WASHINGTON — In an interview with Fox News Thursday morning, President Donald Trump said the payments that his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, admitted making to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal were not illegal.
"They weren't campaign finance," he said. "They came from me," adding, "They didn't come out of the campaign."
Does it matter that Trump paid the two women out of his own pocket, rather than using campaign funds? Yes, but it raises the possibility that he committed a campaign finance law violation — failure to report a campaign expense — that's different than the one to which Cohen pleaded guilty in federal court on Tuesday.
Both women have said they had sexual affairs with Trump, and both were paid while Trump was running for president. Prosecutors said the hush-money payments were essentially campaign contributions, because they were intended to suppress information that might have affected the outcome of the 2016 election.
In the case of McDougal, Cohen pleaded guilty to encouraging American Media, publisher of the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer, to pay McDougal $150,000 to keep quiet. That violated two campaign-finance laws: one that makes it illegal for a corporation to give money directly to a campaign, and another that limits how much any individual can contribute.
The Daniels case is different. If Trump had paid the money to her directly, that would not necessarily be illegal, if it had been accounted for correctly. A candidate can contribute any amount of money to his own campaign. But all such contributions have to be publicly reported as campaign expenditures, and the Daniels payment, which Trump clearly did not want disclosed, was not reported.
Cohen made the payment, and when he sought reimbursement from Trump, he described it as payment for "legal fees." That would suggest that it was an attempt to disguise what the payment was for, which could be a further campaign violation.
There are legal defenses available to both Trump and American Media. Trump could say the payment to Daniels was not to influence the campaign but was to save his marriage. American Media could say that as a news organization, it can make any arrangements it wants to publish or kill a story.
But after Cohen's confession, those defenses will be harder to make. Cohen said in court that he has evidence that the payments were made specifically to prevent damaging information from influencing the election.
Pete Williams reported from Washington, and Tom Winter reported from New York.