There were moments over the past few years when it seemed like misogynist in chief Donald Trump would be held accountable for the way he has treated women. But at each turn, the president emerged unscathed.
Then on Monday, the FBI raid on Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s office and hotel raised the prospect once again. Cohen’s apparently been under criminal investigation for months, according to court papers prosecutors released on Friday. It is incredibly early to say this with any certainty, but it’s starting to look possible that women could ultimately topple the Trump presidency.
Not Russia. Women.
The scandals prompted by two women, Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, reportedly led the FBI to Cohen’s door. Federal agents were reportedly seeking information on hush agreements the adult film star and the former Playmate signed to stay silent about their alleged affairs with Trump. The agreements may have violated federal campaign finance laws, raising the real possibility of criminal charges for Cohen ― and maybe even for Trump himself.
The nonprofit Common Cause filed complaints with the Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission in January over the hush agreements, alleging they are campaign finance violations. The punishment for breaking such laws includes fines and even jail time.
At a time when the Me Too movement has brought down many powerful men for sexual misconduct, the alleged violations raise the prospect of bagging the biggest whale of all.
Though the raid this week was a sign of how serious the situation is, there are a million caveats going the other way: First, there is no publicly available evidence that Trump knew about these payoffs. He didn’t even sign the agreement with Daniels and denies he knew about it or had an affair with her or McDougal. Cohen said he paid Daniels without Trump knowing.
Even if the feds nail the evidence, successfully pressing the case in court would be technically pretty tricky, legal experts say. Recently, former presidential candidate John Edwards was charged with campaign finance violations and went to trial, but the jury couldn’t agree on his guilt.
Also, recall that no sitting U.S. president has ever been charged with a crime.
The more obvious punitive route would be impeachment, which seems unlikely at the moment because Trump’s party runs Congress. And even if the Dems were running the show, it’s not clear they’d want to make a whole thing out of what seems to be essentially a sex scandal ― 20 years after the Lewinsky debacle. (Though not everyone sees this as simply a salacious story.)
Further, campaign finance violations aren’t exactly the sexiest, most outrageous crimes around.
And of course, no one knows what special counsel Robert Mueller ― who’s already done a lot of damage to the Trump administration with indictments and criminal charges ― still has up his sleeve.
And yet, right now, the campaign finance violations do seem further along than the Russia case to a number of experts.
“The public evidence we know on the campaign finance issue is more clear to us at this moment,” said Liam Brennan, a former federal prosecutor who was the lead attorney in the prosecution of former Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland (R) for campaign finance violations. “From what is publicly known, there is fairly compelling evidence that campaign finance laws were broken,” he said.
Cohen has already admitted he paid Daniels $130,000, but said the president was not involved. McDougal’s $150,000 came from the folks at American Media Inc., home to the National Enquirer, but McDougal’s lawsuit says the company acted in coordination with Cohen. American Media Inc. denies all of this.
Though the alleged affairs happened more than a decade ago, the payoffs came right before the election: McDougal’s just after the Republican National Convention in August 2016, Daniels’ a week before the general election, right when the “Access Hollywood” tape was imperiling Trump’s campaign.
The timing of the payouts increases the likelihood that they’ll be seen as money spent on getting Trump into office ― if the women’s stories had emerged prior to the election, the reasoning goes, they would’ve hurt Trump’s chances. Particularly Daniels’ story, which was kaiboshed during Pussygrab-gate.
In fact, according to reporting from The New York Times, FBI agents were also looking for information tied to that infamous recording, wherein Trump brags to host Billy Bush that he is very famous and can just kiss women without asking and grab them by their genitals.
If prosecutors are able to build a compelling case against Cohen ― and possibly Trump ― around these payments, it’s plausible that the president could find himself facing criminal charges, legal experts told HuffPost.
That road leads to possible impeachment and even a criminal trial, where the president and his lawyer could face fines and even, yes, jail time ― up to five years, said Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause. “Imprisonment is exceedingly rare, but it happens occasionally,” he said.
Still, a case would hardly be a slam dunk. “Proving intent in white-collar cases is extremely difficult,” Brennan, the former prosecutor, said.
While it “seems obvious” the intention was to protect the Trump campaign, it can be hard to prove, he said. The keys will be: Will Cohen talk and will agents find compelling hard proof to back up the case?
And it’s an open question as to how seriously anyone is going to take these scandals. The sexual nature of Daniels and McDougal’s stories may make prosecutors and Congress “squeamish,” Brennan added.
(Remember, it’s mostly men making these decisions.)
And to get to Trump, legal experts said, there needs to be more evidence. “In order to pin any of this on Trump, he would have needed to know what’s going on,” said Laurie Levenson, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “That’s why it’s key to find a link,” she said ― possibly paperwork of some sort, an email or a letter.
At this point, the worst-case scenario for Trump would be a finding that Cohen and others were involved in illegal activity, Levenson said ― some kind of criminal activity, maybe campaign finance violations, but possibly bank fraud, which FBI agents are reportedly also looking into. If Cohen or others talk, they could end up pointing a finger at Trump and saying not only did he know, but he was orchestrating all of this.
“You have to make a lot of jumps and assumptions,” she said.
Still, the prospect remains delicious.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said the Lewinsky scandal was 30 years ago. It was 20 years ago.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.