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Trump's Payment Explanations Shift     12/13 06:09

   Since the spring, Trump has gone from denying knowledge of any payments to 
women who claim to have been mistresses to apparent acknowledgment of those 
hush money settlements -- though he claims they wouldn't be illegal in any 
case. But both Cohen and federal prosecutors said the payments were made at 
Trump's direction to fend off damage to his White House bid, an apparent 
campaign finance violation.

   NEW YORK (AP) -- The sentencing of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's 
former personal lawyer, brought a perilous investigation into the president's 
campaign one step closer to the Oval Office.

   Though Cohen broke down during his sentencing hearing Wednesday, Trump 
remained uncharacteristically quiet, his Twitter feed still while he ignored 
shouted questions about his former attorney at a White House event. But Trump 
has been far from silent during the monthslong Cohen saga, with the president's 
explanations frequently shifting as his legal exposure grew.

   Since the spring, Trump has gone from denying knowledge of any payments to 
women who claim to have been mistresses to apparent acknowledgment of those 
hush money settlements - though he claims they wouldn't be illegal in any case. 
But both Cohen and federal prosecutors said the payments were made at Trump's 
direction to fend off damage to his White House bid, an apparent campaign 
finance violation.

   Though prosecutors have implicated Trump in a crime, they haven't directly 
accused him of one, and it's hardly clear that they could bring charges even if 
they want to because of Justice Department protocol. Nonetheless, Trump's 
evolving explanations have clouded the public understanding of what occurred 
and are running head-on into a problematic set of facts agreed to by 
prosecutors, Cohen and a media company that has acknowledged participating in 
the hush money scheme to aid the president's campaign.

   "You now have a second defendant or group of defendants saying that these 
payments were made for the primary purpose of influencing the election, and 
that it was done in coordination with Trump and his campaign," said Rick Hasen, 
an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine.

   Trump's first explanation of the payment that would eventually help lead 
Cohen to a three-year prison sentence came at 35,000 feet over West Virginia.

   Returning to Washington on Air Force One, Trump on April 6 for the first 
time answered questions about the reports of $130,000 in hush money given to 
adult film actress Stormy Daniels, issuing a blanket denial to reporters while 
saying they would "have to ask Michael Cohen."

   Three days later, the FBI raided Cohen's office, seizing records on topics 
including a $130,000 payment to Daniels. Furious, Trump called the raid a 
"disgrace" and said the FBI "broke into" his lawyer's office. He also tweeted 
that "Attorney-client privilege is dead!"

   The raid was overseen by the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan and arose 
from a referral from special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating 
Russian election interference. At the time, Cohen had said he took out a 
personal line of credit on his home to pay Daniels days before the 2016 
election without Trump's knowledge.

   Later that month in a free-wheeling "Fox & Friends" interview, Trump 
acknowledged that Cohen represented him in the "crazy Stormy Daniels deal." In 
May, Trump and his attorneys began saying Cohen received a monthly retainer 
from which he made payments for nondisclosure agreements like the one with 
Daniels. In a series of tweets, Trump said those agreements are "very common 
among celebrities and people of wealth" and "this was a private agreement."

   People familiar with the investigation say Cohen secretly recorded Trump 
discussing a potential payment for Karen McDougal, another woman who alleged an 
affair with the president, two months before the election. On the tape, Cohen 
is heard saying that he needed to start a company "for the transfer of all of 
that info regarding our friend David," a possible reference to David Pecker, 
Trump's friend and president of American Media Inc., the parent company of the 
National Enquirer.

   When Cohen began to discuss financing, Trump interrupted him and asked, 
"What financing?"

   "We'll have to pay," Cohen responded.

   Prosecutors announced Wednesday that AMI acknowledged making one of those 
payments "in concert" with the Trump campaign to protect him from a story that 
could have hurt his candidacy. The company avoided prosecution under a deal 
with prosecutors.

   In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations and other 
charges, saying he and Trump arranged the payment of hush money to Daniels and 
McDougal to influence the election. That next day, Trump argued that making the 
payments wasn't a crime and that the matter was a civil dispute, then took a 
swipe at his former employee.

   "If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you 
don't retain the services of Michael Cohen!" he tweeted.

   Earlier this week, Trump compared his situation to one involving President 
Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. The Federal Election Commission, which typically 
handles smaller campaign-finance violations, where the actions aren't willful, 
with civil penalties that are typically fines, docked the Obama campaign 
$375,000 for regulatory civil violations.

   But legal analysts said the accusations against Trump could amount to a 
felony because they revolve around an alleged conspiracy to conceal payments 
from campaign contribution reports - and from voters. It remains unclear what 
federal prosecutors in New York will decide to do if they conclude that there 
is evidence that Trump himself committed a crime.

   The Justice Department, in opinions issued by its Office of Legal Counsel, 
has said a sitting president cannot be indicted because a criminal case would 
interfere with the duties of the commander in chief. Prosecutors in the 
Southern District of New York, and with Mueller's office, would presumably be 
bound by that legal guidance unless the Justice Department were to somehow 
nullify the opinions.

   Politically, Trump's shifting claims could harm his credibility with voters, 
but legally they may not make much of a difference.

   "It's not clear to me that he's made any false statements in legal documents 
that could open him to liability for perjury," Hasen said.

   For the payments themselves to be a crime rather than a civil infraction, 
prosecutors would need to show that Trump knew that what he was doing was wrong 
when he directed Cohen to pay the women and that he did so with the goal of 
benefiting his campaign.

   Trump has not yet laid out a detailed defense, though he could conceivably 
argue that the payments were made not for the purposes of advancing his 
campaign but rather to prevent sex stories from emerging that would be 
personally humiliating to him and harm his marriage.

   That argument was advanced by former Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina 
Democrat, in a similar campaign finance case that went to trial. But that may 
be tougher for Trump than it was for Edwards given the proximity of the 
president's payment to the election --- timing that, on its face, suggests a 
link between the money and his political ambitions.

   Still, the cases aren't always easy, as proven by the 2012 trial of Edwards. 
Jurors acquitted Edwards on one charge of accepting illegal campaign 
contributions, but couldn't reach a verdict on the five remaining counts 
including conspiracy and making false statements. Prosecutors elected not to 
retry Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004 and a candidate 
for president in 2004 and 2008.


(KA)

 
 
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