Top Democrats say Trump may face impeachment, jail over hush money

WASHINGTON, Dec 9 (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump could face impeachment and jail time if hush money payments reported by his former lawyer are proven to be campaign finance violations, Democratic lawmakers said on Sunday.

Court filings on Friday in cases that stemmed from a federal probe into Russian activities during the 2016 presidential election pointed to potential problem areas for Trump, including whether he instructed six-figure payments to two women during the campaign to keep quiet about affairs.

Federal prosecutors sought prison time for longtime Trump "fixer" Michael Cohen for paying off an adult film star and a former Playboy model at Trump's behest, evading taxes and lying to Congress about a proposed Trump Organization building in Moscow.

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Michael Cohen, Stormy Daniels hush payment scandal
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Michael Cohen, Stormy Daniels hush payment scandal
Adult-film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels speaks to the media outside US Federal Court on April 16, 2018, in Lower Manhattan, New York. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen has been under criminal investigation for months over his business dealings, and FBI agents last week raided his home, hotel room, office, a safety deposit box and seized two cellphones. Some of the documents reportedly relate to payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, who claims a one-night stand with Trump a decade ago, and ex Playboy model Karen McDougal who also claims an affair. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen arrives at federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Michael Avenatti, lawyer for adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, leaves federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Michael Cohen's attorney Todd Harrison arrives at federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar
U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen (centre) leaves federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid
Adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels speaks to media along with lawyer Michael Avenatti (R) outside federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Michael Cohen's attorney Todd Harrison is pictured outside the Manhattan Federal Court in New York City, New York, U.S., April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon
U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen exits a hotel in New York City, U.S., April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, speaks to media along with lawyer Michael Avenatti (R) outside federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid
Attorney for Stormy Daniels, Michael Avenatti is pictured though a window as he arrives at federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and attorney Michael Avenatti arrive at Federal Court in New York, U.S., on Monday, April 16, 2018. Daniels claims she had sex with Donald Trump in 2006 and took a $130,000 hush payment shortly before the 2016 election from lawyer Michael Cohen. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images
President Trumps lawyer Michael Cohen exits the US Federal Court on April 16, 2018, in Lower Manhattan, New York. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen has been under criminal investigation for months over his business dealings, and FBI agents last week raided his home, hotel room, office, a safety deposit box and seized two cellphones. Some of the documents reportedly relate to payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, who claims a one-night stand with Trump a decade ago, and ex Playboy model Karen McDougal who also claims an affair. / AFP PHOTO / EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ (Photo credit should read EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Adult-film actress Stephanie Clifford, (C) also known as Stormy Daniels arrives for a court hearing at the US Courthouse in New York on April 16, 2018. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen has been under criminal investigation for months over his business dealings, and FBI agents last week raided his home, hotel room, office, a safety deposit box and seized two cellphones. / AFP PHOTO / Hector RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Attorney for Stormy Daniels, Michael Avenatti(C), arrives for a court hearing at the US Courthouse in New York on April 16, 2018. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen has been under criminal investigation for months over his business dealings, and FBI agents last week raided his home, hotel room, office, a safety deposit box and seized two cellphones. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 13: Michael Avenatti (R), attorney for Stormy Daniels, arrives for a court proceeding regarding the search warrants served on President Donald Trump's longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen, at the United States District Court Southern District of New York, April 13, 2018 in New York City. Cohen and his lawyers are asking the court to block Justice Department officials from reading documents and materials related to his relationship with President Donald Trump that they believe should be protected by attorney-client privilege. Officials with the FBI, armed with a search warrant, raided Cohen's office and two private residences earlier in the week. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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If the payments are proven to be felony campaign finance violations, Democratic U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler told CNN those would be grounds for impeachment.

"Well, they would be impeachable offenses. Whether they are important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question," said Nadler, who will lead the Judiciary Committee when Democrats take control of the House of Representatives in January.

Under U.S. law, campaign contributions, defined as things of value given to a campaign to influence an election, must be disclosed. Such payments are also limited to $2,700 per person.

The White House did not immediately return a request for comment. Press secretary Sarah Sanders said on Friday that Cohen has lied repeatedly and that the filing was insignificant.

Friday's court filings also revealed new information about contacts between people working for Trump and Russians in the cases of Cohen, Trump's former longtime personal lawyer, and Paul Manafort, Trump's short-lived campaign chairman who was convicted in August on tax and bank fraud charges.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller said Manafort lied to investigators about his interactions with a Russian tied to Russian intelligence services. Mueller's office said the lying prompted prosecutors last week to retract a plea agreement with Manafort on two separate conspiracy charges.

"I think what these indictments and filings show is that the president was at the center of a massive fraud - several massive frauds - against the American people," Nadler told CNN.

Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump's campaign colluded with Moscow to sway the election. Russia denies interfering in the 2016 election and Trump has denied any collusion occurred.

The investigation has cast a shadow over Trump's presidency, with its implication Moscow may have had a hand in his White House victory. The Republican president repeatedly has expressed his impatience with the probe that Mueller took over in March 2017, saying it was politically motivated.

PROSPECT OF JAIL TIME

Trump said the filings did not prove any collusion with Russia and called for an end to the investigation.

"Time for the Witch Hunt to END!" Trump said in a Twitter post on Saturday.

However, the end of the Mueller probe could be the beginning of bigger problems for Trump.

"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," Representative Adam Schiff, the Democrat who will lead the House Intelligence Committee next year, told CBS' "Face the Nation."

Legal experts are divided over whether a sitting president can be charged with a crime, as well as on whether a violation of campaign finance law would be an impeachable offense.

Republican Senator Rand Paul warned against over-criminalizing campaign finance violations, telling NBC's "Meet the Press" that errors in disclosures should be punished with fines, not jail.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio told CNN he was waiting for the results of the Russia investigation and related federal probes. However, he cautioned that "no one should be above the law."

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Paul Manafort's trial for bank and tax fraud charges
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Paul Manafort's trial for bank and tax fraud charges
After a guilty verdict on the first count, an unidentified man holds a sign outside the U.S. District Courthouse for the fourth day of jury deliberations in former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort's trial on bank and tax fraud charges stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russia's role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., August 21, 2018. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
The 2012-issued passport of President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, included in the government's exhibits admitted into evidence during Manafort's trial, is shown in this image released from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's office in Washington, DC, U.S. on August 1, 2018. Image released August 1, 2018. Courtesy Special Counsel's Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
ALEXANDRIA, VA - JULY 31: An activist holds a picture of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort during a protest outside the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse prior to the first day of the trial of Manafort July 31, 2018 in Alexandria, Virginia. Manafort was charged with financial frauds and is the first defendant in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to face trial. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Jackets included in the government's exhibits admitted into evidence, at the trial of President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, are seen in this combination image of pictures released from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's office in Washington, DC, U.S. on August 1, 2018. Courtesy Special Counsel� Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. THIS PICTURE WAS PROCESSED BY REUTERS TO ENHANCE QUALITY. UNPROCESSED VERSIONS HAVE BEEN PROVIDED SEPARATELY
ALEXANDRIA, VA - JULY 31: Activists hold signs during a protest outside the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse prior to the first day of the trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort July 31, 2018 in Alexandria, Virginia. Manafort was charged with financial frauds and is the first defendant in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to face trial. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
ALEXANDRIA, VA - AUGUST 02: Kathleen Manafort (L), wife of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, arrives at the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse August 2, 2018 in Alexandria, Virginia. Manafort has been charged with bank and tax fraud as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Defense Attorney Kevin Downing arrives at U.S. District Court for the opening day of Former Trump Campaign Manager Paul Manafort's trial on bank and tax fraud charges stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Protesters gather outside the US District Courthouse ahead of Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort arriving for the opening day of his trial on bank and tax fraud charges stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Defense Attorney Kevin Downing arrives at U.S. District Court for the opening day of Former Trump Campaign Manager Paul Manafort's trial on bank and tax fraud charges stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Heather Washkuhn, manager of Paul Manafort's personal and business finances, left, walks toward District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018. Washkuhn told the jury that she had no knowledge of the offshore companies and bank accounts that prosecutors say helped former Donald Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort hide tens of millions in income from the U.S. government. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Defense Attorney Kevin Downing arrives at U.S. District Court for the opening day of Former Trump Campaign Manager Paul Manafort's trial on bank and tax fraud charges stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
The U.S. District Courthouse is seen ahead of Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort arriving for the opening day of his trial on bank and tax fraud charges stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
ALEXANDRIA, VA - JULY 31: Members of Manafort's legal team Jay Nanavati, (C), and Richard Westling, (R), wait to enter the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse to attend the trial of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort who was arrested last year on financial fraud charges, on July 31, 2018 in Alexandria, Virginia. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
The U.S. District Courthouse is seen ahead of Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort arriving for the opening day of his trial on bank and tax fraud charges stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Protesters gather outside the U.S. District Courthouse ahead of Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort arriving for the opening day of his trial on bank and tax fraud charges stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
UNITED STATES JULY 31: Media set up microphones in front of the United States District Court in Alexandria, Virginia where President Donald Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort stands trial July 31, 2018. (Photo By Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES JULY 31: A protester is seen outside of the United States District Court in Alexandria, Virginia where President Donald Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort stands trial July 31, 2018. (Photo By Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
