This is Los Angeles. Specifically this is Hollywood – part of the city but an even more absurd place – a place of dreams and drama. And the newspaper here is the Los Angeles Times – straight and solid reporting but sometimes a bit Hollywood. There are stories there that read like screenplays, but this time that may be the only way to tell the tale of the absurdly rich president and the company he keeps – porn stars and Playboy bunnies, the publisher of the National Enquirer – with the improbable name of David Pecker – and various enforcers and thugs from the old days when the president ran massive casinos – before those went belly-up and he was filing for bankruptcy once again. Add a few Russians. That’s a Hollywood movie. Then add the dramatic courtroom scene. Contrition and confession and tears – and redemption – the bad guy is transformed. He comes through and does the right thing, finally. This is high drama.
That’s how the Los Angeles Times wrote it up:
Michael Cohen, who long swaggered as Donald Trump’s bare-knuckled fixer only to see himself vilified by the president for cooperating with law enforcement, was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison after telling a federal judge that he had acted illegally out of “blind loyalty” to Trump.
Trump’s bare-knuckled fixer would swagger no more:
Standing before a packed courtroom in lower Manhattan, the 52-year-old lawyer and businessman called his years as Trump’s factotum a time of “personal and mental incarceration,” saying that “time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds.”
In his tearful speech, Cohen asked forgiveness from his family and the country.
“Most of all, I want to apologize to the people of the United States – you deserve to know the truth,” he choked out.
This was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – Jimmy Stewart, the desperate idealist, telling the truth and stunning the corrupt useless insiders – except this wasn’t quite that:
Among other crimes, Cohen has admitted to arranging hush money payments to two women who said they’d had affairs with Trump, concealing their stories from voters, weeks before the 2016 election.
Prosecutors say Trump directed the illegal scheme, and they strengthened their case Wednesday when they disclosed that American Media Inc., a publishing company run by one of the president’s allies, was cooperating in the investigation.
In a deal that will spare American Media criminal charges, the company admitted to paying $150,000 to one of the women, former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal, to ensure she “did not publicize damaging allegations … and thereby influence that election.”
The agreement further undercuts Trump’s claims that the payments were a private matter that had nothing to do with his campaign.
Trump is getting nailed but this is tawdry stuff and Cohen is no angel:
The president has lashed out at his former lawyer as the investigation continued. Noting that Trump had recently insulted him as “weak,” Cohen responded in court on Wednesday by saying, “my weakness can be characterized as a blind loyalty to Donald Trump.”
But U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III made clear he would not grant Cohen’s plea for leniency, pointing to his guilty pleas for bank fraud, tax evasion, and campaign finance violations and lying to Congress.
“There is an acute need for the sentence here to reflect the seriousness of the offenses,” Pauley said. Cohen’s crimes, he added, were apparently “motivated by personal gain and ambition.”
Judge Pauley wasn’t buying the noble hero crap, but that didn’t ruin the scene:
When Pauley read the sentence, Cohen shook his head; his wife, Laura, clutched their son Jake; and their adult daughter, Samantha, trembled with violent sobs. Other family members openly wept.
That was the tableau – fade to black and roll the credits – but this wasn’t that Frank Capra movie:
As Trump’s lawyer, Cohen was tasked with squelching unflattering stories about the real estate mogul. He now is helping prosecutors investigate deeply damaging narratives involving the president’s alleged extramarital affairs and his pursuit of business opportunities in Russia during the 2016 campaign.
Most notably, Cohen says the president directed him to pay $280,000 in hush money to two women shortly before the election to keep them quiet about alleged affairs with Trump years ago.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, which is handling the investigation, says it can prove that Trump directed the illegal scheme to boost his chances in the campaign.
This wasn’t ending. And there were Russians:
Last month Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to two congressional committees about secretly trying to arrange a Moscow hotel and condominium deal for Trump during the 2016 presidential race.
Prosecutors said Cohen sought and probably needed Russian government approvals for a project potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the Trump family, which was regularly briefed on Cohen’s progress.
The push for a Trump Tower Moscow project coincided with Russia’s covert efforts to meddle in the U.S. presidential campaign by hacking Democratic Party emails and spreading misinformation on social media, prosecutors said.
In a sentencing memo last week, the special counsel’s office said Cohen had provided “useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to [the special counsel] investigation.”
This isn’t over at all, and the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake sees this:
We knew that Michael Cohen had implicated President Trump in a felony. But on Wednesday, Cohen took things much, much further than that.
Before he was handed a sentence of three years in prison, Trump’s former personal attorney gave a statement in which he described not just a president who was involved in the commission of a crime but one almost completely without a moral compass. Cohen compared working for Trump to “incarceration” and suggested it involved constantly covering up Trump’s “dirty deeds.”
