Another political bribery case offers clues about a possible defense of Donald Trump | CNN Politics (2023)


Americans have heard the story before: a hair-raising tale of a presidential candidate accused of making clandestine payments to hide an alleged affair.

But if former President Donald Trump is impeached by amanhattan grand juryIn connection with a pre-election payout to porn star Stormy Daniels, the case of another politician, two-time Democratic presidential nominee John Edwards, offers clues to the defense Trump is likely to mount.

More than a decade ago, Edwards was accused of violating federal campaign finance laws as part of an elaborate scheme involving two of his donors who handed over nearly $1 million in secret payments to hide his pregnant mistress during the presidential campaign. 2008.

Edwards' attorneys argued at trial, as Trump's legal team now argues, that the payments did not violate federal election law because they were intended to protect his family from pain and embarrassment, rather than trying to hide an extramarital affair from voters to promote his political policy. ambitions. .

"It's the closest available precedent for this situation, and that's not a good track record for someone looking to make a similar case," said Steven Friedland, an Elon University law professor who participated in much of the six-year federal trial. . Greensboro. , North Carolina in 2012.

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It's unclear what, if any, charges Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and the grand jury will bring stemming from a $130,000 payment made to Daniels just days before the 2016 general election. state criminal prosecution of federal election law appears unproven.

But Trump allies began to draw parallels with the Edwards case, which resulted in a major loss for the Justice Department's Division of Public Integrity, then headed by Jack Smith. (Smith now serves as thespecial adviceoverseeing federal investigations into parts of the January 6, 2021 insurrection and the retention of classified documents at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate).

In the 2012 federal campaign finance trial, the jury acquitted Edwards of one count of accepting illegal campaign contributions and deadlocked on the remaining five counts, including that he made a false statement to the Federal Election Commission by failing to disclose in his campaign documents donor data . expense to hide the mistress.

Ultimately, the Justice Department decided not to try Edwards again.

Edwards, who was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004, retired from national politics following the conclusion of the case. He now practices law in North Carolina.

'Not a campaign finance violation'

Trump, who is running for his third presidential bid, has vehemently denied an affair with Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, and has said "no crime was committed".

The former president's attorney, Joe Tacopina, publicly described the $130,000 payment on the eve of the 2016 general election as a response to "extortion" from the adult film actress, who was trying to go public with allegations of an affair with Trump. in 2006. He also tried to make a distinction between the payment to Daniels and money coming from political donors.

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“He did it with personal funds to avoid something being publicized, false, embarrassing him, his family, his young son,” said Tacopina.earlier this monthno "Good Morning America" ​​da ABC.

"If the spending existed independently of the campaign, it is not a violation of campaign law," Tacopina added to MSNBC. "History end."

Any criminal prosecution linking the payment of the bribe to a campaign finance violation would depend on whether the intent was to conceal the matter from the voting public.

At Edwards' trial, defense attorney Abbe Lowell described the former North Carolina senator as a "bad husband" who cheated on his wife, Elizabeth, while battling the cancer that would take his life in 2010.

But that didn't make Edwards a criminal, he said.

"This is a case that should define the difference between someone who makes a mistake and someone who commits a crime." Lowellhe said at the time.

key witnesses

Remarkably, jurors in Edwards' trial never heard of the two donors who funded the secret payments. Bank heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, who provided over $700,000, was too frail at age 101 to appear in court; the other, Fred Baron, a Texas attorney and former chairman of finance for Edwards, died before the trial began.

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And the defense questioned the credibility of the prosecution's main witness, Andrew Young, a former Edwards aide who said he falsely claimed paternity of the child Edwards fathered at the politician's behest.

Any accusation involving Daniels' bribery will likely focus on the evidence of former Trump attorney and fixer Michael Cohen, who arranged payments to Daniels in late October 2016 and recently testified before a grand jury in Manhattan.

Trump and his allies said Cohen, who served more than a year in prison afterplead guiltyin connection with the secret money scheme and other financial and tax crimes, he is a convicted perjurer who cannot be trusted. And last week, Cohen's former attorney Robert Costellowitnessedbefore the grand jury at the request of Trump's lawyers as part of an effort to undermine Cohen's reliability as a witness.

Young's credibility was "front and center" in the Edwards trial and "that will be the case here with Michael Cohen," said Elon University's Friedland.

For his part, Cohen sought to place Trump at the center of the payout scheme,telling a congressional committeein 2019 that his former boss told him to take out a home equity line of credit and use that money to silence Daniels in order to "avoid damage to his campaign".

Cohen was repaid in installments after submission of invoices claiming the invoices formed part of an "advance settlement". Trump's real estate company "falsely counted these payments as 'legal expenses,'" federal prosecutors wrote in Cohen's report.2018 Judgment Note.

Conservative legal commentators have long argued that it was overkill for Cohen to plead guilty to a pay-first scheme offense.

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“If nothing else, the law is unclear on whether paying a bribe to a mistress is a 'campaign expense' or a personal expense,” wrote Brad Smith, a former Republican member of the Federal Election Commission, ina Washington Post opinion pieceNo time.

Other major obstacles

CNN previously reported that Manhattan prosecutors are weighing whether to charge the former president with falsifying Trump Organization business records about how reimbursements to Cohen were characterized.

Under state law, falsifying business records is a misdemeanor. To bring a more serious charge, prosecutors would have to prove it was carried out to promote or conceal another crime, such as a violation of election law, legal experts say.

But policing criminal violations of federal campaign statutes falls within the purview of the US Department of Justice. And trying to tie federal election law to a possible violation of state law would be difficult, said Richard Hasen, an election law expert and law professor at the University of California-Los Angeles.

"It's not a violation of state law not to follow federal law, so it's hard to see how this federal charge lines up with the state charge," Hasen said.

Despite the core similarity between the Edwards indictment and what Trump could face, "the difference here is that we have a state prosecutor filing the charges, as opposed to a federal prosecutor in the John Edwards case," said Jerry H. Goldfeder, a veteran election and campaign finance attorney at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.

"I don't think it's proven that a state attorney would file a lawsuit against a federal candidate," he added. "But let's see how it turns out."

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