The Hush-Money Case Against Trump is Ridiculous and Revealing – Connor O’Keeffe 5/15/24


As the 2024 election cycle is heating up and the summer party conventions approach, Donald Trump—the current front-runner—has been trapped in a New York City courtroom. The former president is charged with thirty-four felony counts of falsifying business records with the intent to commit, aid, or conceal another crime.

This is the first of four felony cases against Trump to go to trial, and it could very well be the only case to be decided before voters head to the polls this November. It is also the most nonsensical of the four.

The case relates to an affair that allegedly took place nearly two decades ago between Trump and an adult film actress who goes by Stormy Daniels. Last week, Daniels said that the affair began after she met Trump at a celebrity golf tournament in 2006. Trump denies that the affair happened at all.

Regardless, in the lead-up to the 2016 election, Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 to sign a nondisclosure agreement. He covered the payments himself and then sent invoices to Trump for reimbursement.

After receiving the invoice, Trump’s accountants authorized twelve monthly payments to reimburse Cohen. The payments to the lawyer were labeled “legal expenses”—one of a limited number of choices in the drop-down menu for the labeling field in the internal computer system used by Trump’s accounting team.

There is nothing illegal about having an affair and then paying the other party to sign a nondisclosure agreement about it. That is not what this trial is about. The reason Trump is in court is because Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg decided to charge him for mislabeling those payments as “legal expenses.”

But mislabeling business records is almost always a misdemeanor. Why then is Trump being charged with thirty-four felonies?

Well, mislabeling business records becomes a felony if it’s done to help commit or cover up another crime. In this case, the other alleged crime is a violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act. The prosecution is trying to argue that these payments, which had been reported as legal expenses, were actually campaign expenditures. Bragg then brought a unique charge each time the label appeared in any form of paperwork across all twelve monthly payments. That’s how one allegedly mislabeled payment became thirty-four felony charges.

Central to the entire case is the idea that the payment sent to Daniels to get her to sign the nondisclosure agreement was actually a campaign expense. Meaning that Trump should have used campaign funds and publicly reported the payment because keeping Daniels quiet helped his campaign. That is ludicrous.

There is no precedent for labeling a perfectly legal hush-money payment as a campaign expense. In fact, the law is pretty strict in prohibiting candidates from using campaign funds for these kinds of personal expenses. Campaign funds are meant to be used for campaign staff salaries, to pay rent for campaign offices, to produce and run TV advertisements, etc. Those are campaign expenditures.

Candidates are not allowed to use campaign funds to buy expensive jewelry or clothing or to pay for a teeth whitening because a better appearance may improve their election chances. Nor can they use campaign funds to pay a lawyer to settle a lawsuit against their company, for example, even if it’s explicitly meant to keep information from the public that voters may not like. None of those are considered proper campaign expenses.

Yet this entire felony case against Trump rests on the unprecedented notion that the payments to reimburse his lawyer for a legal hush-money payment constitute a campaign expenditure. Every other part of the case collapses if Bragg and his team fail to establish and advance this novel legal theory.

It should be clear to any honest observer that the drive behind this case and all the obsessive coverage is not motivated by some deep-seated concern for the sanctity of the Trump Organization’s accounting practices. It’s an effort to remove Trump from political life.

The political establishment wants Trump gone and any potential successors dissuaded from seizing on the populist energy of the MAGA movement. And progressives want Trump punished for all the mental anguish he has caused them. Charging him with a felony, any felony, might seem like a straightforward way to accomplish all those goals. That’s why Trump has been fending off criminal accusations since he won the presidency.

The central assumption underlying this has been that Trump is the cause of all the fury being directed toward the elites and the status quo by the broader MAGA movement. If Trump is disqualified, the thinking goes, these angry right-wingers will calm down and rally back around establishment-friendly conservatives like Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney.

This assumption has never stood up well to reality. Trump has only gained support as the charges against him stack up. As of Monday, he is outperforming President Joe Biden in five of the six most important swing states of the election cycle.

The effort to disqualify Trump is not calming his supporters down; it’s convincing them that the political system they were raised to think of as a democracy is nothing but an illusion.

And it’s hard to see how this hush-money case will do anything but accelerate that trend. If the jury sees through the prosecution’s case and acquits Trump, it feeds the perception that the political class is lobbing any possible charge at an innocent man to get him off the ballot. And, as is more likely, if Trump is found guilty, it confirms that they don’t even need a real crime to do it.