Cohen’s guilty plea and Trump’s own admissions look dangerously implicating for the US president, but the issue of his impeachment is open to debate, writes Vincent Obia
United States President Donald Trump has received rough treatment at the hands of judges and erstwhile associates in recent times. Trump has been put under pressure by revelations bordering on his past deeds. On Tuesday, his former long-time lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges of tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations, in what was seen as an attempt to implicate the president. Cohen, a man so close to Trump that he was once quoted as saying he would “take a bullet” for Trump, told a federal court in Manhattan that Trump directed him to pay off adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal to silence the women, who said they had affairs with Trump, ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
Trump denied sexual relationship with the women, but admitted paying off Daniels. In May, he admitted reimbursing his lawyer, Cohen, for a $130,000 payment made on the eve of the 2016 election to porn actress Stormy Daniels as part of a settlement about her alleged 2006 sexual encounter with Trump. Trump claimed the payment was in no way connected with the poll campaign.
The president tweeted on May 3, “Mr. Cohen, an attorney, received a monthly retainer, not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign, from which he entered into, through reimbursement, a private contract between two parties, known as a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA. These agreements are very common among celebrities and people of wealth. In this case it is in full force and effect and will be used in Arbitration for damages against Ms. Clifford (Daniels).
“The agreement was used to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair, despite already having signed a detailed letter admitting that there was no affair. Prior to its violation by Ms. Clifford and her attorney, this was a private agreement. Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no role in this transaction.”
There is controversy as to whether the payments, which Cohen accused Trump of directing, amount to campaign finance violation, and whether this constitutes an impeachable offence.
Larry Noble of The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that preaches strong enforcement of US election campaign finance laws, has been quoted as saying, “We’re talking about campaign finance laws and the contribution limits and disclosure provisions. If Michael Cohen paid Stormy Daniels, and it was done for the purpose of stopping her to talk about this during the election, then it was an excessive contribution by Michael Cohen. And the campaign should have reported it as a contribution by Cohen and as an expenditure by the campaign.
“The question here is, was this related to the election? And I think there’s strong evidence it was.”
But Fox News contributor Alan Dershowitz says the payment is too minor an offence to constitute an impeachable crime.
Reacting to threats of impeachment against Trump from Democrats on Wednesday, Dershowitz, Harvard law professor, was quoted as saying, “You can’t impeach on the basis of minor derelictions or even crimes.
“You need a high crime and misdemeanour, and you know every campaign has violated some technical election law.
“I think there are going to be some Democrats … who will run on ‘give us the House, we’ll impeach the president. I think impeachment will be an issue, but I think the law on impeachment, at least according to my research, is fairly clear.”
The constitutional standard for impeachment set out in Article II, Section 4 of the US constitution, states, “The president, vice president and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours.”
The constitution only specifies a candidate’s interference with the Electoral College as impeachable, leaving the rest open to debate. But members of the House of Representatives, who must start an impeachment process, have a great deal of latitude to determine offences that qualify as “high crimes and misdemeanours.”
As the debate over the revelations about Trump rages, what seems sure is that the disclosures, which have already put Trump under enormous pressure, would affect Republicans in the November elections. Though, many Democrats and Republicans view the Trump scandals with unconcealed disgust, the Democrats who are pushing for his impeachment, do not have the numbers to carry out a successful impeachment. Experts believe the Democrats realise this and seem comfortable with just targeting the forthcoming elections.