I couldn’t care less whether in 2006 Donald Trump had a sexual affair with pornographic film actress Stephanie Clifford — known professionally as Stormy Daniels — only months after his wife, Melania, gave birth to their son, Barron.
I do care, however, if within one month of the presidential election, Republican candidate Trump’s personal lawyer Michael D. Cohen paid hush money to Clifford/Daniels to keep the affair secret. True, the porn star is not, at least to the best of my knowledge, a public official. She has no public or legal duties to discharge. A payment of hush money to her, therefore, is unlikely to be illegal.
But campaign finance laws are there to ensure the integrity of our elections and the democratic process. And I do care about those things very much. I have written reams about end runs around our election laws, primarily here in our nation’s capital. I care just as much about those provisions at the federal level.
Hush-money negotiations and payments to Clifford, as described in the Wall Street Journal and other publications, ought to draw the attention — and anger — of anyone concerned about the conduct of candidates in the 2016 presidential campaign.
The allegations are detailed in a complaint that watchdog Common Cause filed with the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission. Essentially, they boil down to this: In October 2016, a few weeks before voters went to the polls, Trump’s personal lawyer Cohen arranged the payment of $130,000 to Clifford to not speak about any alleged encounter she had with Trump. That payment, Common Cause alleges, was an unreported in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign because it was “paid for the purpose of influencing the 2016 presidential general election”; and, if so, it was required to be publicly reported. Furthermore, if the source of the $130,000 was the Trump Organization — which Cohen has denied — the money would represent an impermissible corporate contribution.
Lawyers will argue about whether the payment has any legal implication for the Trump presidency — did he know about, was he the source of, or did he direct the payment to Clifford? The Common Cause complaint is designed to get at those questions.
But there is more to this than the potential trespassing of campaign finance rules. It is about the possibility that the candidate who was elected president of the United States paid or ordered to be paid money to someone to conceal something he privately did — payoff money to keep information about him secret from the voters.
Trump’s alleged stifling of information about his behavior is profoundly relevant to the broad issues raised by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into interference in the 2016 election.
We have been learning a lot about the 45th president of the United States and undoubtedly will be learning more in the coming weeks and months. Things he doesn’t want us to know about him, facts, pesky and shameful facts he doesn’t want to come out about how he landed where he is and with whose help, either foreign or domestic.
And unlike what may or may not have happened with Stormy Daniels, what has already emerged and may yet be disclosed about Trump’s campaign through the special counsel’s investigation will be very much in the public interest and is clearly the American people’s business.
And I care very much about that.
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