ALEXANDRIA, VA - JULY 31: An activist wears an 'It's Mueller Time' T-shirt as she hits a drum during a protest outside the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse prior to the first day of the trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort July 31, 2018 in Alexandria, Virginia. Manafort was charged with financial frauds and is the first defendant in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to face trial. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES JULY 31: A protester is seen outside of the United States District Court in Alexandria, Virginia where President Donald Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort stands trial July 31, 2018. (Photo By Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
ALEXANDRIA, VA - JULY 31: An activist holds a puppet of U.S. President Donald Trump during a protest outside the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse prior to the first day of the trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort July 31, 2018 in Alexandria, Virginia. Manafort was charged with financial frauds and is the first defendant in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to face trial. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
ALEXANDRIA, VA - JULY 31: People wait in-line to enter the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse to hear the first day of the trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort July 31, 2018 in Alexandria, Virginia. Manafort was charged with financial frauds and is the first defendant in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to face trial. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Jay Nanavati, co-counsel for former Trump Campaign Manger Paul Manafort, left, and Richard Westling, co-counsel for former Trump Campaign Manger Paul Manafort, right, wait to enter District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., on Tuesday, July 31, 2018. The 18-count Alexandria indictment includes five charges of filing false tax returns, five for conspiracy to commit bank fraud, four bank fraud counts and four counts of failing to file reports of his foreign bank and financial accounts with the U.S. Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
ALEXANDRIA, VA - JULY 31: Anti Trump and Manafort protesters gather in front of the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse where the trial of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort starts today, on July 31, 2018 in Alexandria, Virginia. Manafort was arrested last year on financial fraud charges. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
ALEXANDRIA, VA - JULY 31: A protester stands in front of the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse where the trial of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort starts today, on July 31, 2018 in Alexandria, Virginia. Manafort was arrested last year on financial fraud charges. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Paul Manafort's lawyer Thomas Zehnle (C) is surrounded by media as he arrives at the Albert V. Bryan US Courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia on July 31, 20187, for the opening of the jury selection for the Paul Manafort trial. - Donald Trump's former campaign chief Paul Manafort on July 31, 2018 becomes the first member of the president's election team to face trial on charges stemming from the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 vote. Manafort, 69, has pleaded not guilty to 18 counts of bank and tax fraud related to his lobbying activities on behalf of the former Russian-backed government of Ukraine. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
ALEXANDRIA, VA - JULY 31: People wait in line to enter the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse to attend the trial of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was arrested last year on financial fraud charges, on July 31, 2018 in Alexandria, Virginia. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Kathleen Manafort departs from U.S. District Court following the opening day of Former Trump Campaign Manager Paul Manafort's trial on bank and tax fraud charges stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russia's role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Defense Attorney Kevin Downing departs from U.S. District Court following the opening day of Former Trump Campaign Manager Paul Manafort's trial on bank and tax fraud charges stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller?s investigation of Russia's role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
ALEXANDRIA, VA - AUGUST 02: Heather Washkuhn, managing director of the accounting firm Nigro Karlin Segal Feldstein & Bolno, arrives at the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse to testify in the Paul Manafort trial August 2, 2018 in Alexandria, Virginia. Manafort has been charged with bank and tax fraud as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
ALEXANDRIA, VA - AUGUST 02: Jay Nanavati, attorney of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, arrives at the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse August 2, 2018 in Alexandria, Virginia. Manafort has been charged with bank and tax fraud as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
ALEXANDRIA, VA - AUGUST 02: Kevin Downing, attorney of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, outside the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse August 2, 2018 in Alexandria, Virginia. Manafort has been charged with bank and tax fraud as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
ALEXANDRIA, VA - AUGUST 01: The statue of Justice outside the Albert V. Bryan U.S. Courthouse is reflected in a television news camera lens on the second day of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's trial August 1, 2018 in Alexandria, Virginia. Manafort has been charged with bank and tax fraud as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Accountant Cindy Laporta arrives to testify on day 5 of the trial against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort on 18 charges stemming from bank and tax fraud at US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, on August 6, 2018. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
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Rubio said it would be a "terrible mistake" if Trump pardoned Manafort, saying that "could trigger a debate about whether the pardon powers should be amended."

Trump has not ruled out a pardon for Manafort, praising him as a good man. In contrast, he has said Cohen, who has cooperated with federal prosecutors, should go to jail.

Schiff said Trump may end up needing to seek a pardon for himself from the next U.S. president. House Democrats have promised an array of investigations into Trump's activities.

"What is clear also is that the Republican Congress absolutely tried to shield the president," Nadler said. "The new Congress will not try to shield the president."

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Mary Milliken and Bill Berkrot)

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