House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy prepares to speak to the media after unexpectedly dropping out of consideration to be the next Speaker of the House on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 8, 2015.
Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

House GOP leader: Illegal hush-money payoffs aren’t impeachable

Months after Michael Cohen told a federal court he executed a hush-money scheme at the direction of Donald Trump, the president’s former personal attorney brought documentary evidence to Congress to bolster his claims. The check Cohen presented to lawmakers was signed by Trump after he took office, implicating the president in a cover-up.

And the top Republican in the U.S. House doesn’t much care.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told ABC’s “This Week” that the hush payments President Donald Trump’s former longtime attorney Michael Cohen made to two women before the 2016 presidential election “aren’t impeachable” offenses. […]

“Listen, you know what concerns me? If you hire an attorney – if I hire an attorney to make sure I carry out the law, the attorney has a responsibility to tell me what’s right and wrong in the process,” McCarthy said. “I watched – this is a – if it’s a finance campaign, those are fines. Those aren’t impeachable in the process.”

When ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos asked why Trump lied as part of the scandal, McCarthy said he’d have to ask the president, though the California Republican added, “You’ve seen politicians do this exact same thing in the past.”

Yes, of course, it’s a story has old as time. Politician has extra-marital affair with porn star; politician makes hush-money payment; politician breaks federal law while conspiring with his fixer; politician lies; politician gets caught. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen a politician do “this exact same thing,” I’d have … exactly one nickel.

But of particular interest is McCarthy’s insistence that Trump’s misdeeds “aren’t impeachable.” In all fairness, the House minority leader may very well be correct. There have been substantive debates for many years about the precise meaning of the Constitution’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” language. Maybe an illegal hush-money scheme in which the president has already been named as an unindicted co-conspirator crosses the threshold; maybe it doesn’t.

That said, McCarthy’s argument is unsatisfying for a reason – or in this case, a few reasons.

For one thing, Cohen’s role in the pre-election payoff is one of the reasons he’ll soon be incarcerated. This isn’t a debate about jaywalking or jumping the turnstiles on a subway. McCarthy described this as a controversy in which those implicated simply pay “fines,” but Cohen’s prison sentence suggests otherwise.

What’s more, if violations of campaign-finance laws were included in the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon, why should we necessarily assume that Trump’s alleged transgressions aren’t equally problematic?

But the question I’m especially interested in is the one McCarthy hasn’t yet answered: if Trump’s hush-money scandal isn’t impeachable, what, specifically, would be? What would this president have to do for the House minority leader to conclude that impeachment is warranted?

Would McCarthy be equally cavalier if a Democratic president was caught up in an illegal hush-money scheme?