President Trump asserted Monday that payments to buy the silence of two women about alleged affairs were not illegal campaign contributions, as federal prosecutors contend, but instead a “simple private transaction.”
In morning tweets, Trump sought to counter assertions in a court filing Friday that he had directed his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to try to silence the women in a bid to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Cohen has pleaded guilty to the alleged crime, saying he acted at Trump’s direction.
In his tweets, Trump suggested that the payments were being scrutinized only because investigators have not been able to find evidence of collusion between his 2016 campaign and Russia.
He also blamed Democrats for the scrutiny — a day after some high-profile members of the party appeared on Sunday talk shows and suggested Trump faces serious legal jeopardy.
“So now the Dems go to a simple private transaction, wrongly call it a campaign contribution, which it was not,” Trump wrote.
He further asserted that even if the payments could be considered campaign contributions, he should be facing a civil case rather than a criminal case. And he said, Cohen should be held responsible, not him.
“Lawyer’s liability if he made a mistake, not me,” Trump wrote. “Cohen just trying to get his sentence reduced. WITCH HUNT!”
In the tweets, Trump also twice misspelled “smoking gun” as “smocking gun” as he quoted a commentator on Fox News talking about the Russia probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Trump’s tweets were criticized Monday by several lawyers, both for their substance and for his public airing of a defense that could complicate matters if charges are ever brought against him.
Among those weighing in was George Conway, the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and a frequent critic of the president on Twitter and in op-eds. He seized on Trump’s assertion that Democrats were behind the scrutiny of the payments.
“No, the criminal campaign-finance violations were found by professional line prosecutors in a Republican-controlled United States Department of Justice,” Conway wrote. “It looks like a pretty good case. Kudos to them.”
At issue are the payments to two women who alleged sexual relationships with Trump before he ran for president.
In August 2016, Playboy model Karen McDougal reached an agreement with American Media Inc., publishers of the National Enquirer, that ensured she would not share her story about a lengthy relationship with Trump. In October of that year, adult film actress Stormy Daniels received $130,000 to similarly stay quiet about a liaison that she said had occurred a decade before.
Both of those agreements were facilitated by Cohen, as he admitted in court in August when he pleaded guilty to two campaign-finance charges, among others.
Prosecutors argue that because Cohen was an agent of the Trump campaign, the payments to McDougal and Daniels were campaign contributions in excess of federal limits and not unrelated expenditures.
“With respect to both payments, Cohen acted with the intent to influence the 2016 presidential election,” Friday’s filing from prosecutors in New York says. “Cohen coordinated his actions with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, and timing of the payments. In particular, and as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1.”
Elsewhere, filings from prosecutors make clear that Individual-1 refers to Trump.
During television appearances on Sunday, some high-profile Democrats suggested that Trump faces serious legal jeopardy.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that “there’s a very real prospect” that Trump may be indicted the day he leaves office and that he “may be the first president in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y), who will lead the Judiciary Committee starting next month, said that if the payments were found to violate campaign finance laws, it would be an impeachable offense. Nadler appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Trump has denied the allegations of affairs by McDougal and Daniels. In May, his lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, said the payment to Daniels was made “to resolve a personal and false allegation in order to protect the president’s family,” adding: “It would have been done in any event, whether he was a candidate or not.”
In trying to make the case that the payments to McDougal and Daniels should be a civil matter, rather than a criminal case, Trump pointed Monday to a civil fine paid by President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2013.
In April 2012, the Federal Election Commission released an audit of Obama’s 2008 campaign that found that his committee did not disclose the identities of 1,312 donors responsible for nearly $2 million in contributions in the final weeks of the campaign.
Under federal election law, campaigns must file special notices to the FEC of last-minute contributions of $1,000 or more that are received in the final weeks before Election Day.
Eight months after the audit, Obama’s campaign agreed to pay a $375,000 fine, which was one of the largest penalties in the agency’s history.
Philip Bump and Michelle Ye Hee Lee contributed to this report.