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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!”
Michael Cohen plead guilty to two counts of campaign finance violations that are not a crime. President Obama had a big campaign finance violation and it was easily settled!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 22, 2018
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.
Let me break it down for you:— 🇺🇸 Lynne Patton (@LynnePatton) August 22, 2018
The only real crime by #Cohen & #Manafort is tax evasion.
Which has nothing to do with Trump or Collusion.
The other “campaign” crime is a simple fine.
Just ask Obama.
He paid $375K for violating campaign finance laws in 2008.#CarryOn 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/FfcnOLN1VP
Obama paid over $300k in fines for Campaign Finance Violations.— Bill Mitchell (@mitchellvii) August 22, 2018
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.
David Gilmour is a reporter who specializes in national politics, internet culture, and technology.