28 February 2019

Michael Cohen, Donald Trump and the trouble with liars

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All Cretans are liars, said Epimenides the Cretan. Actually, that phrase has come down to us by hearsay, a kind of Cretan whispers. Judging from Wednesday’s testimony by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, hearsay and innuendo are enough to sustain a Congressional enquiry. But what Epimenides really said was that his fellow Cretans were “always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies”. The Cretans’ big lie was that they had built a tomb for Zeus. Epimenides thought Zeus was immortal, like Donald Trump and Mickey Mouse.

Michael Cohen’s testimony to Congress on Wednesday morning is a study in the “paradox of Epimenides”. Mueller says that all of Trump’s circle, past and present, are liars. Most of the media are more than happy to convict them as evil beasts, corrupting an otherwise unbesmirched republic in order to fill their idle bellies. But if all Trumpists are liars, why should we believe them when they claim to tell the truth — especially when they’re already looking at a stretch in what the ancient Cretans called the big house?

Cohen’s testimony is the latest twist in Robert Mueller’s pursuit of Donald Trump through the labyrinth of his family business. Mueller has brought to light evidence that George Papadopoulos, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen have all committed acts of evil beastliness, most of it financial, some of it involving Russians.

From what we can tell of Donald Trump’s character, we can easily believe that some of those acts were commissioned by Trump’s wink-and-nod style of delegation, especially when it came to discussions about building a Trump Tower in Moscow. But we could just as easily conclude that some of these acts were commissioned by the guilty parties themselves as they jockeyed for Trump’s imperial favour and chunky cheques.

On Wednesday, Michael Cohen claimed that Trump had looked deep into his eyes and “mesmerised” him into being an evil beast. This is preposterous. Cohen, as he also confessed, became a rich man’s bully because the money was good. This is sordid, but not illegal. This is America we’re talking about. The bulging rosters of the nation’s law schools show that it’s almost an honourable career path.

Trump’s America is not a dictatorship or more of a racket than Obama’s America. It’s a republic in decay. Still, the family business known as Trump World runs on two principles familiar to historians of Nazi Germany or admirers of the Godfather movies. One is what Hitler’s lackeys called the Führerprinzip, the “Führer principle”. It doesn’t matter what the law says; the Don’s word is law.

The other principle is “working towards the Führer”. Once the flunkeys know the sort of outcome the boss likes, they use their own initiative to work towards the sort of outcome he likes. Both methods were described by Cohen on Wednesday. Neither method is likely to produce a paper trail.

For what’s it worth, Cohen the proven liar and crook called Trump a liar, a crook and a racist. Cohen is already convicted of campaign finance violations for payments to Stormy Daniels. On Wednesday, he claimed that Trump directed him make the payments, and that he continued to receive checks after Trump became president. His claim that Trump instructed him to obstruct justice is as plausible as it is insupportable with evidence.

Cohen, fighting for his reputation and a book deal, did his best to endorse dying theories of Russian “collusion”, but came up short. He claimed that Trump was still working to land a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow when he was running for the Republican nomination and then, at least for a while, in the early stages of his run for the presidency. But Cohen gave no evidence other than his word, which is known to be worthless. He is, as Trump has observed in the argot of the gangster or the reader of Damon Runyon stories, “a rat”.

Cohen implied that an exchange of Godfather-style mutterings between Don Sr. and Don Jr. about “a meeting” referred to the meeting between Don Jr. and a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower — because Don Jr. went behind Don Sr.’s desk in order to do the muttering, and because the muttering and the meeting both occurred in June 2016. Cohen has no documentation of the alleged muttering. The Trumps probably have copies of their schedules for that month, showing dozens of meetings, none of them with Russian agents.

Cohen also claimed that he heard conservative operator Roger Stone telling Trump that he had spoken with WikiLeaks on July 18 or 19, 2016, and that Stone had told Trump of an imminent exposure of hacked Hillary Clinton emails. Pro-Democratic media have jumped on this claim as the missing link in the Russia collusion narrative. But on July 7, 2016 WikiLeaks was already tweeting an offer of “early access to our pending Hillary Clinton publications”. When it comes to believing the worst about Trump, most pro-Democratic media are Cretans.

This was not the only revelation to rebound on Cohen’s interrogators and, by extension on Trump’s pursuers. If Cohen the liar is telling the Epimedean truth, there is nothing in the bizarre stories that are taken as true on pro-Democratic Internet sites. Trump, Cohen said, has never committed acts of evil beastliness like hitting his wife, let alone been filmed doing so in an elevator. Nor, Cohen said, has Trump paid for his alleged girlfriends’ abortions. It was Felix Sater, not Trump, who suggested to Cohen that Putin be offered a penthouse in the putative Moscow tower. And Cohen insists that he has never been to Prague, where the Russia conspiracists believe he met Russian agents.

When a liar tells the truth, the accusations stand regardless. Perhaps this is the object of raising the accusations in the first place. Hunter S. Thompson claimed that Lyndon B. Johnson, finding himself in a tight race, told his campaign manager to whisper it that Johnson’s opponent enjoyed sexual congress with pigs.

“Nobody’s going to believe a thing like that,” the campaign manager protested.

“I know,” Johnson is supposed to have replied. “But let’s make the sonofabitch deny it.”

The same logic is driving the public enquiry into Donald Trump who, though no porcine amorist, has had his nose in too many troughs for it to be clean now.

Earlier in February, Richard Burr, the Republican chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee said that the evidence does not support collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chair of the House Intelligence Committee detected “evidence in plain sight on the issue of collusion, pretty plain evidence”. But then Schiff admitted that there is “a difference between seeing evidence of collusion and being able to prove a criminal conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt”.

In other words, the Democrats want to convict Trump in the court of public opinion, and swing the 2020 presidential election. Wednesday’s entertainment has been described as the opening of informal impeachment proceedings. In which case, Trump has little to worry about. But there will be more such committee hearings, with more focus on Trump’s business dealings — and the prosecutors of the Southern District of New York are watching closely. In which case, Trump has a lot to worry about.

Robert Mueller is expected to publish his findings soon. Mueller was charged with investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, and allegations of “collusion” between Trump, Trump operatives and Russian agents. Mueller has found nothing against Trump that will stand up in court, but he’s stirred up enough material about Trump’s aides to justify enquiry into what Mueller’s remit calls “matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation”.

Wednesday’s hearing looks like the passing of the enquiry, from Mueller to the Democratic-controlled House, and the shifting of the focus from Russian collusion to the murky business methods of the Trump Organization. An impeachment bid would be futile in the narrow sense — the Republicans in the Senate will surely block it — but it would aid the broader attempt to ensure that the story of Trump’s presidency becomes the story of Trump’s shady past.

Now the enquiry has jumped the tracks from Mueller to the House, it’ll run for the rest of Trump’s presidency. Who’s next? It seems like the only Trump employee foolish enough to put pen to paper is Allen Weisselberg. As CFO of the Trump Organization, Weisselberg was the author of the checks that appear to have recompensed Cohen for paying off Stormy Daniels.

Perhaps the House committee will next explore some Epimenidean paradoxes with Weisselberg, and then Roger Stone. As for the still-bullish man at the heart of this labyrinth, he may well meet be drawn into the light after his presidency, in the court of the Southern District of New York. If that happens, Trump will plead the Epimenides defense, like he did against his Republican rivals and then Hillary Clinton: “All Cretans are liars.” Which, when it comes to Donald Trump, the Trump Organization, and politically-motivated enquiries into their workings, is about as close to the truth as we may get.

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Dominic Green is CapX’s American correspondent, and Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.