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Trump Hush-Money Allegations


We'd like to spend some time now on the two big pieces of legal news this week. You probably heard that prosecutors secured a guilty plea from a Russian woman named Maria Butina. We'll get to that story in just a few minutes. But earlier this week, President Trump's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison. Cohen and the publisher of The National Enquirer admitted that they paid hush money during the presidential campaign to women who said that they had had sexual encounters with Mr. Trump.

Now, similar things have happened before in politics, but it takes a lot to end up with a sentence like Cohen's, and President Trump is insisting that none of it was criminal. NPR's Peter Overby has this report.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Cohen has pleaded guilty to a campaign finance violation. But Friday, on ABC's "Good Morning America," he put it all on his old boss Donald Trump.


MICHAEL COHEN: He directed me to make the payments. He directed me to become involved in these matters.

OVERBY: Cohen arranged for porn star Stormy Daniels to get $130,000. She and Trump allegedly had a sexual encounter years earlier. Cohen was also involved when AMI, the tabloid publisher, made a similar payment for a similar reason to model Karen McDougal. Trump, who used to claim no knowledge of any payments, said on Fox News, first, the hush money isn't covered by the campaign finance laws.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No. 2, if it was, it's not even a violation. No. 3, it's a civil matter.

OVERBY: That is, not a criminal case. So here's what the law says. You have to use campaign funds with contribution limits, disclosure - all of that. You have to use that regulated money for all campaign-related expenses. Is silencing two former paramours during the campaign such an expense? Cohen said it is.


COHEN: So yes, he was very concerned about how this would affect the election.

OVERBY: Trump's defenders say that's wrong. It wasn't about influencing the election. And they point to the only other case like this, the corruption trial of former senator John Edwards in 2012. Edwards had run for vice president. He had an affair. The woman became pregnant. The campaign supported her secretly while Edwards avoided telling his wife, who was dying of cancer. Edwards was tried for using outside money to buy his lover's silence. A hung jury failed to convict him. Afterwards, Edwards spoke to the press.


JOHN EDWARDS: While I do not believe I did anything illegal or ever thought I was doing anything illegal, I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong.

OVERBY: Hans von Spakovsky is a conservative lawyer, a former member of the Federal Election Commission. He said the law would apply to Edwards' hush money case because everything was happening within the campaign.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: We have a situation with Edwards where it was actually contributors, people who had maxed out to Edwards' campaign, who put up a million dollars for Edwards' mistress, who was actually working for the campaign as a videographer.

OVERBY: But at the watchdog group Common Cause, attorney Paul Seamus Ryan disagrees. He said Edwards seemed to be trying to hide the affair from his wife. By contrast, Ryan said, Cohen, Daniels, McDougal and the publisher all seemed to agree on one thing.

PAUL SEAMUS RYAN: Everyone involved in this matter, except for Donald Trump, who's on the record so far has said the purpose was to influence the election. There was no ambiguity. There is no doubt.

OVERBY: Ryan had a fact to add.

RYAN: Hey, this wasn't Cohen and Trump's first rodeo. They've had a brush with this area of campaign finance law in the past.

OVERBY: That was back in 2012. Trump was flirting with a presidential run. Michael Cohen set up a website, There was a complaint that Cohen used a Trump airplane for campaign work. The Federal Election Commission rejected the complaint. One of the commissioners siding with Trump was Don McGahn. Four years later, he was Trump's campaign lawyer. But there's no evidence he was consulted about whether the payments were legal.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.