scoundrel with women by imitating the worst arguments of the Left circa 1998: “Everyone lies about sex! It’s just his personal life!” In that realm, the soul-suck of the conservative movement continues apace.