Trump case recalls John Edwards’ scandal in NC. Would it play out differently in court?
March 22, 2023 Updated Wed., March 22, 2023 at 12:37 p.m.
Former President Donald Trump announced over the weekend that prosecutors were likely to arrest him Tuesday in connection to a $130,000 payment made to keep an adult film star quiet about her alleged tryst with Trump.
That didn’t happen Tuesday, but in social media posts and fundraising emails, Trump has painted himself as a martyr and asked his supporters to protest what would be the essentially unprecedented arrest of a former president and presidential candidate.
In North Carolina, rumors of Trump’s indictment immediately brought back memories of what happened in 2011. That’s when another presidential candidate — former Sen. John Edwards — was arrested on similar allegations of spending $900,000 to keep an affair and his daughter a secret.
“We’re all casting about looking for examples and looking for something to ground ourselves,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “I think this is the closest example there is.”
What happened to John Edwards?
Edwards, now 69, was once an up-and-coming star in the Democratic Party. He twice ran for president in 2004 and 2008, and served as Democratic nominee (and later Secretary of State) John Kerry’s running mate in 2004, after dropping out of the presidential race.
“It’s easy to forget what a rising star John Edwards was,” Cooper said. “He was young, yet seemed like he had been on the political scene forever. He was a unique candidate in that way.”
But Edwards lost his political career after the 2008 presidential election when voters learned that he had had an affair with Rielle Hunter, a videographer on his campaign. At the time, his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, was dying of breast cancer, and the affair led to a pregnancy and the birth of Edwards’ daughter.
Up until that point, Edwards had painted himself as a virtuous family man, but prosecutors accused Edwards of collecting more than the allowed amount of campaign donations in order to conceal his affair.
Prosecutors said Edwards received nearly $1 million in campaign donations from Gillette razors heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and acclaimed attorney Fred Baron. They then alleged that Edwards directed more than $925,000 of the donations to be used to pay for Hunter’s medical and living expenses and for travel expenses to help her hide her pregnancy from the public.
“Edwards knew that public revelation of the affair and pregnancy would destroy his candidacy, by undermining Edwards’ presentation of himself as a family man and by forcing his campaign to divert personnel and resources away from other campaign activities to respond to criticism and media scrutiny regarding the affair and pregnancy,” Edwards’ indictment said.
Edwards initially denied the affair and that the baby was his. He later recanted, but said that he wasn’t trying to hide the affair from the public but from his wife, who died in 2010.
Edwards did not respond to an email requesting comment on this article.
What happened in John Edwards trial
Jurors acquitted Edwards of accepting illegal campaign contributions from Mellon. But they deadlocked on three other counts of receiving illegal campaign contributions, making false statements and conspiracy.
After the trial ended with a hung jury, prosecutors chose not to retry the case, weighing its complexity and cost — the investigation cost $2 million — versus the payoff.
“We knew that this case — like all campaign finance cases — would be challenging,” Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division said in a statement at the time. “But it is our duty to bring hard cases when we believe that the facts and the law support charging a candidate for high office with a crime.”
Jeff Welty, a professor at UNC School of Government, followed the Edwards case closely. He said prosecutors often find themselves in a position of having to prove intent. He said it’s easy to do when someone points a gun at someone else’s chest and pulls the trigger.
“It’s an easy inference that you’re trying to kill them,” Welty said. “But in this kind of case, the intent that’s required is a little murkier and the circumstantial evidence of it, at least in the Edwards case, wasn’t as strong.”
Welty said that could be true in Trump’s case as well, although it remains to be seen if Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has sufficient circumstantial evidence to make his case more convincing than the one against Edwards.
What charges could Trump face?
There’s a lot we don’t know about the investigation into Trump’s own “hush money” allegations.
Welty said no official source has announced what charges Bragg might be considering bringing against the Republican former president.
But we know that over the course of several weeks, witnesses have reportedly testified before a grand jury in New York City regarding allegations that Trump knowingly directed $130,000 to be paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels in exchange for her silence about a one-night sexual encounter they had in 2006. The payment was made right before the 2016 election.
It is believed that Bragg is looking at charges that include falsifying business records, according to news reports, which would be based on the payment to Daniels being classified as a legal fee rather than as a settlement. Normally, Welty said, that would be a misdemeanor — but it could be a felony, if it’s connected to another crime. Welty said such an alleged crime would likely be a campaign finance violation, with the idea that the payment was essentially a campaign contribution from his attorney, Michael Cohen, to the Trump campaign in excess of federal contribution limits.
