U.S. Sen. Angus King in Bangor. Credit: Gabor Degre

U.S. Sen. Angus King said allegations that President Donald Trump directed his former personal attorney to make hush payments to ward off a sex scandal in violation of campaign finance laws were “disturbing” but the evidence isn’t strong enough to support impeachment.

“I’m a conservative when it comes to impeachment. It’s a last resort and only when the evidence is clear of a really substantial legal violation. We may get there, but we’re not there now,” King said during a Sunday appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Federal prosecutors on Friday said that Trump directed Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and “fixer,” to make hush money payments to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump to avoid a sex scandal during the 2016 election.

Prosecutors said that the $130,000 payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels violated campaign finance laws, which limit donations to no more than $2,700 during a general election, and that another $150,000 payment by American Media Inc., the parent company of the tabloid National Enquirer, to silence former Playboy model Karen McDougal was an illegal corporate donation to the Trump campaign, according to The New York Times.

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Cohen, who pleaded guilty in August to violating campaign finance laws, has previously accused the president of directing him to make those payments to protect Trump and influence the outcome of the 2016 election. He also pleaded guilty in late November to lying to Congress about a real estate deal Trump pursued in Russia while running for president.

Trump has publicly denied the affairs and said he “stayed away” from business in Russia.

King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, called the accusations in the court filings “disturbing,” saying they implicate “the president in a felony.”

He added that Trump could defend himself by claiming, for example, that he didn’t knowingly or willfully break campaign finance laws.

“But it’s still a pretty serious matter,” he said.

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It’s unclear what legal consequences Trump could face if prosecutors’ assertions are proven. The Justice Department has concluded that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t permit a sitting president to be criminally indicted, though that opinion has yet to be tested in court, according to the Washington Post.

“Whether the president will ever face criminal charges with regard to this matter is an open question,” King said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, defended Trump in a separate appearance on “Meet the Press” in which he played down the alleged campaign finance violations, saying that such mistakes have been “over-criminalized.”

“I personally think that if someone makes an error in filing paperwork or not categorizing, it shouldn’t be jail time, it ought to be a fine,” Paul said.

What could be more troublesome for the president, King said, was last week’s court filing from Special Counsel Robert Mueller about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. In a heavily redacted sentencing memo filed on Tuesday, Mueller recommended no prison time for Flynn after he provided “substantial” assistance in several ongoing investigations, including at least one criminal probe, according to the Washington Post. Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

“That’s the one that I think really raises some difficult questions that go to the heart of the question of whether there were relationships between the Trump campaign, President Trump and the Russian government during the campaign in 2016, because Flynn was, as they say in [the Broadway musical] ‘Hamilton,’ in the room where it happened,” said King, who is a member of Senate Intelligence Committee, which is directing its own investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

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Still, some Democrats say that last week’s revelations from federal prosecutors would amount to impeachable offenses if it’s proven Trump directed Cohen to make illegal payments. Democratic party leaders, who take control of the House in January, will be under pressure from some members to pursue impeachment, especially with a report expected soon from the special counsel.

But King said the evidence isn’t strong enough to support impeachment, and that moving ahead with impeachment based on the evidence available would likely prove politically damaging to the nation.

“My concern is that if impeachment is moved forward on the evidence that we have now at least a third of the country would think it was just political revenge and a coup against the president. That wouldn’t serve us well at all. The best way to solve a problem like this is elections,” King said.