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What’s illegal about Trump’s hush payments to women, briefly explained

Debunking the president’s desperate spin about being incriminated in felonies.

President Trump Signs Executive Order Establishing White House Opportunity And Revitalization Council
Trump’s claim that “there was no violation” makes no sense.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

In his latest spin about federal prosecutors implicating him in felonies, President Donald Trump managed to pack three falsehoods into a mere two sentences.

During an interview with Reuters that was published Tuesday evening, Trump, alluding to hush payments made by his longtime personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen to two women who claimed to have had extramarital affairs with him, said, “Number one, it wasn’t a campaign contribution. If it were, it’s only civil, and even if it’s only civil, there was no violation based on what we did. OK?”

But prosecutors are conducting a criminal investigation, and they determined that the payments, which were made to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal in the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election, were indeed meant to help Trump’s candidacy. Cohen was charged with campaign finance violations (among other crimes), pleaded guilty, and on Wednesday was sentenced to three years in prison.

Cohen was sentenced after pleading guilty to charges related to these payments, as well as bank and tax fraud charges. Though Trump is alleging this is “only civil,” there is clearly a criminal investigation underway.

Given that Cohen has pleaded guilty to crimes and is heading to prison, Trump’s claim that “there was no violation” makes no sense.

Cohen’s campaign finance violation, briefly explained

It is illegal to make an unreported donation of more than $2,700 to a candidate in a general election. The initially unreported payments to McDougal and Daniels far exceeded that: McDougal received $150,000 as part of a “catch and kill” deal with American Media, Inc., and Daniels got $130,000 as part of a nondisclosure agreement. Arguably the value of keeping such information secret was even higher than that.

The campaign-related purpose of the payments is clear: to hush up potential sex scandals in the weeks leading up to the presidential election — a time in which the Access Hollywood tape and a string of sexual assault allegations put Trump’s treatment of women under a spotlight. The payments mostly succeeded in keeping the McDougal and Daniels stories out of the press before the election, and Trump went on to narrowly prevail over Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has argued that the payment to Daniels was not, in fact, related to the campaign. Prosecutors, however, didn’t buy it, and Cohen has since acknowledged his guilt.

It’s clear that the McDougal deal was meant to benefit Trump’s campaign as well. On Wednesday, federal prosecutors announced that as part of a non-prosecution agreement, American Media, Inc. now acknowledges it paid McDougal “in concert with a candidate’s presidential campaign, and in order to ensure that the woman did not publicize damaging allegations about the candidate before the 2016 presidential election.”

When the Wall Street Journal published a report last month about Trump being more involved in the payments to McDougal and Daniels than was previously known, Vox’s Andrew Prokop detailed the specific campaign finance charges that Cohen pleaded guilty to in August:

First was “causing an unlawful corporate contribution” to a federal campaign. Prosecutors alleged that Cohen “caused” AMI’s $150,000 payment to Karen McDougal, and that that violated the law because it was effectively a campaign contribution for Trump, in excess of the legal limit on what a corporation like AMI is permitted to give to a campaign.

Second was that Cohen made an “excessive campaign contribution” himself, by paying $130,000 to Stormy Daniels. This, too, was effectively a campaign contribution for Trump above what Cohen was permitted to give, prosecutors said.

Trump is desperately moving the goalposts

In April, Trump claimed to have no knowledge of the payments to Stormy Daniels and referred questions about the matter to Cohen.

But Cohen and his prosecutors have since said that both of the payments were made at the direction of “Individual-1” — a.k.a. Trump.


While the extent of Trump’s criminal exposure as it pertains to the payments remains unclear — for one, we don’t know if he knowingly violated the law — what the Reuters interview and the tweets Trump posted earlier this week do establish is that the president is struggling to come up with a coherent response to being implicated in felonies.

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