No one, least of all Donald Trump, should be surprised when sex puts him in mortal jeopardy, which seemed to be the case last week when his personal lawyer pleaded guilty to violating the law by arranging $280,000 in hush payments to a porn actress and a Playboy model who were prepared to tell voters about having sex with him.
Sex is not illegal, but lying about it under oath is, as President Bill Clinton discovered, and so is directing a subordinate to violate campaign finance laws or colluding to cover up the violations. Trump said Clinton’s only mistake was owning up to sex after first lying about it; if he had stuck with the lie they would have never got him. That’s a policy Trump learned from his old friend Roy Cohn.
Now, Trump is discovering that is hard to do. He denied both the sex and paying women to be quiet about it when the staid Wall Street Journal, owned chiefly by his friend Rupert Murdoch and citing “dozens” of sources, reported the sex and bribes three days before the presidential election in 2016. Trump sent out Hope Hicks, his communications director, to say the paper lied. He didn’t count on the government finding proof.
Now that the federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, a Republican whom Trump personally interviewed for the job, has forced Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to admit violating the law on Trump’s directives, the president says, OK, he arranged to buy the women’s silence, but they were private business transactions that were nobody else’s concern — not the government’s and not the voters’.
All but five Republican congressmen, including many who are now saying Trump’s peccadilloes and lies are inconsequential, voted to impeach Clinton for not being truthful about sex and nearly every Republican in the Senate voted to remove him from office for the sins.
It seems almost certain that, if the violations are not sent to the House of Representatives for impeachment articles or even if they are, sealed charges will await Trump on the day he leaves office. It is not the law but current Justice Department policy that a president must not be charged in criminal court until he leaves office. Trump has no choice now but to run for re-election in 2020 and win, unless he feels confident that his successor, Mike Pence or someone else, will pardon him, as Gerald Ford did for Richard Nixon. If he is defeated in November 2020 he can immediately resign, get a quick pardon from Pence and escape prison.
As Trump will tell you, it is the fault of the press that a little extramarital sex has become a political calamity and grounds for booting men out of office if they can be tricked into lying about it under oath or violating the law in some other way, like bribing the women to keep silent.
Insinuating depravity by presidents was not above the press in Jefferson’s day, but with the 20th century press it was considered a private matter and unprofessional for reporters to pursue such stuff. It lowered them to the level of trashy supermarket tabloids like the National Enquirer.
Our beloved Arkansas congressman Wilbur Mills’ public romps with the Fanne Fox, aka the Argentine Firecracker, in 1974 and presidential contender Gary Hart’s rendezvous with Donna Rice on the yacht Monkey Business ended media modesty forever. The press’ duty was to give voters everything they needed to know about a politician’s moral fitness for office. Politicians had no domain of privacy. On the eve of Clinton’s announcement for president in 1991, a Washington Post reporter begged for my help in chasing rumors of his amours with women, an assignment he seemed to hate. I put him on the phone with one of the women, who denied it.
There were ethical limits, except at the National Enquirer. It plowed through garbage for dirty diapers to get DNA evidence that the child of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards’ secret girlfriend and campaign aide was the spawn of the Democratic presidential candidate. The paper exposed Edwards’ scheme to use campaign funds to carry out the hoax that the child was the son of a male campaign aide. Edwards beat the rap that he violated campaign-finance laws, but that is the matrix for the charges against Cohen and ultimately Trump.
The National Enquirer’s devotion to the cause of exposing the misconduct of politicians changed when the quarry was a Republican, or at least Trump. According to The Wall Street Journal, Trump met in Trump Tower with his friend David J. Pecker, chairman of the company that owns the Enquirer, to talk about how Pecker could help his campaign. The contribution limit was $2,700. It was agreed that Pecker would buy off women who wanted to reveal their affairs with Donald by contracting for exclusive rights to their stories and then squelching them — a trade trick known as “catch and kill.” He paid $150,000 to Karen McDougal, the Playboy model who had a yearlong affair with Trump. It amounted to an illegal corporate contribution to the campaign.
But listen to Sens. Lindsey Graham and Orrin Hatch, who voted three times each to remove Clinton from office for extramarital sex and not being truthful about it: That doesn’t matter anymore, and neither does obedience to the rule of law.