Insisting once again that the payments did not “come from the campaign,” the president said that “the first question” he asked when he heard about the payments was, “Did they come out of the campaign?”
“Because that could be a little dicey,” he added, “and they didn’t come out of the campaign and that’s big,” continuing: “But they weren’t––it’s not even a campaign violation. If you look at President [Barack] Obama, he had a massive campaign violation, but he had a different attorney general and they viewed it a lot differently.”
Trump’s statements indicate he misunderstands just why the payments themselves are so important. Cohen said that he made the payments at Trump’s behest to influence the election. In fact, as he pleaded guilty to the campaign finance violations, he said he had paid Daniels and McDougal hush money “in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office… for the principal purpose of influencing the election.”
It does not matter whether the money to pay these women came from the campaign or not: That the women were paid off for the explicit purpose of boosting Trump’s chances of winning the 2016 presidential election is precisely why the scandal has received so much airtime, even as salacious details of Trump’s proclivities during his affairs with both Daniels and McDougal have also nabbed front page headlines.
Trump’s claim that former President Barack Obama is guilty of the same crime as Cohen also doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.
Trump referred to a $375,000 fine levied by the Federal Election Commission in early 2013 against Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. The FEC said the Obama campaign missed filing deadlines for disclosing large donations during the final weeks of the campaign, reported the wrong dates on certain contributions, and did not return donations that exceeded the campaign contribution as quickly as they should have.
The violations amounted to “a small, technical paperwork error that people who were trying to get it right might make,” Epner said. “$375,000 for the FEC is a meaningful fine, but compared to the amounts that were involved it’s tiny.”
According to MitchellEpner, a former federal prosecutor who is now of counsel at Rottenberg Lipman Rich P.C., reoccurring donations can put a donor over the legal limit and campaigns are required to track donation totals and return excess amounts after 60 days. The Obama campaign did not do this in a timely manner, and an FEC audit found some donations which exceeded the legal limit (which were then subsequently refunded). The FEC’s conciliation agreement with the campaign notes this.
Eppner said that it’s “extremely implausible” that an attorney general could influence the regulation or prosecution of violation of campaign finance laws. Intent and motivation are important factors; the FEC concluded that the Obama campaign did not intend to commit federal crimes.