During an interview with David Frost in 1977, Richard Nixon explained what he believed a president was allowed to do in order to protect “national security,” saying that “when the president [breaks the law]…it is not illegal.”
This is not perhaps the ideal defense strategy for President Trump, nor his crew of loyalists on Capitol Hill — but it appears they’re trying it anyway.
The most recent court filings from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office and the Southern District of New York reveal Trump directed former lawyer Michael Cohen to make hush money payments to two women who claimed to have had affairs with the president, ahead of the 2016 election — allegations that might have prevented Trump from being elected president if they went public. Trump was also pursuing a business deal in Moscow shortly before clinching the GOP nomination, about which Cohen lied to Congress.
Directing one’s lawyer to commit multiple felonies to win an election is itself a felony. Trump and his allies, however, are now claiming that while Trump may have taken part in such acts, none of them should be considered crimes.
On Monday, the president tweeted that the two payments — one to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and a second unfulfilled payment arrangement to former Playboy model Karen McDougal — were instead “a simple private transaction,” not a campaign contribution. If the payments were indeed crimes, he wrote, they were Cohen’s fault.
Trump then pivoted to attacking his predecessor, President Barack Obama.
“‘…No Smocking [sic] Gun…No Collusion,'” he wrote, appearing to quote Fox News. “That’s because there was NO COLLUSION. So now the Dems go to a simple private transaction, wrongly call it a campaign contribution, which it was not (but even if it was it is only it is only a CIVIL CASE, like Obama’s – but it was done correctly by a lawyer and there would not even be a fine. Lawyer’s liability if he made a mistake, not me). Cohen just trying to get his sentence reduced. WITCH HUNT!”
“Democrats can’t find a Smocking Gun tying the Trump campaign to Russia after James Comey’s testimony. No Smocking Gun…No Collusion.” @FoxNews That’s because there was NO COLLUSION. So now the Dems go to a simple private transaction, wrongly call it a campaign contribution,…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 10, 2018
….which it was not (but even if it was, it is only a CIVIL CASE, like Obama’s – but it was done correctly by a lawyer and there would not even be a fine. Lawyer’s liability if he made a mistake, not me). Cohen just trying to get his sentence reduced. WITCH HUNT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 10, 2018
Rather than countering Trump’s dismissive (and false) rhetoric, congressional Republicans who previously called for rigorous oversight have eagerly lined up to defend the president.
Incoming House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) downplayed Trump’s involvement with the two payments and the Moscow deal during an interview Monday morning on Fox News.
“I think what it shows, if the president hires an attorney to solve a problem, he expects him to do it in a legal manner,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy then referred to comments from potential incoming chair of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (D-CA), who one day earlier had suggested Trump might “face the real prospect of jail time” as a result of Mueller’s investigation.
“If Schiff is taking this beyond to go forward and say there is an impeachable offense because of a campaign finance problem… there are a lot of members in Congress who would have to leave for that same [reason],” McCarthy said.
McCarthy also said congressional investigations were too small of an agenda for America.
McCarthy previously admitted in September 2015 the costly investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handling of Benghazi was intended as part of a political strategy “to fight and win” by bringing down Clinton’s poll numbers.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) similarly told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Sunday’s Meet the Press that he thought America had “over-criminalized campaign finance.”
“I don’t know what’s illegal about building a hotel in Russia,” he said. “… We have to decide whether or not criminal penalties are the way we should approach criminal finance.”
Paul argued that fines were a more appropriate punishment for campaign finance violations than jail time.
Asked about Cohen’s false statements to Congress regarding the Moscow real estate deal, Paul said, “I guess I don’t quite understand it because I don’t know what’s illegal about trying to build a hotel in Russia. So this is pretty common, and I see no problem with someone running for president trying to build a hotel somewhere.”
Building a hotel in Russia is not illegal. Lying to investigators about how late into the presidential campaign Trump pursued the deal would be illegal. And further, the early communication with someone claiming to be a “trusted person” in the Russian Federation who offered “synergy on a government level” with the Trump campaign is central to the legal question at the heart of the Russia investigation: whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin to influence the 2016 election.
Paul added, “If we get this way and if we’re going to prosecute people and put them in jail for campaign finance violations, we’ve become a banana republic where every president gets prosecuted and everybody gets thrown in jail when they’re done with office.”
Hatch added this when asked if he was concerned about allegations.
“No because I don’t think he was involved in crimes but even then, you know, you can make anything a crime under the current laws; if you want to you can blow it way out of proportion you can do a lot of things.”
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) December 10, 2018
On Monday evening, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also told CNN’s Manu Raju that he was not concerned about Trump being implicated in a felony. “The Democrats will do anything to hurt this president,” he claimed.
When Raju explained the implication had come from a document filed by the Southern District of New York, Hatch doubled down.
“Okay but I don’t care,” he said. “All I can say is he’s doing a good job as president.”
He added “you can make anything a crime under the current laws.”
Hatch’s words contradicted his own past comments. In 1999, just before casting a vote to impeach President Bill Clinton, Hatch criticized the president for lying to the public about his affair with a White House intern.
“Committing crimes of moral turpitude such as perjury and obstruction of justice go to the heart of qualification for public office,” Hatch said at the time. “…This great nation can tolerate a President who makes mistakes. But it cannot tolerate one who makes a mistake and then breaks the law to cover it up. Any other citizen would be prosecuted for these crimes.”
In the past year and a half, both Trump and his supporters have moved the goal posts on the Mueller investigation several times, initially claiming the president had done nothing wrong and later changing their narrative to fit any developments out of Mueller’s office.
In June, nearly two years after he claimed he had no involvement with Russia whatsoever, Trump tweeted that he was allowed to pardon himself, but didn’t need to because he had committed no crimes.
“…Why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong?” he wrote. “In the meantime, the never ending Witch Hunt, led by 13 very Angry and Conflicted Democrats (& others) continues…!”