Another week, another hullabaloo about the Mueller probe. The Democrats and the media are champing at the bit over Russiagate. Every morsel becomes a front-page headline.
The investigation was supposed to be about Russian collusion. The latest big reveal is about mistress collusion, a different can of tuna. And is it really so big?
Federal and New York State prosecutors issued sentencing memos on former Donald Trump associates Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen. Topping the news was the assertion that prior to the 2016 election Mr. Trump made hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal.
Mr. Cohen, who is Mr Trump’s former personal lawyer, had disclosed this back in August, prompting a big media storm. The latest instalment just shows that the Justice Department is in vigorous pursuit.
Hardly surprising. But it was enough to stir up another news-cycle cyclone – and to drive the Democrats into full-scale, lock-him-up rage.
“The President is a criminal,” Congresswoman Maxine Waters declared. “… This criminal must be brought up by the Congress of the United States for impeachment.” Jerrold Nadler, the incoming chair of the House of Representatives judiciary committee, chimed in with accusations that not only were they impeachable offences, but also a “massive fraud.” For good measure, California representative Adam Schiff said Mr. Trump “could face the real prospect of jail time.”
After winning the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, Democrats put out the word that they ought to be careful not to overplay their hand on Mueller-related findings. Just one month later, it appears they’ve already forgotten their own cautions.
Campaign spending violations are a common feature of elections. Legally, they present all kinds of grey zones. Constitutional lawyer Alan Dershowitz, a Trump ally, says that in the grand scheme of things criminal, they should be regarded as “kind of jaywalking.” As he surely knows, there are certainly more serious allegations than that in the Trump case. But are they grounds for impeachment, as Democrats let on? Not even close.
To be considered is the one high-profile precedent, in which the Justice Department prosecuted former Democratic senator John Edwards for transferring payments, made by donors to his 2008 presidential campaign, to his mistress. The case was dropped in 2012.
To be considered is that Mr. Trump’s payments came from his own pocket, not campaign coffers.
And to be considered, as noted by Republican senator Rand Paul – who is hardly a Trump lackey – is whether prosecutorial overreach or abuse is involved in these new allegations. At one point, he said on Meet the Press, lawyers were threatening Mr. Cohen with a huge sentence, and at another point, a far shorter one. In the meantime, they got his story to change. "But maybe that’s because the prosecutor is pressuring him, saying, ‘Well, if you don’t give us something on Trump, guess what? You get 20 years. If you give us something on Trump, you get four years.’ ”
Democrats didn’t show today’s kind of impeachment fervour when their own guy, Bill Clinton, blatantly lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky and had a fixer set her up with a job in New York.
In defence of Mr. Trump, Mark Penn, a former Clinton adviser, writes in Washington newspaper The Hill this week that “I’m experiencing 1998 déjà vu as prosecutors once again work overtime to turn extramarital affairs and the efforts to keep them secret into impeachable high crimes and misdemeanours.”
What’s happening is a tad strange, Mr. Penn says, compared to how lightly the Democrats are getting off on the Steele dossier, for which they paid an investigator to gather dirt on Mr. Trump from Russia. How about campaign-spending violations in respect to that?
Many of Mr. Trump’s arguments, however, are full of holes. He contends, for example, that his is a civil case, like the one that Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign faced when it was fined US$375,000 over technical and reporting violations. But there is no comparison between the two. If Mr. Cohen is to be believed, the payments were made to ward off damaging publicity during his election bid, which hit Mr. Trump anyway with the release of the Access Hollywood tape – and didn’t prevent him winning.
What he did is not to be taken lightly. He could well face felony charges after he leaves office. But collusion with mistresses is hardly in a league with collusion with the Russians to subvert a general election.
If and until there is more evidence of the latter, the Democrats should leave the “i” word alone.