On Wednesday, President Trump’s case against an indictment on the basis of campaign finance violations became much more difficult. Michael Cohen, the president’s personal attorney for years including the 2016 campaign, was sentenced to three years in prison – and his sentencing included an open acknowledgment by Cohen that he had directed hush payments to former Trump paramour Stormy Daniels with an eye toward affecting the 2016 election.
Judge William H. Pauley III said Cohen had committed a bevy of crimes with an eye toward deception. Cohen, for his part, threw himself on the mercy of the court, stating, “I blame myself for the conduct which has brought me here today, and it was my own weakness and blind loyalty to [President Trump] that led me to choose a path of darkness over light.” He added, “time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds rather than to listen to my own inner voice and my moral compass.”
More damaging than Cohen’s open-court mea culpa, though, was the prosecution’s announcement that they had reached a non-prosecution agreement with American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer – the entity Cohen attempted to use to silence Karen McDougal. AMI would purchase the stories of Trump’s lovers and then bury them at Trump’s behest; Cohen would then attempt to reimburse AMI, so the allegations go. According to prosecutors, “AMI admitted that it made the $150,000 payment in concert with a candidate’s presidential campaign, and in order to ensure that [Karen MacDougal] did not publicize damaging allegations about the candidate before the 2016 presidential election. 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.”
This evidence could be used to make the case that Cohen’s payment to Daniels was indeed an unreported campaign expenditure; Trump was allegedly attempting to clean up his messes just before the election. While Cohen didn’t use AMI to silence Daniels, representatives of AMI were the first to notify Cohen of Daniels’ intent to go public, according to prosecutors. All of this undercuts the case Trump could make that he paid hush money on a regular basis outside of election circumstances. Trump will now have to claim that both AMI and Cohen are lying about such expenditures representing illegal campaign allocations, and that they’ve caved to the pressure of rogue prosecutors. Alternatively, Trump will have to disclaim knowledge of a campaign finance violation and blame Cohen for such violations – although Cohen will presumably testify that Trump instructed him to violate campaign law specifically.
None of this bodes well for Trump. Trump cannot be prosecuted as president; the Justice Department suggests that doing so would violate the Constitution. But that doesn’t mean that a looming indictment wouldn’t change the math in 2020 for his re-election, or that Democrats wouldn’t use that looming indictment as the basis for impeachment.