As part of general knowledge, there is a rule that a law still applies to you even if you do not know it.

I assumed that to be fundamental, not just a rule of thumb. At least it seems natural.

To my surprise, I came across an example where that is not the case:

After the Access Hollywood tape was published, Donald Trump and Michael Cohen discussed with David Pecker (National Inquirer) about how to pay off Stephanie Clifford ("Stormy Daniels") to keep quiet about the sexual interactions between her and Trump.

Michael Cohen confessed the interaction, and it is known in some detail.

But it seems to be a question whether Trump did something illegal here exactly because it is not clear whether he knew it was illegal.*

How does that fundamentally make sense?
In which laws does that apply?

* President Donald Trump Campaign Hush Money Scam Appears To Have Worked | Rachel Maddow | MSNBC

  • 4
    For some offenses the language of the statute requires intent to commit the offense. Aug 8, 2019 at 5:17
  • I read about a situation where the (wrong) belief that it is criminal creates a crime. X sells two used office chairs cheaply. A says “these chairs are cheap, I buy one “. B says “These chairs are cheap, I bet they are stolen” and buys the other one. B is guilty of an attempt to buy stolen goods.
    – gnasher729
    Apr 28 at 21:14

2 Answers 2


There is a difference between knowing the law and knowing the facts. Usually, ignorance of the law is no excuse. But for criminal offenses, ignorance of the facts is an excuse. Another way of putting it is, to be guilty, the suspect must have intended to perform the action that's illegal. Suppose I intend to hunt deer in Vermont. Without realizing it, I cross the border into NY, and I don't have a NY hunting license. I haven't committed a criminal offense because I didn't intend to hunt deer in NY. But NY might have created a civil penalty of taking a deer without a license, no intent required, so I might have to pay the civil penalty.

  • Do you mean unknowingly crossing the border into the unlicensed region, or this and also actively and successfully hunting? Aug 8, 2019 at 12:39
  • I'd have to check the NY laws and regulations, but usually, being in the woods with a firearm that is suitable for the type of game that is in season, with all the other equipment that's useful for hunting, like scent to attract deer, deer calls, etc., would be proof of hunting and would be illegal without a license. If there is both a criminal offense and a civil penalty, the rules could be different between the two. Aug 8, 2019 at 13:24

With specifics to the case, the crime would be a violation of campaign finance laws that could be charged against Trump. However it should be pointed out that some of the details need to be established, which are not.

First, that Trump has not paid off any women in the past that he has slept with and that Daniels was a unique case and specifically to hush her up in the heat of an election. It is not a crime to pay off your mistress so your wife doesn't find out (so long as you initiated the deal. Mistress saying "pay me or I talk" is a crime, but not one Trump committed). If Trump paid off other women when he wasn't in politics, this is not necessarily a crime (even if it was definitely to hush her up for the elections this time).

Secondly, Donald Trump does need to know that this is a crime. While we know his attorney knew at the time, there is no documentation that the attorney told Trump that what he was asking was possibly illegal. Trump can argue that if he had been told it was a crime he would not have committed it and that he payed his lawyer to tell him these things and his lawyer did not. Intent to commit a campaign finance crime is required for a successful prosecution.

Finally, this isn't likely to undo Trump as the Presidents have violated this law all the time without much call for impeachment. The last (and biggest violator by dollar amount) president to have done this was Barak Obama, who misreported in excess of one million dollars in his first term campaign (Trump is accused of something on the order of $100,00 in dollar amount not reported, for comparison) and was found guilty and payed a large fine. It's likely the worst damage Trump will face from this is public opinion damage, not criminal liability.


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