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Conservatives say ‘Obama broke campaign finance law, too’—but there’s a big difference

Trump compared Cohen's admission to a 2008 Obama campaign violation.


David Gilmour


Posted on Aug 22, 2018   Updated on May 21, 2021, 8:11 am CDT

In his first real comments since the news broke, President Donald Trump attacked former President Barack Obama on Wednesday to downplay his former lawyer Michael Cohen’s guilty plea over campaign finance violations.

Trump denied that Cohen had committed a crime, referring his Twitter followers to Obama’s “big campaign finance violation” that—he added—”was easily settled!”

The line was repeated in a pre-recorded interview with FOX & Friends set to air on Thursday morning.

“If you look at President Obama, he had a massive campaign violation, but he had a different attorney general, and they viewed it a lot different,” the president says in a promotional clip published Wednesday afternoon.

Across the internet, pro-Trump conservatives jumped on that narrative in an attempt to maintain a sense of moral high ground.

The only problem, according to legal experts, is that there is no equivalence.

What Trump appears to be referring to in his tweet is the Obama campaign’s 2008 failure to report certain contributions to the Federal Election Commission. Notices of contributions of more than $1,000 made within 20 days of election day must be submitted within 48 hours. For the nearly 1,300 contributions totaling $1.8 million where the campaign missed filing deadline, Obama’s campaign was fined $375,000.

What Cohen admitted to on Tuesday in federal court was paying off porn star Stormy Daniels, with whom the president allegedly had a romantic relationship in 2006. He said he did so with the intention of influencing the election and said he did so at the direction of “the candidate.”

So, what’s the difference?

“As long as you correct them and you didn’t intend them, there’s not really a problem. The criminal standard is how egregious was the campaign violation?” professor Michael Kang of Northwestern Pritzker School of Law told NBC News.

“It turns on the question of criminal intent,” he continued. “When somebody does something with the intent to defraud the government, if it’s an on purpose, you’ve got the potential for criminal liability.”

As it turns out, the Obama campaign’s violations were handled civilly, with fines. 

Cohen’s admitted violation was handled, very publicly, in criminal court, after they hid it for years, at the direction of the candidate. 

A bit of a difference.

This post has been updated for clarity. 

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*First Published: Aug 22, 2018, 4:14 pm CDT