Opinion writer

The news contained in the fusillade of new legal filings relating to President Trump can be summed up this way: Federal prosecutors are now alleging that Trump personally directed a criminal conspiracy that helped get him elected, and have plainly signaled that they have learned a lot more about collusion with Russia’s efforts to sabotage our democracy than is publicly known.

Trump just offered his first substantive response to the first of these — the news contained in the legal filing from prosecutors in the Southern District of New York about former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. They allege that “in coordination with and at the direction” of the president himself, Cohen carried out two hush-money payments to women who claimed affairs “with the intent to influence the 2016 presidential election.” They allege that Cohen committed “illegal campaign contributions,” a felony designed to help secure Trump the presidency — at Trump’s personal direction.

On this matter, Trump just tweeted the following:

Putting aside the obvious reality that Trump can’t simply convert these payments into a legally insignificant “private transaction” by sheer force of tweet, the very fact that Trump believes this is exonerating itself actually exposes the depths of his own corruption.

The thread connecting the hush-money payments to Trump Tower Moscow

The connecting thread in much of what we’ve learned as part of the latest round of revelations is that Trump likely has now defrauded the American electorate in not one, but two, ways. First, via these hush-money payments. And second, by concealing his ongoing negotiations with Russia over a real estate project that promised to be extremely lucrative — during the very period in which GOP primary voters were choosing their presidential nominee.

In both these cases, Trump has now justified this apparent deception by claiming that they were private transactions. In other words, Trump is explicitly saying that because these were private, keeping them concealed from voters was perfectly defensible.

But this justification is itself deeply corrupt. In the case of the hush-money revelations, prosecutors say that with these payments, Cohen not only circumvented legal limits on campaign contributions but also “struck a blow” to “transparency,” a “core goal” of “federal campaign finance laws,” by “orchestrating secret and illegal payments” that “deceived the voting public” by depriving it of “facts” that “he believed would have had a substantial effect on the election.”

To be clear, the allegation here is also that Trump directed this illegal act that “deceived the voting public.” For this reason, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and even right-leaning legal analyst Andrew McCarthy, a longtime Russia-probe skeptic, now say Trump probably faces indictment, probably after he leaves office. Crucially, McCarthy notes that prosecutors are also alleging that Cohen and Trump’s company “went to great lengths to conceal” the illegal contributions “by fraudulent bookkeeping.”

Trump shrugs that this was merely a “private transaction.” But beyond the fact that Trump actually is criminally exposed right now, all this really means is that he sees no problem with massively defrauding the voters by denying them information about extremely consequential expenditures on his campaign — expenditures that themselves were designed to conceal still more information from voters about his conduct — if he can define this act as a “private transaction.”

The ‘private transaction’ excuse

This is the through line that links the Cohen matter directly to another set of new revelations. In special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s new legal filing about Cohen, we are told new information about Trump’s private business dealings with Russia during the 2016 campaign. We previously learned from Cohen that he lied to Congress about Trump’s efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, which continued through at least June 2016, after Trump clinched the GOP nomination, something that Trump, too, repeatedly lied about.

The new Mueller filing on Cohen tells us more. It says that Cohen provided useful information concerning “Russia-related matters core” to the special counsel’s investigation -- that is, concerning conspiracy with Russian sabotage of the election. But the new filing also says Cohen “described the circumstances of preparing and circulating” that false testimony on Trump Tower Moscow to Congress.

This means prosecutors are suggesting that Cohen might have implicated others in Trump’s orbit in the act of preparing this lie to Congress — again, about Trump’s business dealings with Russia. As white-collar crime specialist Randall Eliason points out: “Anyone else involved would potentially be implicated in a coverup conspiracy.”

Note that Trump has also justified this lying designed to conceal these dealings with another version of the “private transaction” excuse. As he recently put it:

“I was running my business while I was campaigning ... There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gone back into the business and why should I lose lots of opportunities?”

But during this very period of concealed dealings with Russia, Trump repeatedly talked up Russian President Vladimir Putin (whose approval was needed for his project) to GOP primary voters, and argued for better dealings with Putin, presenting these as good-faith proposals in the national interest, without disclosing that he had a tremendous financial stake in this argument as well. Trump also absolved Putin of blame for interfering in our election — helping Russia to mislead U.S. voters — again while these concealed private dealings with him were underway.

But for Trump, the mere fact that his activities were related to his private businesses itself justifies concealing them from voters. The idea that voters might be entitled to know about them while deciding whether to elect him president simply does not enter the equation for Trump — since, after all, in both these cases, the private activities were designed to benefit him, whether financially or politically. (Notably, this is also why he has refused to divest in his private interests or reveal his tax returns, which again deprives voters of the knowledge they need to evaluate whether his public actions are being undertaken in the national interest, or in his own.)

All this isn’t a defense. It’s yet another admission of the degree to which he’s placing his own interests before those of the country -- an admission, that is, of the depths of his own corruption.

Read more by Greg Sargent:

Trump’s new pick for attorney general will face intense scrutiny. Here’s what he’ll have to answer.

Trump is failing everywhere. Here are some fresh signs of it.

Democrats have a big opportunity to deal Trump a crushing blow

Mueller’s new Michael Flynn memo strengthens obstruction case against Trump