WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump sought Monday to diminish allegations he directed his lawyer to criminally violate campaign finance laws by making $280,000 in payments to two women to remain silent before the 2016 election about alleged affairs with him.
Trump said on Twitter the payments made by his former attorney, Michael Cohen, were "a simple private transaction," and that opposition Democrats and federal prosecutors "wrongly call it a campaign contribution, which it was not."
The U.S. leader said that “...even if it was, it is only a CIVIL CASE," comparing it to campaign finance violations committed in 2008 by his predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama. But Trump said the payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal were "done correctly by a lawyer and there would not even be a fine. Lawyer’s liability if he made a mistake, not me."
He said, "Cohen just trying to get his sentence reduced. WITCH HUNT!"
Trump's comments on Cohen came after federal prosecutors said Friday the Trump attorney, "in coordination with and at the direction" of then-candidate Trump, made the hush money payments shortly before the 2016 presidential election. Cohen is being sentenced Wednesday for making the payments, along with several other criminal offenses, and faces several years in prison.
Trump, as he often does, derided special counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing 19-month investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to help him win the election and whether, as president, Trump obstructed justice by trying to thwart the probe.
Quoting a Fox News report, Trump said, "Democrats can’t find a Smocking (sic) Gun tying the Trump campaign to Russia... No Smocking Gun...No Collusion. That’s because there was NO COLLUSION."
A key U.S. lawmaker said Sunday Democrats in the House of Representatives could pursue impeachment hearings against Trump, saying that he had "surrounded himself with crooks" and was part of a broad "conspiracy against the American people" to win the 2016 election.
Congressman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat set to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee when Democrats take control of the chamber next month, told CNN that lawmakers have to decide "how important" allegations are against Trump, but should pursue impeachment charges "only for serious offenses."
Nadler said that if proven, the payments to the two women were "certainly impeachable offenses." That could lead to his removal from office, if the Senate were to convict him by at least a two-thirds vote, a doubtful proposition with Republican control of the Senate continuing in the Congress that takes office in January.
Nadler said lawmakers will have "to look at all this," along with weighing what Mueller eventually concludes about Trump campaign links with Russia and whether Trump obstructed justice.
The U.S. Justice Department has a standing guideline against indicting sitting presidents, although they can be charged after leaving office. Nadler said, however, "There's nothing in the Constitution that prohibits the president from being indicted. Nobody should be above the law."
Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, set to assume control of the House Intelligence Committee next month, told CBS News on Sunday, "My takeaway is there's a very real prospect that on the day Donald Trump leaves office the Justice Department may indict him, that he may be the first president in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time."
Trump has called for the end to the Mueller probe, but a Republican lawmaker, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, told ABC News, "I've always supported the Mueller investigation and continue to do so because I think it's in the best interest of everyone involved, including, by the way, the president."
Aside from Cohen, Mueller so far has secured guilty pleas or won convictions of Trump's first national security adviser, his former campaign manager, his former deputy campaign manager, a foreign policy adviser and other lesser figures.
On Sunday, Trump assailed former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey, whom Trump fired while he was heading the Russia investigation before Mueller was named to lead the probe. Comey testified to a House panel on Friday about his role in 2016 election-related investigations of Trump's campaign and that of his challenger, Democrat Hillary Clinton, a former U.S. secretary of state.
"On 245 occasions, former FBI Director James Comey told House investigators he didn’t know, didn’t recall, or couldn’t remember things when asked," Trump said on Twitter.
"Leakin’ James Comey must have set a record for who lied the most to Congress in one day. His Friday testimony was so untruthful! This whole deal is a Rigged Fraud headed up by dishonest people who would do anything so that I could not become President. They are now exposed!"
Late Sunday, Comey said Americans "should use every breath we have to make sure" Trump is defeated in 2020 when he is running for re-election to a second term.