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Republicans say Trump’s secret money affair looks criminal – if you don’t mention Trump


Donald Trump’s silence case – which could soon lead to the first criminal charges against the former president – occupies an unusual place among his various legal responsibilities.

On the one hand, that would seem relatively unboring compared to things like trying to overturn the 2020 election and illegally withholding sensitive documents after leaving the White House. On the other hand, as far as the paper trail and underlying conduct goes, it’s pretty ethical, if not necessarily legal: Trump paid his lawyer to pay a porn star to prevent his claim potentially damaging surface shortly before the election. Day 2016.

And new data suggests that even Republicans overwhelmingly consider such conduct a crime — at least in theory, and at least until you personally invoke Trump.

A new Economist/YouGov poll has tackled this topic in a revealing and interesting way. He began by asking generally if it was “a crime for a candidate for elected office to pay someone to remain silent on a matter that could affect the outcome of an election.” The question did not mention Trump.

Americans overwhelmingly agreed that it was; they said so with a margin of 72% to 11%. And the Republicans agreed, 73-13.

The poll then asked whether it would also be a crime to “not report” such expenses. Again, the answer was overwhelmingly yes — 76-8 overall and 76-11 in the GOP.

To be clear, Trump’s case would seem to at least fit the description of the first question.

His legal team disputes that Trump’s reimbursement of hush money Michael Cohen paid Stormy Daniels in October 2016 was unlawful – and that Cohen’s payment itself qualified as a campaign expense for Trump to report. He says Trump would have paid the hush money regardless of the campaign, so it didn’t have to be in his campaign materials.

But it’s hard to argue against the idea that Daniels was paid to “remain silent on a matter that could affect the outcome” of the 2016 election. Daniels’ claim of an affair was false). Even though the campaign was not the sole or even primary focus, as Trump’s legal team suggests, Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani did acknowledge that the allegation may well have been politically damaging.

But then YouGov asked about it in the context of Trump, and suddenly there was a lot less concern on the right.

He asked how “a serious issue is that an adult film star was paid $130,000 in October 2016 to keep quiet about an alleged sexual encounter” she had with Trump. Only 15% of Republicans said it looked like a “very serious problem”, while a majority of Democrats did. More than half of Republicans said it was “not very serious” or “not serious at all”, although that seemed to fit the description of what three-quarters of Republicans had just said was a crime. It should also be noted that the question was whether there was a crime; not if Trump himself had committed one.

So why the dropout? Partisanship certainly plays a major role. But it also seems like Republicans simply forgot — or never knew — the details of the case, and may be offering a clearer view before they figure out what it was really about.

The same poll shows that only 18% of Republicans said they had heard “a lot” about the Silence Case (compared to 39% of Democrats). And just 16% of Republicans said they had heard “a lot” about the potential criminal charges against Trump (compared to 35% for Democrats). Either way, 4 in 10 Republicans said they heard “nothing at all.”

It also brings us back to this point: When YouGov asked the original ‘crime’ question in August 2018, at the height of the controversy, only 37% of Republicans said it would be a crime to pay someone for he remains silent on an issue that could impact the election.

That number has now jumped to 73%. And it’s not because Republicans suddenly had an epiphany about whether such conduct is criminal; it’s because at the time, they guessed what the question was really about.

And this is not the first evidence that Republicans view the situation as rather problematic. Last year, I recapped the polls on Trump’s various controversies and whether Americans thought he had broken the law. Consistently, when given the opportunity to say that Trump’s conduct was simply “unethical,” a majority declined to say Trump broke the law.

But compared to Trump’s other pre-January. 6 controversies, the silent money case ranked quite high in terms of what people opposed.

Once we got a fuller picture of the situation in August 2018, an AP-NORC poll showed nearly 4 in 10 Americans said Trump broke the law, and nearly 8 in 10 said his conduct was at least unethical. And an inordinate number of Republicans opposed it, as I noted this week:

The key point is that there is a small but significant part of the GOP base that has bought into the idea that Trump did something wrong. In fact, a majority of Republicans did. While only 7% thought he had broken the law, 49% called his actions unethical – a very high number compared to other Trump controversies.

There are many complex legal issues here. The basic question would appear to be whether Trump falsified business records by listing the refunds as “legal fees,” which would be a misdemeanor. Prosecutors could also charge a felony if they believe they can prove the records were tampered with in service of another crime, such as the campaign finance violation to which Cohen pleaded guilty. It’s hardly a slam dunk.

But this new data seems to reinforce that the vast majority of Americans — including Republicans — see something legally problematic here. At least if you ask them in a certain way.


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