President Donald Trump’s longtime personal attorney and adviser pleaded guilty on Tuesday to two felony campaign finance violations. Those are crimes. And he confessed to them under oath, saying he willfully violated those laws at Trump’s direction.
Trump on Wednesday falsely claimed those crimes are not crimes.
The President took to Twitter to distance himself from Cohen: “If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” – and to argue that Cohen’s campaign finance violations are “not a crime.”
“Michael Cohen plead guilty to two counts of campaign finance violations that are not a crime. President Obama had a big campaign finance violation and it was easily settled!” Trump tweeted.
Cohen did indeed plead guilty to two campaign finance violations – making an excessive campaign contribution and causing an unlawful corporate contribution – stemming from payments Cohen made to keep two women’s allegations of an affair with Trump out of the public eye during the 2016 campaign. Cohen was subsequently reimbursed by the Trump Organization as part of a “retainer agreement” which prosecutors said did not exist and was not in connection with any legal fees.
Both of the campaign finance-related felonies to which Cohen plead guilty carry a maximum of five years in prison per charge.
“What he admitted to is a crime. It’s a violation of a law and he plead to a criminal violation of that law. Therefore it’s a crime. He plead to a crime,” said Larry Noble, the former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission who is now senior director at the Campaign Legal Center.
Violations of campaign finance law can be handled as a civil matter by the FEC or as a criminal matter by the Justice Department. The violations become a criminal matter when those laws are broken in a “knowing and willful” manner, Noble said.
“Usually, there’s no allegation that it’s knowing and willful. Once you cross over to knowing and willful, they can be criminal,” Noble said.
That’s where the second part of Trump’s tweet, drawing a comparison between Cohen’s guilty plea and a campaign finance violation by President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, falls apart.
Obama’s campaign was fined $375,000 by the FEC – one of the largest fines levied against a presidential campaign – for missing reporting deadlines on $1.8 million in contributions. The violation did not rise to the level of a criminal violation because there was no indication the misreporting was willful and the fine was assessed as part of a conciliation agreement with the FEC.
“There’s no comparison,” Noble told CNN. “There’s no presidential campaign that I’m aware of that hasn’t had campaign finance violations. A lot of money flows through them and they almost all have some violations.”
“What is unusual is having a violation where it’s been alleged that the candidate and now president was allegedly involved and personally directed the violation,” Noble said.