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Trump’s Inaccurate Claims About Cohen, Obama and Campaign Finance

by Inside Out

On Fox on Thursday, the president claimed that Michael D. Cohen pleaded guilty to counts that “aren’t a crime” and misleadingly compared the violations to infractions by Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. NYTimes reported.

what was said

  • Ainsley Earhardt, “Fox & Friends” host: “Did you direct him to make the payments?”
  • The US. President Trump: “He made the deal. He made the deals.”

the facts

This is misleading.

Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s longtime lawyer, made hush money payments before the 2016 election to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Mr. Trump: Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model, and Stephanie Clifford, a pornographic film actress known as Stormy Daniels. Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws and other charges on Tuesday.

Mr. Trump’s suggestion that Mr. Cohen acted on his own is contradicted by court filings and by Mr. Cohen himself.

The events are described in court documents that do not name the two women. However, both Ms. McDougal and Ms. Clifford publicly discussed their stories; additionally, Mr. Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny J. Davis, has verified their identities in news media interviews.

Here’s the timeline:

  • August 2015: American Media Inc., the owner of The National Enquirer, agreed to help identify negative stories about Mr. Trump’s alleged affairs “so they could be purchased and their publication avoided” in coordination with Mr. Cohen and “one or more members” of the Trump campaign.
  • June 2016: The tabloid began negotiating with Ms. McDougal for the rights to her story at Mr. Cohen’s “urging” and with his promise that the company would be reimbursed.
  • August 2016: A.M.I. agreed to pay Ms. McDougal $150,000.
  • October 2016: Mr. Cohen formed a shell company to reimburse A.M.I. $125,000 for the payment to Ms. McDougal. That same month, Mr. Cohen agreed to pay Ms. Clifford $130,000 for her silence.
  • 2017: Mr. Cohen received monthly payments that totaled $420,000 from the Trump Organization, which included the reimbursement for his payment to Ms. Clifford and a bonus. Mr. Cohen sent the company phony monthly invoices for legal services under a nonexistent retainer agreement.

In court, Mr. Cohen said he made those payments at Mr. Trump’s direction.

“I and the C.E.O. of a media company at the request of the candidate worked together to keep an individual with information that would be harmful to the candidate and to the campaign from publicly disclosing this information,” he said on Tuesday, referring to the payment to Ms. McDougal.

Referring to the payment to Ms. Clifford, Mr. Cohen continued: “In coordination with, and at the direction of the same candidate, I arranged to make a payment to the second individual with information that would be harmful to the candidate and to the campaign to keep the individual from disclosing the information.”

what was said

Ms. Earhardt: “Did you know about the payments?”
Mr. Trump: “Later on I knew. Later on.”

the facts

This is disputed.

Mr. Cohen said in court that Mr. Trump coordinated and directed him to make the payments. Mr. Trump and his lawyers and representatives have given a number of conflicting statements on whether and when Mr. Trump was aware of the payments.

A recording of the two men speaking in September 2016 confirms that Mr. Trump was at least aware of the hush money paid to Ms. McDougal before Mr. Cohen reimbursed A.M.I. that October.

“I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend, David,” Mr. Cohen said in the recording, most likely referring to David J. Pecker, the chairman of A.M.I. and a friend of Mr. Trump’s. “And I’ve spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with — ”

“So, what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?” Mr. Trump responded. That is believed to refer to the $150,000 payment to Ms. McDougal.

what was said

Mr. Trump: “And by the way, he pled to two counts that aren’t a crime, which nobody understands. In fact, I watched a number of shows. Sometimes you get some pretty good information by watching shows. Those two counts aren’t even a crime. They weren’t campaign finance.”

the facts


The two counts are, in fact, crimes. Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to two felonies: “willfully causing an unlawful corporate contribution” and “making an excessive campaign contribution.”

The first violates a campaign finance law that prohibits corporations from directly contributing to a campaign (they are allowed to contribute through other entities like political action committees). The second violates a law that limits individual contributions to a candidate to $2,700.

what was said

Mr. Trump: “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.”

the facts

This is misleading.

Mr. Trump is comparing a civil violation to Mr. Cohen’s felony.

In January 2013, Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign paid a $375,000 penalty to the Federal Election Commission, largely for failing to file “48-Hour Notices.” F.E.C. rules require campaigns to notify the commission of contributions totaling $1,000 or more within 48 hours of receiving them.

The Obama campaign was also cited for failing to refund some donors who had made excessive contributions in a timely manner, and for misreporting dates of contributions.

These violations denied voters access to this information before Election Day, said Michael Malbin, the executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute. However, he said, they are not criminal offenses.

To date, the Obama campaign has not been formally charged or accused of committing a knowing and willful violation, which is the legal standard for an election offense to be prosecuted under the criminal code.

Richard Hasen, a professor of election law at the University of California, Irvine, said Mr. Trump’s comparison was unfair. The Obama campaign committed inadvertent infractions that were inevitable in large campaigns, Mr. Hasen said. (Republican campaigns, including Mr. Trump’s, have made similar paperwork mistakes.)

“That’s very different from saying that you know what the law is and you’re intentionally choosing to violate it and you’re covering your tracks,” Mr. Hasen said, referring to Mr. Cohen’s admitted crime.

The Justice Department also noted in guidelines issued in December that campaign finance violations “become crimes when they satisfy a monetary threshold and are committed with specific criminal intent” — a threshold that Mr. Cohen’s violations met on both fronts.

Mr. Cohen is not the first person linked to Mr. Trump who has been criminally charged with willful violations of campaign finance law. Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative author and documentarian, pleaded guilty in 2014 to a felony charge of making illegal campaign contributions; Mr. Trump pardoned Mr. D’Souza this May.

what was said

the facts

True, but…

The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index has steadily risen for 3,453 days, arguably the longest record. But as The New York Times’s Matthew Phillips has reported:

There is some debate over whether this bull market technically deserves the award for the longest on record. Bull markets are defined as a stretch when the stock market rises without suffering a 20 percent drop.

At issue is a market run from October 1990 to March 2000, a 3,452-day period that was preceded by a slump of 19.92 percent. Wednesday, despite the S.&P. 500’s ticking down 0.04 percent, was the current upswing’s 3,453rd day.

Statistical sticklers, though, don’t round up, in which case that earlier boom started in December 1987 — a 4,494-day stretch that would retain the crown.

It’s also worth noting that while shares soared 320 percent since March 2009, they rose by 417 percent in the 1990s boom. Furthermore, the current bull market began and largely occurred under Mr. Obama.

Other claims

In addition, Mr. Trump made a number of other claims in the “Fox & Friends” interview that The Times has previously debunked:

  • He misleadingly claimed Imran Awan, a former I.T. aide to House Democrats, “had all the information on Democrats” and “they don’t even have his computers or his servers.” (This refers to a conspiracy theory — that the Justice Department has debunked — about the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee.)
  • He misleadingly accused NATO members of being “delinquent” on payments to the alliance. (This misrepresents how NATO functions and conflates several measures of the alliance’s military spending.)
  • He falsely characterized the tax cuts he signed into law in December as “the biggest in history.” (Several rank higher.)
  • He misleadingly boasted that his administration “already started” to build his border wall. (Construction has not begun.)
  • He claimed that the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines would bring 48,000 jobs. (The vast majority are temporary.)
  • He exaggerated the United States’ trade deficit with China as $507 billion. (It was $336 billion in 2017.)

Sources: Documents from United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, The New York Times, Federal Election Commission, Justice Department, Richard Hasen, Michael Malbin.

By Linda Qiu

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