No GOP lawmaker has been willing to say that President Donald Trump’s hush payments to a Playboy model and an adult film star rise to the level of an impeachable offense — but at least one lame-duck Republican sounded off on the president’s “reprehensible” actions and called Trump’s campaign team’s dealings with Russia the “height of stupidity.”
Rep. John Faso, who in the coming weeks will wrap up his first and only term representing New York’s 19th District, told the Daily Freeman in an interview Tuesday that while he doesn’t believe Trump broke campaign finance laws, that doesn’t entirely absolve him of morally questionable behavior.
“It’s highly speculative as to whether those payments, reprehensible [as] the entire matter was, I think it’s a stretch to say that ... it violated federal campaign finance rules,” Faso said.
Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, has been cooperating with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation after pleading guilty to multiple charges in New York. Those charges include making illegal campaign payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal to buy their silence on affairs Trump had with them in the 2000s. Cohen said the payments were made to influence the 2016 election and were directed by Trump.
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Many legal experts and Democrats have said that if prosecutors can corroborate Cohen’s account, Trump could be looking at charges of his own and eventual jail time.
Prominent Republicans have largely downplayed Trump’s legal troubles stemming from the hush payment scheme, which the White House has attempted to dodge since the revelations earlier this year.
Dozens of lawmakers commit campaign finance violations each year, Republicans have said. Even if Trump did commit campaign finance violations, that’s not necessarily an impeachable offense.
“To go forward and say there is an impeachable offense because of a campaign finance problem — there’s a lot of members in Congress who are going to have to leave,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said.
“If we’re going to prosecute people and put them in jail for campaign finance violations, we’re going to become a banana republic,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said.
Faso also waved aside the seriousness of Trump’s alleged campaign finance violations. But he said they embody a pattern of “stupidity” in the president’s inner circle when dealing with Russian nationals.
“I think most of the Russia contact I’ve learned about through the public media and these sentencing recommendations point to stupidity more than ... to any successful efforts to enlist Russian support in the election,” Faso said.
“And as of yet, there’s still no evidence that suggests that anything that the Russians did had an influence on an election outcome,” Faso said.
In a report from 2017, the intelligence community concluded that Russia’s efforts to sow chaos into the 2016 election and favor Trump through social media manipulation and coordinated hacking efforts were highly effective, though, as Faso noted, the U.S. intelligence agencies stopped short of saying whether Russia's interference had any impact on the election results.
Faso has previously expressed support for the special counsel's investigation but called on Mueller to wrap up his investigation into the president quickly. On Tuesday he indicated that many questions remain unanswered.
“I have said right from the get-go that the meetings that [Trump campaign officials] had with supposed Russian contacts were the height of stupidity,” the congressman said. “Those kind of inquiries should have been referred immediately to the FBI, and [any meetings] should never have even been had. But at the end of the day, you look at this entire thing, and there’s still much more that we need to learn.”
Correction 12/12/18 | A previous version of this story mischaracterized Faso's support of the special counsel's investigation and the U.S. intelligence community's assessment of the effects of Russian interference on the 2016 election results.