Americans have a right to know who is spending money to influence our elections — whether it’s the hundreds of millions of dollars from unknown sources that has flooded into federal elections since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision or the $130,000 in hush money paid to a porn star days before the 2016 presidential election.
Rudy Giuliani has gone on a media spree recently to defend his new client, President Donald Trump, against the numerous investigations engulfing his chaotic presidency. But rather than make everything go away, Giuliani’s recent admissions have added quite a bit more fuel to one of the president’s more salacious scandals — the payment that Michael Cohen, Trump's self-described "fix-it guy," made to Stormy Daniels to prevent her from speaking about her relationship with Trump.
Voters should be able to follow the money and decide for themselves who can best represent their community in elected office.
Transparency is key to accountability in a democracy like ours. And it’s a core pillar of our campaign finance laws, along with contribution limits that curb corruption and its appearance. Voters should be able to follow the money and decide for themselves who can best represent their community in elected office. The past few weeks have raised several new red flags regarding the Trump campaign’s finances — red flags that need to be investigated.
As the former counsel to a commissioner at the Federal Election Commission (FEC), I reviewed many enforcement matters at the agency — from the complex to the mundane. The Stormy Daniels case is easily one that should move forward in the enforcement process. It is not even a close call.
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It’s obvious that the $130,000 had the purpose of influencing the election by silencing Daniels. When Cohen set up a shell company in Delaware to wire the money to her days before the 2016 election, Trump’s campaign was still reeling from the leaked Access Hollywood audiotape of Trump bragging about sexual assault. Meanwhile, Daniels was in discussions with news outlets to reveal her alleged affair with Trump from a decade prior. After she received the six-figure sum from Cohen, Daniels’ story went unreported.
Campaigns are required to report all contributions. This includes spending that is done on a campaign’s behalf and coordinated with the campaign.
Campaigns are required to report all contributions. This includes spending that is done on a campaign’s behalf and coordinated with the campaign. It’s considered an in-kind contribution. Trump’s campaign never reported the money transaction in its FEC disclosure forms, even though Cohen was acting on behalf of Trump when he wired the money to Daniels. Common Cause, a nonpartisan government watchdog organization where I work with the legal team, filed complaints in January with the FEC and the Justice Department to investigate the source of the $130,000.
In response to the complaints, Michael Cohen acknowledged in March that he used personal funds to “facilitate” the payment — including money from a home equity line of credit. Giuliani now claims that, in fact, Trump reimbursed Cohen because he “made it go away. He did his job.”
What resulted is a cascading series of potential campaign finance violations. Giuliani’s comments about the president’s involvement indicate that some of these violations could turn out to be what federal campaign finance law calls “knowing and willful,” which are criminal violations.
Giuliani’s comments about the president’s involvement indicate that some of these violations could be what federal campaign finance law calls “knowing and willful,” which are criminal violations.
For example, Cohen could be investigated for illegally exceeding the $2,700 campaign contribution limit as well as for setting up a shell corporation to hide the money, which violates the corporate contribution ban; Trump could also be investigated for reimbursing Cohen if that was intended to hide the spending; and Trump and his campaign could be investigated for filing false and misleading campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission. Trump can no longer credibly claim ignorance, although when exactly he learned about the payments remains a matter of debate.
And more shoes may yet drop. Giuliani told the Washington Post that “the original payment from Cohen was sometime right before the election. The repayments took place over a period of time, probably in 2017, probably all paid back by the end of 2017. That and probably a few other situations that might have been considered campaign expenses.”
What are these “other situations?” In April, the FBI raided Cohen’s office and residences, searching in part for records of payments to Daniels and also possibly another woman, Karen McDougal, who similarly alleges she had an affair with Trump. Common Cause filed complaints in that matter, too, following reports that the National Enquirer’s parent company made a $150,000 payment to “catch and kill” McDougal’s story after discussing the matter with Cohen.
Trump is not above the law. As the multiple investigations into Trump advance — including special counsel Robert Mueller’s — Americans must stand firm to this core principle.
Giuliani’s admissions show that Trump acted anything but transparently, choosing instead to funnel cash through various entities, with an apparent goal to keep the campaign-related spending secret.
It is the job of the FEC and the Justice Department to enforce our campaign finance laws on the civil and criminal sides, respectively. Both play a pivotal role in upholding the laws that protect the integrity of our system. Public reports indicate that the Justice Department is carrying out its responsibility, and we must do our part to hold the FEC accountable even in the wake of the “dysfunction and deadlock” that often grips its proceedings.
Trump is not above the law. As the multiple investigations into Trump advance — including special counsel Robert Mueller’s — Americans must stand firm to this core principle. We have no other choice. Even before this disgraceful episode in our nation’s history is over, we must work together to restore balance to a system that sorely needs it. Our democracy needs repair. But it is resilient.
Stephen Spaulding is chief of strategy with Common Cause. He previously served as special counsel to former FEC Commissioner Ann M. Ravel.