Trump, Cohen and campaign finance: What you need to know

Trump, Cohen and campaign finance: What you need to know

Michael Cohen’s guilty plea this week raised questions about President TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN's Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading 'idiotic' conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be 'phenomenal' president MORE's involvement in an illegal campaign-finance scheme.

Here is what we know about the situation.

Cohen’s guilty plea

Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney, said he broke campaign-finance laws at the behest of then-candidate Trump in order to silence allegations from two women who say they had sex with Trump.

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Prosecutors said that nondisclosure payments Cohen arranged for the two women, Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, broke the legal limit on individual donations to a political campaign and violated the law banning corporations from giving directly to a candidate.

Neither payment was reported to the Federal Election Commission.

The most stunning moment came when Cohen implicated Trump in the scheme, saying in a Manhattan courtroom that he acted “in coordination with, and at the direction of, a candidate for federal office” and “for the principal purpose of influencing the election.”

Court documents revealed the extent of Trump’s supposed involvement, detailing how Cohen turned in fraudulent invoices in order to receive money back from Trump.

Why it matters for Trump

It’s highly unlikely that Trump would face criminal charges while in office. Justice Department guidelines state that a sitting president cannot be indicted for a crime and special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE has reportedly told Trump’s lawyers he will abide by that policy.

Cohen’s decision to implicate Trump could open up the president to impeachment proceedings, however.

Democratic leaders in Congress have shied away from impeachment talk, emphasizing the need to let Mueller do his work.

If Democrats win a majority in the House this fall, however, their leadership will face enormous pressure to, at a minimum, begin investigations on a possible impeachment.

With control of congressional committees, Democrats could also decide to ramp up investigations into alleged corruption involving Trump and Cohen.

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where a Democratic House would vote to impeach Trump, though securing a two-thirds conviction in the Senate would be a very high bar to meet.

How Trump has responded

The president has made a flurry of attacks in order to demolish his former lawyer’s credibility and undermine Cohen's claims.

In a series of tweets sent Wednesday morning, Trump accused Cohen of trying to “make up stories” in order to get favorable treatment from prosecutors.

The president also claimed in an interview with Fox News that he only learned of the payments “later on,” even though Cohen released tapes of them discussing the McDougal deal in September 2016 while it was being arranged.

Trump has also claimed the payments did not violate the law because no campaign funds were used to make them.

That stance it at odds with federal prosecutors, Cohen and most legal experts.

What legal experts say about Trump

Cohen’s admission that he spent money on behalf of the Trump campaign outside of the normal channels is damaging for the president’s case, according to Jerry Goldfeder, a New York-based elections and campaign-finance lawyer.

Candidates are permitted to make unlimited contributions to their own campaign, but that money must go through their campaign committee. Cohen facilitated the payments through an outside consulting company, and not the campaign, a fact that undercuts Trump’s argument they were not illegal.

Goldfeder said he would be “quite surprised” if federal election officials considered hush-money payments to a candidate’s alleged mistress to be legitimate campaign expenses.

Cohen’s admission under oath that Trump directed him to make the payments to affect the 2016 election is likely to carry significant legal weight. Prosecutors would not have accepted a plea deal with Cohen if they did not believe he was giving truthful information.

“A sworn statement to the court admitting that they spent money on behalf of the campaign should be taken at face value,” Goldfeder said.

How Trump’s defenders are pushing back

Legal figures who are favorable to the president have rushed to his defense, saying the issue is being overblown.

Harvard Law School professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz backed up Trump’s claim that the Daniels and McDougal payments don’t violate the law because they were made with the president’s money.

Most legal experts say Cohen’s guilty plea and court statements, which said Trump directed him to make the payments in order to affect the election, indicate otherwise.

Dershowitz also argued that even if the payments violated the law, they would not rise to the level of an “impeachable offense.”

“Every candidate violates the election laws when they run for president,” he said during a Fox News interview this week. “There, they're trying to elevate this into an impeachable offense or a felony against the president.”

Impeachable offenses are vaguely defined in the Constitution as “high crimes and misdemeanors” and, in practical reality, are up for Congress to decide.

Trump allies have also pointed to the unsuccessful prosecution of 2008 presidential candidate John Edwards, who was accused in a similar hush-money scheme.

But the question will be up to Congress, and not a judge or jury, to decide, if the feds decide not to pursue charges against Trump.