(WASHINGTON) — With a grand jury weighing possible charges against former President Donald Trump, the case is drawing comparisons to the indictment of a rising Democratic star over a decade ago that also involved hush money accusations.
In 2011, John Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina and two-time presidential candidate, was charged in an alleged plot to violate campaign finance laws during his 2008 bid for the White House.
Federal prosecutors accused Edwards of soliciting nearly $1 million from wealthy donors to hide his affair with videographer Rielle Hunter — and that he was the father of their baby — to prevent damage to his reputation as a family man during the campaign.
Edwards’ defense team argued the donations were personal gifts from friends, not campaign contributions, and were intended only to hide the affair from his cancer-stricken wife, not voters.
A North Carolina jury found Edwards not guilty of one count of receiving illegal campaign donations but deadlocked on five other charges, leading to a mistrial. The Justice Department ultimately dropped the charges.
It was the most recent major case of a hush money scheme in a presidential campaign, until now.
On Saturday, Trump claimed he expected to be arrested this past Tuesday in connection with a $130,000 payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels in the final stretch of the 2016 campaign.
It remains unclear what action Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg will take, or when.
Prosecutors are said to be considering whether Trump falsified business records when reimbursing his attorney Michael Cohen for the payment to Daniels. That would be a misdemeanor under New York law, though it could become a felony if prosecutors contend he falsified records to conceal another crime.
Trump attorney Joe Tacopina made a comparison to Edwards during a recent appearance on MSNBC.
“This is very — look, John Edwards — remember that case, where a third party paid for John Edwards’s mistress who was pregnant with his baby and all that stuff? … He was acquitted. And the DOJ dropped all charges on the hung counts on that,” Tacopina said.
Tacopina has also echoed Edwards’ defense that the Daniels payment wasn’t related to the campaign and was intended to protect the Trump family.
“He made this with personal funds to prevent something coming out false but embarrassing to himself and his family’s young son,” Tacopina told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America.”
Similarities, differences in Trump and Edwards cases
“There are a lot of similarities in how these two cases may run,” said Steven Friedland, a law professor at North Carolina’s Elon University and a former federal prosecutor.
Both cases involve salacious details of a presidential candidate paying a woman to keep quiet about an alleged affair.
After first denying the affair, Edwards admitted his relationship with Hunter, a videographer hired to document his campaign, in an interview with ABC News’ Bob Woodruff in 2008. He denied being the father of their child until he eventually acknowledged that in 2010.
Trump has long denied Daniels’ allegation of a 2006 affair, and his team has cast the funds given to her as an extortion payment.
Politics also hover over the two cases. Trump and Republicans have assailed Bragg as a Democrat abusing his authority to go after a political enemy. In the Edwards case, some Democrats questioned whether George Holding, a Bush-appointed U.S. attorney who later ran for Congress as a Republican, was acting out of his own political ambition.
And both cases involve star witnesses whose credibility has been questioned.
In Edwards’ case, it was his former aide Andrew Young who took the stand under a grant of immunity to testify against him. The defense cross-examination painted Young as an inconsistent witness.
In Trump’s case, it is Cohen. Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and other crimes, including lying to Congress, for his role in orchestrating the payment to Daniels.
He told ABC News he is ready to testify against Trump, should there be an indictment. But Trump and his allies, including attorney Robert Costello, have sought to undermine his credibility.
“Just like the cross-examination of Andrew Young was pivotal in the John Edwards case, it looks like no matter what charges are brought, the cross examinations of Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels, if she testifies, will be pivotal,” Friedland said.
There are also differences between the two cases, observers noted, with one of the most notable being the timeline of the payments.
The payments to Edwards’ mistress began in 2007 and continued after he suspended his campaign, while Daniels received a one-time payment just before the 2016 election.
“It’s really hard to believe that the primary motivation wasn’t to prevent it from coming out and affecting the presidential election,” Brett Kappel, a campaign finance law specialist, said of the payment to Daniels.
Another key contrast is that the Edwards case played out at the federal level, while Trump is being investigating at the state level.
What the Edwards case could mean for Trump
While it remains to be seen what charges and evidence Bragg may bring forward, the Edwards case showed even trials dominated by sordid details involving a high-profile politician ultimately hinge on the legal intricacies involved.
It also left the remaining question of whether hush money can amount to a campaign contribution.
Friedland noted that alleging a campaign finance rules violation was a “novel” approach to bringing criminal charges in Edwards’ case, and that it remains so today.
“It isn’t a well-established violation of criminal law,” he said.
Despite no conviction in the Edwards case, the revelation of the affair and hush payments promptly ended his political career. What would the impact be on Trump, who has already weathered several scandals?
“Certainly, all the things that have happened to him up to this point, including impeachment twice, has not dampened the ardor of his supporters,” said Stanley Brand, an election law expert. “And I don’t know that a New York prosecution on something that is essentially to begin with a misdemeanor is going to do that, either.”
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