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SAUNDERS: Trump faces 34 felonies at trial. But was there a crime?

WASHINGTON

I can’t tell you how many people I know who do not like former President Donald Trump yet nonetheless smell prosecutorial overreach in Manhattan.

District Attorney Alvin Bragg has charged the former president with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. Trump has pleaded not guilty.

The case began with Michael Cohen, Trump’s one-time fixer, making a “hush money” payment to the former adult film actress known as Stormy Daniels to keep her from revealing information about an apparent sexual relationship with Trump in 2006. Bragg used the fact that Cohen paid $130,000 to Daniels in 2016, when Trump was running for president, as a pretext to turn a moldy misdemeanor offense into a felony.

But is it even illegal? This trial showcases something rich men and big corporations have been doing for years — paying off mistresses or wronged staffers with cash settlements with little public scrutiny thanks to nondisclosure agreements.

I don’t like it, but it’s not a crime.

On Tuesday, National Enquirer editor David Pecker testified that during a 2015 meeting in Trump Tower, he told Trump, Cohen and campaign stalwart Hope Hicks that he wanted to help the Trump campaign, if behind the scenes.

What followed was “Catch and Kill,” the term for the scheme of paying to get dirt on a public figure, then killing the story, as happened with another alleged Trump gal pal, Karen McDougal. The National Enquirer paid her $150,000 for a story that never ran.

Trump has denied that anything extramarital occurred with McDougal and Daniels.

But as Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told CNN, “You don’t pay someone $130,000 not to have sex with you.”

Back to Cohen. He’s a flawed witness to be sure, who in 2018 pleaded guilty to charges that included tax evasion and lying to Congress when he testified about Trump, his former master. Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison.

Then last year Cohen claimed that he lied when he admitted to tax evasion. A more careful prosecutor would not hang a case on an accomplished liar.

Given his capacity for self-pity and self-sabotage, it’s no surprise that Trump told reporters after the second day of trial, “I’m not allowed to defend myself.” Trump also continued to throw shade at Judge Juan Merchan whose gag order, Trump maintained, robbed him of his “right to free speech.” Trump also offered that Merchan “should recuse himself.”

Pecker testified that he was glad to help by running “positive stories about Mr. Trump,” as well as negative stories about his campaign rivals. I’m guessing many Big Media hot shots feel the same way — about Biden.

Contact Review-Journal Washington columnist Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com. Follow @debrajsaunders on X.

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