We Asked a Campaign Finance Expert About Trump's Alleged Felonies. He Shredded Them
Donald Trump is in trouble, at least if his opponents are to be believed.
After over a year of behind-the-scenes investigating, the dragnet under the direction of Special Counsel Robert Mueller has started to close around some of the president’s closest advisers, and leaks of information now give us clues about Mueller’s strategy.
At the center of the firestorm is Michael Cohen, a former attorney for Trump. After being caught between a rock and a hard place, he entered a plea deal with prosecutors in which he will face some jail time but avoid a harsher fate.
The most relevant guilty plea from Cohen is that he committed a campaign finance violation by doling out “hush money” to women who were allegedly entangled with Trump and wanted to sell their scandalous stories to the tabloids.
That certainly doesn’t make Trump look like a saint, but such payouts are not uncommon, and the deals happened before he became president. Unscrupulous or openly illegal? Experts are split on the answer.
The Conservative Tribune, a brand of The Western Journal, reached out to Dan Backer, an attorney with extensive experience in campaign finance law. In an exclusive interview, Backer detailed how Trump’s alleged actions — with Cohen as the intermediary — were likely not illegal.
However, even some conservative-leaning legal experts disagreed and warned that the scandal could soon deepen.
“Prosecutors have told us through these filings that they have evidence the president committed a felony,” Fox News’ Shepard Smith summarized on Wednesday.
“The felony is paying Michael Cohen to commit a felony,” added Judge Andrew Napolitano, a legal expert and frequent Fox contributor.
But investigators claiming that they have evidence of a felony is very different from proving it in court.
“They must corroborate (Cohen’s testimony) through other people, or through documents, or through wires, or through emails,” Napolitano explained. “We don’t know if they have evidence of intent.”
The former judge pointed out that if the Cohen-facilitated payouts were intended to help Trump win the 2016 election, they could be seen as campaign expenditures — “the failure to report which is a felony,” he summarized.
But that’s a lot of “ifs,” and campaign finance expert Dan Backer is far less convinced that the scandal will destroy Trump.
“Companies spend money all day long, if their owners/principals are running for office it doesn’t make that spending a campaign contribution,” Backer told the Conservative Tribune.
He knows what he’s talking about. “Backer has served as counsel to over 40 campaigns & candidates, PACs, and political organizations,” his official bio says. “He has filed more than a dozen (Federal Election Committee) Advisory Opinion Requests, numerous lawsuits against the FEC, and regularly represents political law clients before the FEC.”
In the legal expert’s view, it would be very difficult to prove that the tabloid payouts were anything other than routine for a billionaire playboy like Trump, and tying them to the presidential campaign would be tricky.
“So the payments, especially if part of an ongoing pattern of such behavior, were almost certainly legal, and not FEC reportable,” Backer continued.
There’s certainly a grey area around the time that Trump began running for president, which is made more vague by the fact that Trump’s name is also his business brand. Where was the line between presidential ambitions and his well-known business dealings?
“The president says he reimbursed an agent for a private business transaction,” Backer said about the Trump-Cohen dealings. “The Democrats are saying that he made an unreported campaign contribution/expenditure.”
Yet even if the latter is proven true, the reality is that FEC violations occur within politics all the time. Candidates on both sides often make mistakes with campaign finance, purposeful or not, and these incur routine fines instead of felonies.
There’s also the fact that Mueller’s probe was ostensibly about collusion with Russia; while the Cohen-connected payoffs are certainly a scandal, they seem to be a long way from the special counsel’s mission.
“(An FEC violation) at worst is a trivial violation error which could be cured by an amendment or minor fine,” the campaign finance expert said. “Under the law creating and regulating the activity, I don’t see how they can criminally prosecute this.”
If that’s true, why did Cohen cut a deal with prosecutors? Backer believes that the answer is fear.
“Cohen’s plea speaks to his state of mind and what he thought might be going on, but isn’t backed up by any other evidence, and is the desperate words of a man facing jail time,” he said. “He’s an attorney who is betraying his own client — it’s the lowest of the low, and he’d say or do anything to spare … hard jail time.”
How this situation will play out is anyone’s guess, but one thing is for sure: Everyone who has dismissed Trump in the past has been wrong. While Democrats are salivating at the thought of bringing down the president, it would be a mistake to count him out just yet.
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