“Recently, the president tweeted a statement calling me weak,” Cohen said, according to CNN’s Shimon Prokupecz. “And it was correct, but for a much different reason than he was implying. It was because time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds.”
Cohen invoked Trump repeatedly, including by name. He described his personal weakness as “blind loyalty to Donald Trump.”
But he’s over that. He is a changed man, damn it! That’s his story and he’s sticking to it:
Despite facing years in prison, Cohen said the sentencing represented his liberation, because he was rid of Trump.
“Today is the day that I am getting my freedom back,” he said, according to Adam Klasfeld of Courthouse News. “I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the day that I accepted the offer to work for a real estate mogul whose business acumen … I deeply admired.”
That’s certainly dramatic, but Josh Campbell, a former supervisory special agent with the FBI and former special assistant to the bureau’s director, argues that the drama is with President Trump:
The fall of Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former attorney, is a watershed moment for the Trump presidency.
As a former investigator, I see the Cohen affair’s most damning revelation to be the President’s knowing and longtime association with a criminal, not that the criminal in question pleaded guilty to a crime that directly implicates the President of the United States (as disturbing as that is). Given the evidence, Trump can no longer plausibly deny that he was willing to cross the line and work with Cohen to break the law.
Campbell says THAT is the story here:
The Cohen case gives us a unique window into Trump’s mindset, character and view of the rule of law. To protect his electoral chances, Trump and Cohen appear to have paid off women in exchange for their silence about alleged affairs with Trump, in the process breaking campaign finance laws.
However, Cohen’s crimes (though many of the counts he was convicted on were not connected to Trump) have implications for Trump that extend far beyond the payment of hush money. They largely discredit any claim Trump might try to make about his ignorance of additional potential crimes carried out by others in his inner circle.
The Cohen crimes speak volumes about the kind of people Donald Trump surrounded himself with.
Noah Feldman adds historical perspective to that:
With Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s onetime lawyer and “fixer,” sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison, it’s worth asking: What will be the verdict of history on his crimes? Specifically, the felony campaign-finance violations connected to the payoffs to two women who said they had sexual affairs with the future president? Cohen said the payoffs were directed by then-candidate Trump – and the prosecutors of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York agreed.
The answer depends on which of two competing paradigms for presidential wrongdoing the Cohen payoffs ultimately fall into.
There are two alternatives:
For Trump’s critics, the paradigm is Watergate. While running for office, they will say, Trump knowingly directed a secret violation of campaign-finance laws. Then Trump and Cohen covered up their crimes by lying about the payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal and how they were structured and delivered.
For Trump’s defenders – including Trump – the paradigm is the Monica Lewinsky affair. Like President Bill Clinton, they will say, Trump engaged in sexual conduct that he wanted to keep secret. Like Clinton, runs the argument, Trump engaged in some mildly shady but understandable conduct to cover his tracks. An out-of-control special prosecutor tried to make the molehill into a mountain, but in essence, as Trump told Reuters, he “hasn’t done anything wrong.”
Which is it? There is Watergate:
One point for the Watergate side is that the unlawfully structured payments were squarely connected to Trump’s election campaign, just as the Watergate break-in was part of the campaign to re-elect President Richard Nixon in 1972.
Consider the specifics of the Daniels case. According to her detailed account, she and Trump had sex in 2006. But Trump didn’t seek to buy her silence until he was running for president in the fall of 2016. Thus, unlike Clinton, Trump wasn’t just trying to avoid embarrassment. He was trying to game the system to help get elected.
What’s more, the campaign-finance crimes were integral to the attempt to conceal the relationship for election purposes. Trump and Cohen were trying to hide that the candidate was paying off the porn star. That’s why they structured the payments so that Cohen would be making them and would only later get reimbursed by Trump or his organization. If Trump had just paid Daniels directly, it wouldn’t have been a crime at all.
So that comes down to this:
The key to the Cohen-Watergate comparison is that the president ordered a subordinate to commit a federal crime as part of his bid for election. Cohen testified to that in court. The federal prosecutors indicated that they believe him.
But not so fast:
Turning to the Lewinsky paradigm, the similarities lie in the sexual nature of the underlying conduct – and the understandable human impulse to want to conceal it from the public. It’s plausible that Trump wanted to keep Daniels silent because he thought that his getting elected president would give her an incentive to speak out, thus embarrassing him and his family. Seen through this lens, the election was the occasion for the payoff to Daniels, but Trump wasn’t paying off Daniels in order to get elected. He was hedging against the possibility that he would win and then be embarrassed.