Cohen pleaded guilty to having done so, along with several other charges, in 2018.
“Everybody has an opinion,” Welty said. “Republican members of Congress have an opinion that this is a politically motivated witch-hunt, and some people feel like this is an open-and-shut case, and so there’s a lot of opinions while we’re still in the dark about exactly what a lot of the evidence is and what the charges might be.”
North Carolina Democrats had accused former federal prosecutor George Holding of political motivation for overseeing the Edwards investigation and then resigning his office to run for Congress just weeks after Edwards was indicted.
Sex scandals can end political careers. North Carolina saw it with Edwards.
And with Cal Cunningham in a 2020 run for U.S. Senate. He was in a close race against Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican, when an affair and suggestive text messages came to light just weeks before the election. That may have helped Tillis win, and Cunningham left the political scene.
So what’s the deal with Trump?
“Normally, a video bragging about sexual assault would have taken down a politician,” Cooper said. “Normally inciting violence at the Capitol would take down a politician. Donald Trump’s people don’t seem to respond to Donald Trump in a way that they respond to other politicians. The notion that he is a philanderer was baked in before he ever descended the escalator.”
Which leads to the question of why Trump would even care if his tryst with Daniels came to light. He has generally denied the allegation, though he also wrote over the weekend on Truth Social that the “Stormy nonsense, it is VERY OLD & happened a long time ago, long past the very publicly known & accepted deadline of Statute of Limitations.”
Welty pointed out that at the time, Trump was trying to appeal to the evangelical right and conservative Christian voters. Sex with a porn star might have tarnished his appeal among that voter base. On the other hand, Welty said, he might just not have wanted personal details to become public.
Follow the money
Welty said a prosecutor would have to overcome many hurdles, including arguing that this is a legitimate case and not a political operation.
Then there’s the money.
What will be easy to do is trace the money. There are documents, canceled checks, bank transfers.
But the prosecutor would have to prove who authorized a bank transfer and why. And much of that would require circumstantial evidence.
“Circumstantial evidence is, of course, admissible, and properly can be considered by a jury, but it asks the jurors to kind of connect the dots or to infer intentions based on actions,” Welty said. “And, you know, sometimes jurors are reluctant to feel like they can do that beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Welty said he felt it was hard for jurors in the Edwards case to decipher what he personally directed to happen; what his aide, Andrew Young, caused to happen; and what Mellon’s intent for the money was.
“They had this question of, ‘Was Bunny doing this because Edwards was running for president and she was trying to help him with that? Or was she paying all this money to Hunter, just because, you know, Edwards was in a pickle and he needed help — it’s not a campaign issue, it’s just like, problems that rich people have where you’ve got to pay off your mistress for whatever.”
Welty said Bragg turned down the opportunity to prosecute Trump and his company on potential charges surrounding misrepresenting the value of his properties for tax purposes.
“The fact that he took a pass on that, but seems to be getting closer to bringing charges on this, suggests that he may feel like he’s got what he needs,” Welty said. “He’s not just willy-nilly pursuing anything he can drum up, but he’s making a careful selection, perhaps.”
Trumped up arrest
Reporters camped out Tuesday outside the courthouse in New York City and Palm Beach International Airport in Florida, where Trump’s jet was parked, waiting for developments.
This wouldn’t be the first time a president would be arrested, but certainly the most memorable. The only other time in American history was in 1872, and it was President Ulysses S. Grant.
In a horse and carriage.
Trump’s team spent the weekend and into Monday and Tuesday sending fundraising emails and posting videos on the notion he would be indicted Tuesday.
“PROTEST TAKE BACK OUR NATION,” one post read.
As of Tuesday afternoon, nothing had happened and few had taken Trump up on protesting, many saying it wasn’t worth the money and potential prosecution.
Cooper said that trying to predict what Trump or his supporters would do would be a “fool’s errand” because he has proven to operate outside the norms of American politics.
“I think he will try to cast himself as a martyr,” Cooper said. “He will try to tie this to institutions that are outside of his control, and he will attempt to use this as a benefit to his candidacy and his perennial need to seek attention.”
Meanwhile, police in both New York and around the U.S. Capitol prepared for the worst if an indictment is handed down.
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