President Donald Trump maintained the felony counts Michael Cohen admitted to were not actual crimes in an interview aired Thursday.
“What Michael Cohen pled to weren’t crimes,” Trump told Fox News.
Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal attorney, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to two felony campaign finance violations – making an excessive campaign contribution and causing an unlawful corporate contribution. Those are crimes. And he confessed to them under oath, saying he willfully violated those laws at Trump’s direction.
“He made a great deal. He was in another business totally unrelated to me where I guess there was fraud involved,” Trump said, suggesting Cohen accepted a plea deal on the campaign finance violations because the other crimes he admitted to were more serious.
“A lot of lawyers on television and lawyers I have say they aren’t crimes,” Trump said on the campaign finance violations. “He makes a better deal when he uses me.”
Violations of campaign finance laws can be handled as a civil matter with the Federal Election Commission or as a criminal matter by the Justice Department. The violations become a criminal matter when those laws are broken in a “knowing and willful” manner, said Larry Noble, the former general counsel of the FEC who is now senior director at the Campaign Legal Center.
The President also argued that President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign too had campaign finance violations.
“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,” Trump said. “So Obama had it, other people have it. Almost everybody that runs for office has campaign violations.”
Obama’s campaign was fined $375,000 by the FEC – one of the largest fines levied against a presidential campaign – for missing reporting deadlines on $1.8 million in contributions. The violation did not rise to the level of a criminal violation because there was no indication the misreporting was willful and the fine was assessed as part of a conciliation agreement with the FEC.
“There’s no comparison,” Noble told CNN. “There’s no presidential campaign that I’m aware of that hasn’t had campaign finance violations. A lot of money flows through them and they almost all have some violations.”