Plenty of attention has fallen on a Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 and its relation to the Russia-collusion probe. Donald Trump might actually have more to fear legally from an entirely different Trump Tower meeting and others like it. The Wall Street Journal reports this afternoon that witnesses and a document trail shows Trump actively took part in discussions to silence women claiming sexual affairs through payoffs, in one instance with an August 2015 meeting where Trump recruited National Enquirer publisher David Pecker to cut deals to keep them quiet:
The Trump Tower meeting and its aftermath are among several previously unreported instances in which Mr. Trump intervened directly to suppress stories about his alleged sexual encounters with women, according to interviews with three dozen people who have direct knowledge of the events or who have been briefed on them, as well as court papers, corporate records and other documents.
Taken together, the accounts refute a two-year pattern of denials by Mr. Trump, his legal team and his advisers that he was involved in payoffs to Ms. McDougal and a former adult-film star. They also raise the possibility that the president of the United States violated federal campaign-finance laws.
The Wall Street Journal found that Mr. Trump was involved in or briefed on nearly every step of the agreements. He directed deals in phone calls and meetings with his self-described fixer, Michael Cohen, and others. The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan has gathered evidence of Mr. Trump’s participation in the transactions.
Just how much trouble can Trump get in if prosecutors can sustain this evidence? That’s not very clear, as the WSJ itself notes. The Department of Justice got burned on this kind of case several years ago when it prosecuted a criminal case against John Edwards. He argued that the money wasn’t intended to influence the election but to avoid personal embarrassment and keep his wife from finding out about his mistress. A jury acquitted Edwards on one charge and hung on the rest, but the DoJ declined to prosecute further after being accused of turning a civil violation into a literal federal case.
The names and the personalities may be different (and so is the scope), but it’s essentially the same issue. Prosecutors might find it easier to seat a jury more hostile to Trump as a defendant than it was with Edwards, but that’s not supposed to be the basis for prosecution either. The DoJ might well be skittish about pushing criminal prosecutions in these cases rather than just assessing large fines in any circumstances, but especially so when it comes to a sitting president.
Under the rules of politics from just a few years ago, however, the revelation of serial lying about such issues and behavior would be enough to kill a political career. These days, however, it’s all part of the reality-TV show environment which we have created. In fact, it’s a little amazing that Trump even bothered to hide the affairs in the first place, given his utter lack of discretion about such things for most of his adult public life. He was playing by the old rules that he was busy proving no longer matter.
It still might be enough to get a Democratic House to produce articles of impeachment, but that won’t go anywhere either. It’s all about consensual sex, after all, which Democrats assured us was a completely illegitimate issue for impeachment — even if a cover-up meant committing perjury, not just campaign finance rules. If Trump has his campaign pay significant fines for the violations and returns the value of the contributions back to Pecker and others, that should suffice, although the House might well issue an official censure of Trump just to make sure it’s on the record.
If Robert Mueller finds more substantial grounds for impeachment, this will certainly be added to the articles that the House produces. If not, this will just become part of the argument in the 2020 election, and legitimately so. However, as 2016 demonstrated, character debates only work when there is a clear difference in character. Nominate carefully, Democrats.