Part of the reason that Democrats found it easier to forgive Clinton for lying under oath (and to the public) about his relationship with Lewinsky is the recognition that people lie about sex to avoid embarrassment. No one believes such lies are morally permissible or attractive, but they are a recognizable genre of human fallibility.
Which is it? What is forgivable? The flesh is weak. Men will do these things. And the women were willing. These things happen. What is not forgivable? This was cynically planned election fraud, a decision to commit a series of felonies, perhaps with the Russians, and then to commit those felonies, win the election, and then hide those felonies. And anyway, women are meant to be used. They love it.
That might be the argument for the next year or two, but we have a president who hangs out with porn stars and Playboy bunnies, and the publisher of the National Enquirer and various enforcers and thugs from the old days. The Cohen crimes do speak volumes about the kind of people Donald Trump surrounded himself with.
That’s a more general problem. Tom Nichols is a professor at the Naval War College and the author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters:
People are now exposed to more information than ever before, provided both by technology and by increasing access to every level of education. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.
Now he says this:
When Donald Trump ran for president, he brushed off concerns about his own lack of governing experience by repeatedly promising to hire “only with the best and most serious people,” as he said in 2015, adding, “We want top-of-the-line professionals.” When asked, just weeks before Election Day 2016, what his criteria would be for choosing senior staff, he answered: “Track record. Great competence, love of what they’re doing, how they’re getting along with people, references” and, the candidate added a bit later, “you need people that are truly, truly capable.”
Last week, just over two years later, Trump tweeted that his first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was “dumb as a rock” after Tillerson said Trump “doesn’t like to read”; Trump announced that former Fox News personality Heather Nauert will succeed former governor Nikki Haley as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and Sunday, Vice President Pence’s highly touted aide, Nick Ayers, announced via tweet that he is turning down Trump’s offer to make him White House chief of staff.
This isn’t working:
Trump now faces the most difficult part of his presidency increasingly cut off from first-rate talent. Notwithstanding a few obvious exceptions, among them Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and senior National Security Council adviser Fiona Hill, Trump is pulling a cabinet and White House staff behind him that is replete with benchwarmers and third-stringers. He wound up that way, in part, by vilifying “elites” and mocking expertise.
Along with his best-people-only promise, among Trump’s frequent campaign riffs were his broadsides against the permanent Washington class – an extension of his lifelong love-hate relationship with the Manhattan elite who never fully embraced him. At a 2016 rally in Iowa, candidate Trump said, “I think nobody knows the system better than I do.” As recently as this summer, at a rally in North Dakota, President Trump told supporters:
“I meet these people; they call them ‘the elite.’ These people. I look at them, I say, ‘That’s elite?’ We got more money, we got more brains, we got better houses, apartments, we got nicer boats, we’re smarter than they are, and they say, ‘the elite!’ We’re the elite. You’re the elite. We’re the elite.”
That seems a bit delusional and has real consequences:
Trump’s inability to recruit, or to even to listen to, top people has hampered everything from Trump’s foreign policy to his own legal defense. His hostility to sound advice, coupled with reliance on his frequently terrible instincts, has produced a kind of synergy (to use a newly infamous word) of incompetence in the White House and beyond: Things go wrong on the world stage, Capitol Hill or with the media. Trump never blames himself, instead blaming everyone else, including the people who work for him. Experts – also known as people who know what they’re doing – have had two years to observe this and have understandably become less willing to work for him. Their numbers inside the administration dwindle, lesser lights take over, more mistakes are made…
And now the problems are legal problems:
As the president’s legal perils have grown, he has burned through top-tier legal talent while other lawyers have simply declined to work with him. But his team somehow has room for former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the public face of the president’s legal defense, who has become known for his inchoate, on-camera interpretations of everything from Trump’s alleged dealings with mistresses to allegations of Russian collusion.
According to reports, Trump’s lawyers all but admit they have no comprehensive strategy to deal with the final report from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. White House insiders instead hope that Trump can just bluff away its findings, betting that “most GOP base voters will believe whatever the president tells them to believe.”
That’s the plan, and that’s trouble:
Trump has taken a nebulous resentment – that the experts are the source of ordinary Americans’ woes – and etched it into the minds of his supporters. He has succeeded in this largely by writing off his worst failures either as temporary blips or as someone else’s fault.
Shifting blame might work, at least for a while, in politics. It is a far riskier strategy in front of a prosecutor, and it is positively dangerous during a national security or economic crisis. The president’s voters have cheered as he has smeared capable public servants and denigrated the very idea of competence. The whole country might ultimately pay the price.
The price will be high. But what happens will be dramatic. Consider the company this man keeps. This will be quite a show. This may be how the world ends.