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White House Denies Implication That Trump Violated Campaign Finance Law

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's lay out what we know at this point. The president's former lawyer Michael Cohen has admitted that he paid hush money to two women alleging affairs with Donald Trump. And Cohen says he did it at the direction of then-candidate Trump. Yesterday, the president told Fox News that the payments came directly from him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX AND FRIENDS")

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They weren't taken out of campaign finance. That's a big thing. That's a much bigger thing. Did they come out of the campaign? They didn't come out of the campaign. They came from me.

MARTIN: What we don't know is whether any of this puts the president in direct legal jeopardy. We'll put that question to Paul Seamus Ryan. He's a lawyer with Common Cause, an organization that filed complaints with the Department of Justice and the FEC, the Federal Election Commission, regarding Cohen's payments. He's in studio with us this morning. Thanks so much for coming in.

PAUL SEAMUS RYAN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: The president admitted in that interview - we heard it there - that the money for these hush payments came not from campaign funds but directly from him. So did he break the law?

RYAN: Yes, and the fact that the money did not come out of campaign funds is precisely the problem for Donald Trump. This money was used to influence the election. That's what makes it a campaign expenditure. And instead of coming from limited, disclosed campaign funds, the money came, $130,000, from Michael Cohen originally, $150,000 from a corporation. Both of those are illegal contributions, and Michael Cohen pleaded guilty this week to having made one of them and caused the other one to be made. So Donald Trump has broken the law, I believe, and I'm happy to get into some detail.

MARTIN: Well - so let's - one detail that you just explained, but let's get deeper into it. The very nature of a campaign contribution - that's really the crux of this. It doesn't have to come directly from the campaign fund as labeled in a checking account or whatever. It can be any form of payment. It's about the intent that the money is supposed to be used for.

RYAN: Yeah. It's about the intent plus involvement of the campaign. Here we have a payment for the purpose of influencing an election. That's what makes it an expenditure within the scope of the law. And that payment was made in direct coordination with and, according to Michael Cohen, at the direction of the candidate. That's what turns it into an in-kind contribution to the campaign - required by the campaign to be paid with federally permissible funds and disclosed.

MARTIN: Even if the president is found down the line perhaps of violating a campaign finance law, does that meet the standard for impeachment?

RYAN: It certainly could. There's a little bit of uncertainty about what the phrase high crimes and misdemeanor in the Constitution as one of the grounds for impeachment means. But I don't think there would be much debate that it covers something like this - a violation of law that enabled the winning of a presidential election.

MARTIN: Republicans say they aren't going to do anything unless there is evidence of collusion with Russia, which was the central piece of Robert Mueller's investigation. So far, there hasn't been any. So where do you see the president being legally vulnerable?

RYAN: Well, I want to briefly go through at least four campaign finance violations - receipt by Donald Trump, receiving these two illegal contributions and failing to report these two illegal contributions. Those are four violations of campaign finance law. He is also potentially on the hook for other violations of criminal law - making materially false statements to the federal government in the form of incomplete disclosure reports, maybe conspiracy. His vulnerability would perhaps be through a criminal prosecution, though there's great legal uncertainty as to whether a sitting president can be prosecuted, can be indicted. So that leaves impeachment, and we have an election in November.

MARTIN: Right. And so, ultimately, if this is a political decision, it will matter who the politicians are who are sitting on Capitol Hill on whether or not that comes about. Paul Seamus Ryan, a lawyer with Common Cause, thanks so much for your time.

RYAN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I'm going to turn now to NPR's lead political editor, Domenico Montanaro, who was listening into that conversation. Domenico, what do you want to pick up in in what Paul was saying there?

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Well, you know, it's interesting because after the Southern District of New York revealed what Cohen said in court and what they believed to be true, Rudy Giuliani, the outside counsel to the president, put out in a written statement that there is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government's charges against Mr. Cohen, which is a distinction that's probably the crux of this here. He said that it's clear that, as the prosecutor noted, Mr. Cohen's actions, quote, "reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time." Of course, that's trying to cast some doubt on Cohen's story. I think we don't know for certain that Trump directed this. Cohen says that's the case and under oath, but if the prosecutors believe that to be the case as well, I'm interested to see what other evidence is out there.

MARTIN: But if the president himself said the payments came from him, doesn't that imply that he directed it?

MONTANARO: Well, we don't know that he directed it. That's the case that they would make. Sure, he reimbursed it, but did he direct that initial payment?

MARTIN: Domenico Montanaro, thanks so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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