President Donald Trump broke his silence about his former lawyer Michael Cohen on Wednesday morning on Twitter (where else?), and he did not disappoint.
He opened as he usually does, attacking Cohen personally:
“If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!”
Yawn. Not much to get excited about there. But then he tweeted this:
“Michael Cohen plead guilty to two counts of campaign finance violations that are not a crime. President Obama had a big campaign finance violation and it was easily settled!”
Umm, what Cohen admitted to doing was clearly a crime.
The payments he arranged, or made to, porn star Stormy Daniels (real name: Stephanie Clifford) and former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal constituted campaign donations to the Trump campaign because they were done, as Cohen said under oath Tuesday, to influence the outcome of the presidential election.
And as such, they were larger than the law permits and went illegally unreported. Plus, Cohen said he knew what he was doing, which constitutes criminal intent.
So why is this not a crime? It’s often hard to parse Trump’s reasoning, but he noted that President Barack Obama wasn’t charged criminally when his re-election campaign violated reporting requirements in 2012. If the Federal Election Commission didn’t send the SWAT team after Obama, why not let Cohen off with a civil fine too?
Because there’s a big difference between failing to report a flurry of thousand-dollar donations in a billion-dollar campaign quickly enough (the Obama campaign offense) and deliberately concealing a pair of huge hush-money payments (what Cohen pleaded guilty to doing). The former looks like an inadvertent error, the latter was clearly an attempt to avoid a potentially damaging pair of scandals.
We know now that Trump’s 2016 campaign had a jaw-dropping ability to survive revelations about the candidate’s infidelity. It’s entirely possible that Clifford and McDougal could have sold their stories to the tabloids, made the talk show circuit in the weeks before the election, and the results would have been the same.
But that’s not the reality we are dealing with. The reality is that Michael Cohen admitted to a crime and implicated Trump in the process. No amount of whataboutism can change that.
Jon Healey is the deputy editorial page editor for the Los Angeles Times.