On Wednesday afternoon, Fox News released a snippet of its interview with President Donald Trump. (The interview is set to run in its entirety on Thursday morning). Here’s the exchange between Fox’s Ainsley Earhardt and Trump on whether he knew about payments arranged by his one-time lawyer Michael Cohen to women alleging affairs with Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election:
Earhardt: “Did you know about the payments?”
Trump: “Later on I knew. Later on. But you have to understand, Ainsley, what he did – and they weren’t taken out of campaign finance, that’s the big thing. That’s a much bigger thing. Did they come out of the campaign? They didn’t come out of the campaign, they came from me. And I tweeted about it. You know, I put – I don’t know if you know but I tweeted about the payments. But they didn’t come out of campaign. In fact, my first question when I heard about it was did they come out of the campaign because that could be a little dicey. And they didn’t come out of the campaign and that’s big. But they weren’t – that’s not a – it’s not even a campaign violation. If you look at President Obama, he had a massive campaign violation but he had a different attorney general and they viewed it a lot differently.”
There’s so much wrong here. Let’s go through it point by point.
1. Trump says he knew about the payments – $130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels, $150,000 from American Media Inc. to ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal – “later on.” That runs directly counter to what Trump said in April when asked about the Cohen payment to Daniels. Here’s that exchange:
Reporter: “Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?”
Reporter: “Then why did Michael Cohen make [the payment], if there was no truth to her allegations?”
Trump: “You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael’s my attorney, and you’ll have to ask Michael.”
Reporter: “Do you know where he got the money to make that payment?”
Trump: “No I don’t know.”
Trump’s latest statement also contradicts the audio tape released by Cohen last month that contains an apparent September 2016 conversation between Trump and his one-time lawyer in which a payment to David Pecker – the head of AMI, the National Enquirer’s parent company – is discussed. That payment was to buy the rights to McDougal’s story, which Pecker, a longtime Trump friend, had purchased but refused to run. (Trump never bought the story.)
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If you can’t figure out how all of these statements can be true, I’ll solve it for you: They can’t.
2. Trump is trying to draw some sort of distinction between paying the hush money out of campaign funds and paying them out of his own pocket. But, either way, it’s illegal. Assuming Trump used his personal money to repay Cohen – and remember both Trump and Cohen have insisted in the past that none of the money came from Trump, which is, of course, not true – then he was making an illegal loan to his campaign. You can’t dole out tens of thousands of dollars for the express purpose of silencing people with damaging allegations right before voters vote – and then never report it. (Here’s the Federal Election Commission’s guidance governing loans by a candidate to his or her campaign.)
3. The comparison to Obama’s fine by the FEC is a total and complete straw man. It is true that Obama’s campaign was fined a hefty $375,000 by the FEC in 2013 for failure to file 48-hour contribution reports – donations made within the final weeks of a campaign – that totaled $1.3 million. The oversight was discovered in an audit of the Obama campaign.
Compare that fine to what is alleged here: A candidate for president directed the end-run of campaign finance laws in hopes of suppressing allegations made by women about romantic dalliances. He did so, according to Cohen, with the express purpose of influencing the election. That’s not even in the same universe as a candidate’s campaign being fined for not correctly reporting $1.3 million in donations from the final days of an election.
The Point: Trump, at some level deep down, knows that Cohen’s plea deal – specifically as it relates to the hush money payoffs – is a big, big problem for him. But he also knows one tactic when backed into a corner: Fight like hell with whatever you can lay your hands on. That’s what this response to Fox News amounts to. Unfortunately for Trump, none of these punches land. In fact, he whiffs badly on them all.