With the impeccable strategic insight and forethought we've come to expect from those working for President Trump, his personal lawyer Michael Cohen issued a statement this week that appeared to implicate him in a crime. "In a private transaction in 2016, I used my own personal funds to facilitate a payment of $130,000 to Ms. Stephanie Clifford," Cohen wrote, referring to the adult film actress who goes by the stage name Stormy Daniels. "Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly."
Why does that implicate him in a crime? Because since the $130,000 was intended to buy Daniels' silence just weeks before the election about an affair she allegedly had with Trump in 2006, it almost certainly constituted an in-kind campaign contribution. And you aren't allowed to donate $130,000 to someone else's campaign, no matter how much you admire his gold-plated apartment and luxurious, flowing mane. The payment wasn't reported on the Trump campaign's filings to the Federal Election Commission, which would mean that laws on both contribution limits and reporting were violated.
But that's not the whole story, because Cohen may have an out. You'll notice he said that he used his personal funds to facilitate the payment, not that he paid it — which could mean that he used his funds to establish the Delaware shell company he set up to make the payoff (yes, he did that), but that the $130,000 came from somewhere else. Perhaps from Trump himself, which would make sense, since while "toady" would be a far too generous term to refer to Cohen's relationship to Trump, that's a lot of money to ask your lawyer to put up on his own.
And it gets better. Once Cohen made this admission — whatever it is exactly that he admitted to — Ms. Daniels decided that by doing so he had violated the terms of the non-disclosure agreement she signed in exchange for the $130,000, and she is therefore free to say whatever she wants. "Everything is off now, and Stormy is going to tell her story," said her manager.
You go, Stormy.
Cohen's strange sort-of admission may have you wondering whether anyone actually goes to jail for this kind of thing. The answer is that it's rare, but it can happen. Let's look back at the case that may offer the closest analogy, that of former Sen. John Edwards.
Back when Edwards was running for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, a videographer named Rielle Hunter caught his eye. They began an affair, which eventually resulted in a child. Edwards' wife Elizabeth was suffering from a recurrence of breast cancer at the time; she died in 2010.
But the story didn't come out during the campaign, and one reason was revealed when the government indicted Edwards and an aide in 2011 for conspiring to violate campaign finance laws. Among other things, Edwards was charged with convincing a supporter, heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, to provide Hunter with $200,000 in living expenses, presumably to keep her quiet.
Many people considered the case a weak one, and in 2012 a mistrial was declared; the defendants were found not guilty on the charge of violating campaign finance laws, and the jury deadlocked on the conspiracy charges. The fact that Bunny Mellon's payment to Hunter came after Edwards dropped out of the race (but while he was still hoping for a spot as Barack Obama's running mate or attorney general) seemed to play a large part in the decision.
So does that suggest that Cohen and Trump don't have anything to worry about? Not necessarily. The facts in the Stormy Daniels case are different: Her payment was arranged just weeks before the election, so they'd be hard-pressed to argue that it was just a personal matter unrelated to the campaign. And if it's revealed that Trump himself put up the $130,000, he'd be in violation of reporting rules at a minimum (candidates have to report to the FEC any contributions they make to their own campaigns, including the payment of hush money to quell embarrassing stories).
What may get them off the hook, however, is the fact that the government doesn't prosecute cases like this one all that often. They have almost nothing to worry about from the FEC, which Republicans have turned into an utterly toothless regulator. Last year one of the Democratic commissioners, Ann Ravel, resigned in disgust, saying that "[a] bloc of three commissioners" — that would be the three Republican appointees, who serve alongside three Democrats — "routinely thwarts, obstructs, and delays action on the very campaign finance laws its members were appointed to administer." So the odds are heavily against the FEC going after Trump and Cohen, and even if it did, all it could do is demand a fine.
That would leave it to the Justice Department. And while it was an Obama appointee who made the decision to prosecute John Edwards, does anyone think that the Trump DOJ is going to go after him and his lawyer?
Probably not, at least not for this. But if I were Cohen I wouldn't breathe easy, given the fact that his long relationship with Trump was from the beginning built on Cohen's connections to shady characters in the former Soviet Union — something Robert Mueller may be interested in.
We already know many of the details of the relationship Stormy and Donald had, because some years ago she gave a long interview to In Touch magazine about the affair, which they published this January. It was hardly steamy at all; the most interesting part was her description of Trump's seething hatred of sharks.
In other words, the whole scandal is as Trumpian as could be: sordid, crooked, banal, silly, and driven forward by Trump's own stupidity and that of people around him. What more could we expect?