“Fox and Friends” weekend host Pete Hegseth claimed Thursday that Michael Cohen’s $130,000 hush money payment to Stormy Daniels in 2016 was not illegal, even if it was a campaign expenditure. But his reasoning didn’t make any legal sense.
“They’re clearing up a ‘gotcha’ moment for legal reasons,” Hegseth told Fox Business host Stuart Varney, referring to the payment that Giuliani admitted was made to protect Trump’s presidential campaign from scandal.
“It wasn’t campaign funds,” Hegseth continued. “Even if it was, you can give unlimited in-kind contributions if you are the candidate yourself. There’s no tactical legal wrongdoing here, even if it doesn’t look great in the public eye. That’s what Rudy Giuliani is doing.”
Giuliani made a similar claim to the Washington Post Wednesday night: “Was the President really wise to take it out of personal funds rather than from campaign funds? Thank God he did, [or else] he’d get a campaign finance violation they’d try to drum up into a felony or something.”
The funds to pay off Stormy Daniels may not have come from the Trump campaign’s coffers, at least to our knowledge, but that’s not very relevant in the eyes of campaign law.
For one thing, if Cohen made the payment in order to aide Trump’s campaign — as Giuliani admitted Thursday morning — it would have violated reporting requirements for such contributions. There’s also a cap for contributions, and it’s much lower than $130,000.
Larry Noble, senior director and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group, told TPM in an email Thursday that Hegseth’s explanation was “legally flawed and doesn’t clear them of campaign violations.”
“First, the fact that the payments did not come from the campaign doesn’t mean it wasn’t a campaign expenditure,” Noble wrote. “It was a campaign expenditure if the purpose of the payment was purpose to prevent Daniels from hurting his election. If it was, not paying out of the campaign is a violation.”
“Second,” Noble continued, “it is true that the candidate can make unlimited contributions to his own campaign. But the campaign has to report receiving the contributions and making the expenditures. Also, if Cohen advanced the $130k, he made an excessive contribution until he was paid back. A loan or advance is a contribution until repaid.”
This is straightforward stuff, so much so that the husband of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway pointed it out on Twitter this morning.
Pretty much as soon as the Stormy Daniels hush money was first reported, watchdog organizations began pointing these potential violations out.
“[C]omplainants have reason to believe that the payment of $130,000 from Essential consultants LLC to Ms. Stephanie Clifford was an unreported in-kind contribution to President Trump’s presidential campaign committee […] and an unreported expenditure by the committee—because the funds were paid for the purpose of influencing the 2016 presidential general election” a January FEC complaint from Common Cause read.
Common Cause’s vice president for policy and litigation, Paul S. Ryan, appeared dumbstruck Wednesday at Giuliani’s confession:
Once a prosecutor always a prosecutor, I guess. Giuliani just made the DOJ’s case against Trump and Cohen a whole lot stronger. Lol.
— Paul Seamus Ryan (@ThePaulSRyan) May 3, 2018
Hegseth added Thursday: “This is not what people who voted for him care about, ultimately. They understand there’s some ‘there’ there on things. That’s not the issue.”