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Former AG Mukasey: there’s ‘not really’ an election law problem with Cohen

For another perspective on Michael Cohen’s guilty plea, Judy Woodruff is joined by a former attorney general under President George W. Bush, Michael Mukasey. According to Mukasey, the payment in question would have violated campaign finance law only if its sole purpose was to influence the outcome of an election, which Mukasey says was not the case.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For another perspective, we turn now to a former attorney general under President George W. Bush, Michael Mukasey.

    Mr. Mukasey, thank you. Welcome to the "NewsHour."

    You were able to hear what Lanny Davis, the attorney for Michael Cohen, just said.

    Given the pleas yesterday, what legal jeopardy is President Trump in right now?

  • Michael Mukasey:

    Legal jeopardy, I would say not much. Political jeopardy, that depends, I guess, on how the public receives this.

    But the question is really what legal jeopardy Lanny Davis' client was in. And I would suggest to you that he was in legal jeopardy principally from the charges that you didn't discuss on that segment, and not from the charge that you did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what are you referring to?

  • Michael Mukasey:

    Well, he was facing a Whitman Sampler holiday assortment of federal charges, including tax fraud, income tax evasion and the like.

    Those charges, I believe, he had no defense to. The charge that he — that was — that you were discussing was this charge of making an illegal or undisclosed campaign contribution.

    And that charge, I think he very clearly had a defense to, although it was in his interest, I think, to plead guilty, so that he could implicate somebody else, i.e., the president, and disclose information that would get him leniency for all the charges.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Focusing on the last point, Michael Cohen is saying the president directed him to make that payment and that the money came — that Michael Cohen made the payment.

    The president is saying he didn't know about it at the time, it was only later that he reimbursed it out of his own money.

    And I think the election law suggests, either way, there's an election law problem, isn't there?

  • Michael Mukasey:

    No, not really.

    The election law says that a payment for the purpose of affecting an election has to be reported and is limited for a person other than the candidate to $2,700 and a little bit. It's the purpose.

    If there is a dual purpose, including protecting his reputation, then it's not considered a campaign contribution. If you make a contribution, for example, to pay for yard signs or buttons, or you make a contribution to pay for airtime, that is a direct contribution to the campaign.

    But if you make a contribution that serves a dual purpose, then it is not, I believe, covered by the statute. And that statute is read narrowly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    If one accepts that explanation about a legal violation, what about the president's shifting personal explanations for what happened, that, at one point, he said he didn't know about a payment to these women?

    He said that in, what, April of this year. Then, in May, he said, yes, he did know, he did reimburse Michael Cohen. And now he's saying something along those lines.

    What do these shifting explanations from the president represent?

  • Michael Mukasey:

    Well, I'm not able to read the president's mind.

    I can tell you that people often make shifting representations when they are in a situation that is personally embarrassing to them, whether it's unlawful or not. And, certainly, this involving two women, neither of whom was his wife, is a personally embarrassing situation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The other point we heard, Michael Mukasey, from Lanny Davis just now is that his client Michael Cohen is prepared to testify before the special counsel that he has information about what the president knew about Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.

    Is that something the president should take seriously?

  • Michael Mukasey:

    I think — it depends obviously on the source.

    And given the fact that the source is somebody with an interest in implicating the president in as much as possible, so that prosecutors will think well of him, and he will get the benefit of their good word in connection with all of his sentences, including on the underlying other — on the other charges, then I think you have to sprinkle a couple of grains of salt on it.

    I mean, look, he would — he would implicate the president in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln if he thought he could.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just finally, Michael Mukasey, we have heard the president repeatedly call the Robert Mueller investigation a witch-hunt. He's described the people working on it as Democrat thugs.

    Do you agree with all that?

  • Michael Mukasey:

    That's not my vocabulary, and I didn't choose those words he did.

    I think that I can understand his frustration with the investigation that was supposed to look into the question of whether there had been involvement by the Trump campaign with the Russians in influencing the American — in influencing our election in 2016.

    So far, that hasn't been shown, and there's been a lot of — a lot of other things have been, including the Manafort indictment and so on. But I can understand his frustration with constantly having to deal with that on a day-to-day basis, rather than other issues.

    But I certainly don't buy into phrases like that. They're not in my vocabulary.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But do you think the investigation is warranted?

  • Michael Mukasey:

    The investigation may have been wanted at one time.

    I think that it would be — it would be a good idea to let it run its course, whatever that course is. That course is not going to involve charges against the president. At most, it will involve a report that may then be sent to the House of Representatives, and they will make of it what they will.

    But the question is whether it'll include any information that suggests the president committed high crimes and misdemeanors. And, so far, I haven't seen it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Mukasey, former attorney general of the United States, thank you very much.

  • Michael Mukasey:

    Thank you.

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