The National Enquirer was in the news this week, but not for any stunning celebrity gossip. The tabloid’s parent company, American Media Inc., admitted it coordinated with the Trump campaign to make an illegal hush payment, federal prosecutors disclosed.
The disclosure came the same day former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen was sentenced in federal court to three years in prison. He had pleaded guilty to nine felony counts. They included two campaign-finance violations for making payments during the 2016 campaign to silence two women who said they had sexual encounters with Trump.
AMI said its $150,000 payment to a former Playboy model in August 2016 was to quell her story of an affair with Trump. The “catch-and-kill” payment was made to prevent the alleged affair from influencing the election, the company said. AIM reversed its earlier claim the payment was made for legitimate editorial reasons.
The double whammy of the Cohen sentencing and the AMI admission gave ammo to Trump critics, but for now, it doesn’t really change the calculus of an impeachment.
First, Justice Department guidelines established during the Nixon administration advise against indicting a sitting president. The guidelines were reaffirmed during the Clinton administration — and have never been tested in court. Of course, there’s always a first time.
While the U.S. president isn’t above the law, perhaps President Trump is betting he will win re-election in 2020. That means he’ll stay in office until January 2025 — well past the statute of limitations. Second, campaign violations historically have been treated as civil, not criminal, violations.
Yes, Cohen admitted to breaking the law and David Pecker, American Media’s CEO and a Trump friend, has received immunity from prosecution for his testimony. The Constitution requires treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors as grounds for impeachment. Campaign violations for making payments to a porn star and a Playboy model may not qualify as an impeachable offense.
(The Justice Department in 2012 dropped criminal charges against John Edwards for payments from campaign donors to his mistress. However, Edwards argued the payments were intended to keep his affair hidden from his family, rather than influence the outcome of an election.)
Finally, there needs to be the political will to impeach Trump, who has a 52% disapproval rating and 43% approval, according to averages compiled by Real Clear Politics, a conservative-leaning site.
House Democrats take power next month, and acting U.S. Attorney Robert Khuzami gave them a road map to impeach Trump for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The Democrats need to ask themselves whether they want to impeach Trump for lying about payments to silence sexual allegations, as well as violations of the Logan Act, which is a bigger stretch than breaking campaign-finance laws. Dems will also need two-thirds of a Republican-controlled Senate to agree, which isn’t likely.
Still, the equation may change when special counsel Robert Mueller issues a final report on whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to steal the U.S. election, in addition to any other charge it may levy. Separately, the New York Attorney General Letitia James plans to probe Trump's businesses, emoluments and the Trump Foundation. President Donald Trump's 2017 inaugural committee is also being investigated by federal prosecutors in New York for possible financial abuses related to the more than $100 million in donations raised.
As for the National Enquirer, the publication is likely to be more timid about covering political scandals.
The tabloid had many scoops during the Monica Lewinsky scandal of the Clinton era. But parent company AMI likely doesn’t want to be accused of interfering with the Mueller probe. That could give the Justice Department grounds to tear up this week’s consent agreement.