Federal prosecutors decided to close the investigation into the 2016 criminal hush money payment to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal that benefitted the Trump campaign because, in part, of the policy that prevents the indictment of a sitting president, according to a new report from USA Today citing an anonymous source.
Michael Cohen has already pleaded guilty to the violation of campaign finance law. He said that he carried out the effort in coordination with and at the direction of then-candidate Donald Trump in order to increase his chances of victory in the 2016 presidential election.
But just as Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded he could not charge Trump with a crime due to standing Justice Department policy, it seems prosecutors in the Southern District of New York regarded the same rules as binding on them. And according to “a person familiar with the matter” cited by USA Today, “the Justice Department’s opinion that a president cannot be indicted factored into the decision to end the probe.”
The source, however, said, “it was unclear whether prosecutors made a determination that they had sufficient evidence to bring a case against Trump or anyone other than.” Given this caveat, it’s not clear how deeply involved this source was in the case and decision-making itself. And as with any story based on a single source — and not yet confirmed by any other outlet — ample skepticism is warranted. The detail also suggests that it’s possible that even were Trump not president, he might not have been indicted in the case.
The report is plausible on its face. Cohen’s testimony, public recordings, newly released court filings, and the facts of the case all strongly suggest Trump was involved directly in the criminal payments. But we know that DOJ policy would prevent Trump from being indicted even if prosecutors had rock-solid evidence against him.
“DOJ had tied Trump pretty closely to the illegal hush-payments,” noted USA Today editor Brad Heath. “It alleged that they were made at his direction. And earlier today, it revealed that the FBI knew he participated in phone calls with aides when the scheme was hatched.”