Republicans on the FEC block probe of Trump for 2016 hush money crime

Republicans on the FEC block probe of Trump for 2016 hush money crime
President Donald J. Trump disembarks Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House Wednesday evening, Aug. 21, 2019, returning from his trip to the American Veterans (AMVETS) 75th National Convention in Louisville, KY. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

On Thursday, the Federal Election Commission announced that it had officially dropped an investigation into whether or not former President Donald Trump violated U.S. election law before the 2016 presidential election because of a $130,000 payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels made by his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen. FEC Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub and FEC Chair Shana Broussard, both Democrats, addressed the FEC's decision in a letter sent that day, laying out their reasons for disagreeing with it.

Weintraub, on Thursday afternoon, tweeted:

Cohen has testified before Congress that in 2016, he made the $130,000 payment to Daniels on Trump's behalf as a form of hush money; Trump, Cohen said, wanted Daniels to keep quiet about having an extramarital affair with him. And according to Cohen, hush money was separately paid to Karen McDougal, a Playboy model who also said that Trump had an extramarital affair with her.

In their letter, Weintraub and Broussard explain, "Michael D. Cohen, the former personal attorney of Donald J. Trump, pleaded guilty to making an excessive contribution to the Trump campaign by paying $130,000 to Stephanie Clifford, a/k/a Stormy Daniels, just days before the 2016 election, to prevent her from disclosing an alleged 2006 sexual relationship with Trump. Under penalty of perjury, Cohen admitted to delivering the payment to Clifford 'for the principal purpose of influencing the election.' For this and other charges, he was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay $1.39 million in restitution, $500,000 in forfeiture, and $100,000 in fines."

The FEC, Weintraub and Broussard note in their letter, received "a series of complaints alleging that Cohen, Trump, and others committed various violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971" because of the money paid to Daniels.

"The available information indicates that at the direction of Trump, for the purpose of influencing the election, Cohen formed a limited liability corporation he used to route $130,000 to Clifford in exchange for her nondisclosure agreement," they point out. "Clifford did not publicize her allegations prior to the 2016 election."

The FEC officials observe that Cohen "appears to have learned about Clifford's interest in selling her account of the alleged affair on October 8, 2016." Cohen, Weintraub and Broussard write, "entered into negotiations with Clifford's attorney, Keith Davidson, to prevent the publication of Clifford's account."

According to Weintraub and Broussard, "Those negotiations culminated in Cohen forming an LLC and transferring $130,000 from a home equity line of credit through the LLC to Davidson on October 27, 2016. After the election, he was reportedly reimbursed in installments from either Trump's personal account or the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust. Cohen testified before Congress that the goal of the payment structure was to keep Trump as 'far away from it as possible.'"

Weintraub and Broussard make it clear that regardless of how their Republican colleagues at the FEC voted, they do not believe that Trump's hands were clean in the $130,000 payment made by Cohen to Daniels in October 2016.

Weintraub and Broussard write, "There is ample evidence in the record to support the finding that Trump and the Committee (Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.) knew of, and nonetheless accepted, the illegal contributions at issue here. Indeed, Cohen provided testimony under penalty of perjury that Trump not only knew about the payment, but himself directed Cohen to orchestrate the scheme. And the Commission's interests in seeing the law enforced with respect to Trump, the Committee, and the Trump Organization have in no way been vindicated."

Nonetheless, Weintraub and Broussard lament that their colleagues at the FEC "voted to dismiss the allegations." And they conclude their letter by saying, "The Commission, therefore, did not have enough votes to pursue well-grounded charges that the former president of the United States knowingly and willfully accepted contributions nearly 5000% over the legal limit to suppress a negative story mere days before Election Day."

The New York Times' Shane Goldmacher reports that Trump, in response to the FEC dropping the investigation, thanked them for ending "the phony case against me concerning payments to women relative to the 2016 presidential election." But Cohen has a very different view of the FEC's decision.

When Cohen made the $130,000 payment to Daniels in October 2016, he was very much a Trump loyalist and was happy to be a part of the Trump Organization. But Cohen later turned against Trump in a major way and became a scathing critic.

Cohen told the Times, "The hush money payment was done at the direction of and for the benefit of Donald J. Trump. Like me, Trump should have been found guilty. How the FEC committee could rule any other way is confounding."

According to Goldmacher, the FEC decided against continuing to pursue the investigation back in February — although the decision wasn't announced until Thursday of this week.

Goldmacher reports, "The election commission — split evenly between three Republicans and three Democratic-aligned commissioners — declined to proceed in a closed-door meeting in February. Two Republican commissioners voted to dismiss the case while two Democratic commissioners voted to move forward. There was one absence and one Republican recusal…. Two of the Democratic commissioners on the FEC, Shana Broussard, the current chairwoman, and Ellen Weintraub, objected to not pursuing the case after the agency's staff had recommended further investigation."

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