'I don't care': GOP soft-pedals campaign finance violations that could ensnare Trump

"Most of us have made mistakes when it comes to campaign finance issues," said Republican Sen. John Thune.
President Donald Trump answers questions from the press while departing the White House on Nov. 29, 2018.
President Donald Trump answers questions from the press while departing the White House on Nov. 29, 2018.Win McNamee / Getty Images

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By Allan Smith

A new talking point has emerged among top Republican leaders when asked about the latest filing from federal prosecutors regarding the hush payments President Donald Trump's former longtime lawyer Michael Cohen facilitated: It's all an honest mistake.

"These guys were all new to this at the time," Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican, said Monday of the Trump campaign in 2016. "Most of us have made mistakes when it comes to campaign finance issues. In many cases, campaigns end up paying fines and penalties. But I think it's too early to say one way or the other one this. I think we have to wait and see what ultimately comes down the pike from" the Southern District of New York.

Thune's comments echoed those by GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Trump ally, in an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday when he said the U.S. is "going to become a banana republic" if "we're going to prosecute people and put them in jail for campaign finance violations."

"I personally think that if someone makes an error in filing paperwork or in not categorizing a campaign contribution correctly, it shouldn't be jail time," Paul added. "It ought to be a fine. And so it's just like a lot of other things that we've done in Washington. We've over-criminalized campaign finance."

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In the Friday filing, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York put the weight of the government behind Cohen's earlier assertion in court that he paid off women to silence their allegations of affairs with Trump "in coordination with and at the direction of” the president.

In August, when Cohen pled guilty to eight federal felonies including two campaign-finance violations, he told a federal judge that Trump directed him to pay off two women — who appeared to be adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal — in order to secure their silence just weeks before the 2016 election. Prosecutors said Cohen facilitated the payments, which Cohen said under oath were made to boost Trump's candidacy. Cohen acknowledged in court at the time that he knew what he was doing was illegal.

The payments exceeded the maximum-allowed contribution and were not reported as the law requires.

Joining Thune and Paul, a handful of other prominent Republicans brushed aside the payments' significance. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah told CNN "I don't care" about what prosecutors alleged because Trump is "doing a good job as president."

"I don’t think he was involved in crimes," Hatch said, "but even then, you know, you can make anything a crime under the current laws."

Appearing on Fox News on Monday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said that if Trump could be impeached for the payments, well, a lot of his colleagues would head for the exits.

"To go forward and say there is an impeachable offense because of a campaign finance problem — there's a lot of members in Congress who are going to have to leave," he said.

Prosecutors did not directly accuse the president of a crime and they did not say that Trump knew the payments were illegal. The standard for criminal prosecution in a campaign-finance case is if the person was willfully and knowingly in violation of the law. If not, it results in a civil prosecution that could lead to a fine.

Tweeting about the payments on Monday, Trump wrote that "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 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)."

Trump, his lawyers and Republican allies have additionally compared the hush payments to the Justice Department's prosecution of former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina over similar payments to hide a mistress while he was running for president in 2008. Edwards' case made it to trial but he was acquitted on one count and the jury deadlocked on five others.

The White House and Trump's attorney, Rudy Giuliani, have labeled Cohen a liar who is seeking leniency. In their sentencing memo, federal prosecutors said Cohen should not get leniency for his crimes.