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The difference between Michael Cohen and Barack Obama, explained for Donald Trump

There’s a difference between a civil violation and a criminal one.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

Digesting the news that his personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen had pleaded guilty to campaign finance charges, President Trump turned to a tried-and-true tactic: He attacked Barack Obama.

On the same day that Paul Manafort was convicted on eight financial fraud charges of his own, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight federal crimes, including paying off Stormy Daniels, for the express purpose of influencing the 2016 campaign.

Trump’s take: It’s not a crime, and what about Obama?

First things first: Michael Cohen definitely committed a crime.

“It is a crime to make excessive, unreported campaign contributions, even to pay off a mistress, if done for the purpose of influencing the campaign,” Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California Irvine, told me. “That’s what Cohen admitted to, and if done willfully, it is a crime.”

As for Trump’s seeming non sequitur to Obama, it is true that the ex-president’s 2008 campaign paid a $375,000 fine — one of the biggest ever, though, when you account for the $1 billion Obama raised, “proportionally, it’s not out of line,” a Republican attorney told Politico — for failing to report certain contributions within 48 hours.

From Politico in 2013, when the Obama campaign reached the settlement with the Federal Election Commission alluded to by Trump:

The major sticking point for the FEC appeared to be a series of missing 48-hour notices for nearly 1,300 contributions totaling more than $1.8 million — an issue that lawyers familiar with the commission’s work say the FEC takes seriously. The notices must be filed on contributions of $1,000 or more that are received within the 20-day window of Election Day.

The document outlined other violations, such as erroneous contribution dates on some campaign reports. The Obama campaign was also late returning some contributions that exceeded the legal limit.

I asked Hasen about how Obama’s actions compared to Cohen’s.

“Inadvertent violations like Obama’s are punished civilly by the FEC,” he said.

Criminal violations are handled, as Cohen’s were, in court.