Trump's Comments On Hush Money Payments From Michael Cohen Could Hurt His Case

Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

A day after his former attorney pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, President Trump discussed Michael Cohen's hush money payments with the hosts of Fox & Friends Wednesday. Although Trump claimed no wrongdoing, he also acknowledged that he knew about Cohen's payments and reimbursed him for them. In doing so, the president may have inadvertently confessed to committing a crime himself, according to a former White House ethics chief.

On Tuesday, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight felonies. Two of them centered on payment to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, both of whom claim to have had extramarital affairs with Trump years ago, during the 2016 election (Trump denies those affairs). Cohen, during his plea hearing on Tuesday, told a judge that he arranged for those payments to be made, which totaled $280,000, at the direction of a candidate for federal office, and with the goal of influencing the outcome of the election. As such, prosecutors argued that they were effectively undisclosed campaign contributions that exceeded federal limits.

Trump attempted to argue otherwise during his Fox & Friends interview, a portion of which aired Wednesday.

"Later on, I knew," Trump said when host Ainsley Earhardt asked if he knew about Cohen's payments. "Later on. But you have to understand, Ainsley: What he did — and they weren't taken out of campaign finance, that's the big thing. That's a much bigger thing: Did they come out of the campaign? They didn't come out of the campaign. They came from me." Trump later claimed that, because the payments came out of his own pocket, "it's not even a campaign violation."

But according to former White House ethics chief Norman Eisen, Trump may have accidentally implicated himself in a crime by making those comments.

"The striking thing about the video we just watched is that the president, in his usual clumsy way, has stumbled into another federal crime," Eisen said on CNN. "He just said, 'Yes, I know about the payments.' He repaid Michael Cohen. He had to list that on his [financial disclosure] form. He omitted it."

As several observers noted, Trump is flat-out wrong about how campaign finance law works. The fact that Cohen's payments didn't come from official campaign coffers doesn't exonerate anybody; rather, that's specifically why they were criminal.

Cohen admitted that, by paying off Daniels and McDougal to the tune of nearly $300,000, he broke federal laws that prohibit individuals from donating more than $2,700 to political campaigns. Trump, in his Fox & Friends interview, acknowledged that he reimbursed Cohen for this payment.

Campaigns, unlike individuals, are allowed to make large expenditures. Had Trump and Cohen paid off Daniels and McDougal using money from the campaign's official fund, and then disclosed those payments in its disclosure forms, everything would have been completely legal. But that's not what happened, which is why Cohen pleaded guilty to felony campaign finance violations.

“That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the law,” Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told the New York Daily News. “It’s not a question of the money coming out of the campaign but the money going into the campaign. The payments were made for the benefit of the campaign.”

In addition to possibly implicating himself in a felony as Eisen suggested, Trump also contradicted his own previous claim that he knew nothing about the payment to Daniels by acknowledging that in fact, he not only knew about it but funded it himself.