This is not trivial wrongdoing, no matter how Mr. Trump may now try to minimize it. Even before raising the question of possible criminality, it is clear that his campaign perpetrated a fraud against the voters. The information Mr. Cohen paid to conceal may or may not have changed the outcome of the election, but voters should have been permitted to decide that for themselves. There’s a reason Mr. Trump has been serially dishonest about the matter.
As details have emerged, some Republicans rushed to the president’s defense. “There are thousands and thousands of rules,” said Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.). “You can make anything a crime under the current laws,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah). To “say there’s an impeachable offense because of a campaign finance problem, there’s a lot of members of Congress who would have to leave,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), in a worrying statement in its own right.
Whether Mr. Trump committed a crime is not clear from available information. On Twitter on Thursday, Mr. Trump argued that he relied on Mr. Cohen’s legal expertise, so it was not his fault if his fixer broke the law. Campaign finance violations have to be willful. But the president has nevertheless been credibly accused of orchestrating a crime. That matters, for two reasons.
First, this was not some minor oversight, a failure to check a box on a bureaucratic form. It was a conspiracy to withhold information from the voting public. Combating the underhanded use of private cash is one reason for campaign finance laws. Flouting these laws, wilfully or no, undermines the democratic system.
Second, the president is sworn to uphold the law. When a president is credibly connected to the commission of a crime, he should apologize and recognize that he must be held to the highest expectations. His party, a supporter of law and order when it is convenient, demeans itself now by declaring some law-breaking to be acceptable.