Orrin Hatch: I don't care if federal prosecutors think Trump committed a crime

Lotta good lines here but my favorite is “You can make anything a crime under the current laws if you want to.” It’s as if POTUS could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a single vote.

I’m surprised there are any congressional Republicans who are already at the “don’t care” stage of presidential apologetics. Read this CNN piece quoting various GOP senators and you’ll find there are many milder stages, all of which seem more appropriate at a moment when Trump hasn’t yet been formally accused of breaking the law. (Although the Cohen filing on Friday got close.)

Stage one: It’s too early to say. (John Thune, Susan Collins.) Trump might be in trouble but until a prosecutor somewhere claims he’s committed a crime there’s nothing to talk about.

Stage two: The campaign-finance case against him is based on testimony from known liar and moron Michael Cohen. (Chuck Grassley, John Kennedy.) It’s true that Cohen is a liar and a moron but probably *not* true that the feds suspect Trump based purely on what Cohen has told them. You don’t accuse a sitting president of the United States of having directed the commission of a federal crime based on nothing but a convict’s say-so. They’ve got more.

Stage three: When Obama’s campaign ran into campaign-finance trouble, it was treated as a civil matter. Double standard! (Trump himself made this argument today.) Right, but John Edwards’s hush-money payments were treated as a criminal matter. That’s the direct precedent here, an allegedly knowing attempt to circumvent federal reporting rules to cover up a scandal that might damage a candidate’s campaign. And the facts in Trump’s case are worse than the facts were in Edwards’s case, as the NYT described today. There was a semi-plausible argument based on the timing of payments in Edwards’s case that they were made to spare his family from embarrassment, not to influence the election. The payoff to Stormy Daniels a few weeks before Election Day 2016 is much harder to explain away as unrelated to the election. And the evidence of improper motive in Edwards’s case was thin because there were no witnesses to corroborate it. There is a witness, however dubious he may be, in Trump’s case. And there may be hard evidence too.

Stage four: This happened before he was president, it’s not something he did while in office. (Orrin Hatch, Alan Simpson.) This is the stage where the arguments start to shift from “he committed no crime” to “even if he committed a crime…” It’s true that Trump hadn’t been sworn in yet, or even elected, when the Stormy payment was made but (a) the whole point of the charges against Cohen is that he paid off Daniels to try to influence the election without reporting it. The deed was done with Trump’s prospective presidency in mind. It’s not like this was some rando business deal from before he entered politics. And (b) even if it was an old crime, so what? No president from either party is supposed to get a de facto pardon on criminal activity by dint of having won an election. There’s an argument that a sitting president should not, and cannot, be charged with a crime while in office. There’s no argument that he shouldn’t ever be charged, period. And remember: The Cohen filing suggested without naming names that certain people had encouraged him to lie to Congress under oath. If Trump is one of those people then that did happen during his presidency. And that’s a bigger deal than a mistress payoff.

Stage five: This is a Democratic-fueled partisan witch hunt. (Orrin Hatch, John Kennedy.) This is the stage where defenders basically admit that he probably committed a crime and focus on the unfairness of the process instead. Campaign-finance offenses are a long way away from Russia collusion, noted Kennedy to CNN. “The Democrats will do anything to hurt this President,” added Hatch. But although some evidence in the Cohen prosecution was gathered by Mueller, the case itself has been pursued by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan. It might have been pursued anyway even without Mueller’s involvement given the endless drum-beating in the media by Daniels and Michael Avenatti. The “witch hunt” argument is harder against career prosecutors in a local DOJ outfit than it is against Mueller.

Stage six: I don’t care. (Orrin Hatch.) This is the fingers-in-the-ear end stage, after prosecutors have produced evidence against Trump and impeachment is suddenly on the table. If they’ve got the goods, the defense of last resort is simply to say, “Doesn’t matter. So long as the economy’s good he can break whichever laws he likes.” We’re still a long way away from this stage. Why’s Hatch leaping to it? Presumably it’s because he’ll be an ex-senator in a few weeks and is in DGAF mode. Although that raises a question: If he’s no longer beholden to Trump or to voters, why say this? He can’t really mean to imply that it’s okay for the president to commit crimes if you like his policies.

A source “close to the White House” told CNN elsewhere that Trump’s White House aides think the Cohen matter, not Russiagate, is the only one that might “stick,” which seems counterintuitive but makes sense. If Mueller doesn’t find evidence of an underlying Russia-related crime by Trump, it’d be hard to convince the Senate to remove him for obstruction of justice. What justice would have been “obstructed” in the end if Mueller is able to complete his investigation, after all? (There *is* potential witness tampering, I suppose.) I think it’d be hard to convince them to remove him for lying about hush money to a mistress too, even if there’s smoking-gun proof. The crime is so tawdry, and Daniels’s silence seemingly so negligible in affecting the outcome of the election that the Senate won’t pull the trigger. But if it turns out that Trump encouraged Cohen to lie under oath? That’s a big deal. I don’t know how the feds would prove that to skeptics’ satisfaction — it’ll take more than Cohen’s testimony — but that’s the most dangerous threat to Trump right now.

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