President Trump on Friday was implicated in a crime by federal prosecutors in New York.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch’s (R-Utah) response: What is a crime, even?
In an interview with CNN’s Manu Raju, Hatch basically shrugged his shoulders at the entire matter, in which both Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen and the prosecutors now say Trump directed Cohen to commit a campaign finance violation involving a secret $130,000 hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels.
“I don’t think he was involved in crimes,” Hatch said, “but even then, you know, you can make anything a crime under the current laws if you want to. You can blow it way out of proportion. You can do a lot of things.”
Hatch suggested it also didn’t matter to him because it came before Trump was president and because Trump is doing a good job. “The Democrats will do anything to hurt this president,” he said. When Raju noted that it was federal prosecutors and not Democrats who implicated Trump in a crime, Hatch said: “Okay, but I don’t care. All I can say is he’s doing a good job as president.”
The comments are shocking in and of themselves. Here is a U.S. senator (one whom Trump notably gave a Medal of Freedom one month ago) suggesting the law is completely malleable and that he doesn’t even care if the president committed a crime. Hatch is the longest-serving Republican senator and is retiring this year, so he won’t be around for any action the Senate takes in response to the Russia investigation findings.
But his comments are particularly striking when you consider what he has said before on the topic.
In August, by contrast, he said the allegation that Trump was involved in this campaign finance violation should be taken seriously.
"Those are some serious charges, and they can’t be ignored,” Hatch said. “I’m not very happy about it — I’ll put it that way — and [it] should have never happened to begin with.”
Hatch then allowed for the possibility that such things could lead to a debate over impeachment. “I wouldn’t go that far just yet,” Hatch said, before adding that “we have to take these matters very seriously. People ought to be treated equivalently around here.”
As a microcosm of Trump’s successful effort to lower the bar for himself — and the GOP’s willingness to contort itself to defend him — you would struggle to find many better examples. Here is the party that led the charge to impeach President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s (Hatch supported that effort) and has built itself as the “law and order” party. Now that the president has been implicated in a crime, as Raju notes, they’re rationalizing. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Monday even likened the hush-money payment to more routine minor campaign finance violations. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) added Sunday: “If we’re going to prosecute people and put them in jail for campaign finance violations, we’re going to become a banana republic.”
As I argued Monday, though, the crime here could theoretically have shifted the entire 2016 election, given how close it was. It’s also indisputable that Trump at the very least misled the public about his role in it. This was a bona fide coverup, regardless of whether the president himself committed a crime.
But over the course of the last year, Trump has drawn out the string, desensitized us with an onslaught of controversy and questionable actions, cast his own Justice Department as out to get him, and now has sitting U.S. senators who once professed to believe that the Cohen matter should be taken seriously pulling a total 180 when Trump is implicated.
It’s quite the trick.