In 2018, impunity came to an end.
Ever since the 2016 election, it’s been common for some people to refer to whatever year we’re in as a synonym for dystopian weirdness. (Last year, for example, CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted “Peak 2017” about a headline saying, “US ambassador denies own comments, then denies denial.”) The world has felt continuously off-kilter, like a TV drama whose writers developed a sudden fondness for psilocybin. Last month astronomers at Harvard wrote that a strange oblong space object “may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization,” and it barely made a ripple in the news. There was simply too much else going on.
Amid this ceaseless barrage, things many of us have taken for granted have been called into question, including the endurance of liberal democracy, the political salience of truth and the assumption that it would be a big scandal if a president were caught directing illegal payoffs to a pornographic film actress. Often it feels like in American politics, none of the old rules still apply.
.. But in 2018, they did. (At least some of them.) Alien probes aside, this was a year in which things started to make sense again. The Democratic landslide in the midterms proved that the laws of political gravity haven’t been suspended; Trump’s incompetence, venality and boorishness had electoral consequences. Further, it was a year of justice and accountability for at least some of those who foisted this administration on the country. An awful menagerie of lowlifes was swept into power by Trump’s victory two years ago. In 2018, at least some of them started to fall back out again.
.. At the beginning of 2018,
- Michael Cohen was still Trump’s loyal personal lawyer.
- Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was sleeping in his own bed at night.
- Rick Gates, Manafort’s deputy, had not yet made a plea deal with Robert Mueller, the special counsel.
- Mueller’s investigation hadn’t yet sent anyone to prison.
- The Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, who pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about work he’d done with Gates for the former Ukrainian president, became the first, in May.
- He was followed by Richard Pinedo, seller of fake IDs and fraudulent bank accounts,
- and former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos.
When this year began,
- Scott Pruitt was still indulging in spectacular corruption as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Omarosa Manigault Newman had just been fired from her senior administration job and had not yet revealed her stash of secret recordings.
- Rob Porter, who has been accused of abuse by two ex-wives, was still White House staff secretary.
- David Sorensen, accused of abuse by one ex-wife, was still a White House speechwriter.
At the start of 2018, the
- casino mogul Steve Wynn was the Republican National Committee’s national finance chairman. He resigned after The Wall Street Journal reported that he’d been accused of committing multiple acts of sexual harassment and assault. (Wynn denied assaulting anyone.)
- Elliott Broidy, owner of a private security company, was an R.N.C. deputy national finance chairman. He resigned after The Journal reported that he’d paid hush money to a former Playboy model who said she’d had an abortion after he got her pregnant.
- (Cohen was also a deputy chairman; he resigned in June.)
As this year began,
- Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign head and chief White House strategist, whose sympathy for white nationalists did so much damage in so little time, was still running Breitbart News. He’d not yet burned his bridges to Trumpworld with his comments in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury,” which was published in January. Since then, Bannon has lost considerable pull. He most recently made headlines after he was scheduled to speak at a conference on sex robots; a backlash to his invitation led to the conference being postponed.
- McClatchy reported that the F.B.I. was investigating whether Russia funneled money through the National Rifle Association to aid the Trump campaign. Throughout the year, as evidence of sketchy connections between the N.R.A. and Russia kept emerging, many on the right poo-pooed it. (“This attempt to turn the N.R.A. into another cog in the Russian conspiracy is laughable, but the mainstream media apparently still find it deeply compelling,” wrote Breitbart editor Joel Pollak in March.)
- On Thursday, Maria Butina, a Russian who’d nurtured ties to N.R.A. leadership and to Trumpworld, pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent. The plea described how, after arranging a junket to Moscow for a “Gun Rights Organization,” she wrote a message to her handler that was translated as, “We should allow them to express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later.”
Most important is the claim that he maintained a “covert relationship with Russia,” and that in August 2016 Cohen made a secret visit to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, where he reportedly met with senior Kremlin officials. According to the dossier, whose allegations are so far unproven, the Prague meeting was facilitated by Konstantin Kosachev, who heads the Russian Duma’s foreign-relations committee and who may have attended the meeting in person.
Most explosively, the dossier alleges that Cohen’s meeting in Prague in that late summer of 2016 included “secret discussions with Kremlin representatives and associated operators/hackers,” and that “the agenda comprised questions on how deniable cash payments were to be made to hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the CLINTON campaign and various contingencies for covering up these operations and Moscow’s secret liaison with the TRUMP team more generally.”
.. Sourced to a “Kremlin adviser,” the dossier report said that the meeting was originally planned for Moscow but was “shifted to what was considered an operationally ‘soft’ EU country when it was judged too compromising for him to travel to the Russian capital.” And it adds that Cohen’s wife “is of Russian descent and her father [is] a leading property developer in Moscow.” (Michael Cohen’s wife, Laura, is a Ukrainian of Russian descent, according to the dossier; his brother, Bryan, is also married to a Ukrainian; and, like Manafort, the Cohen family has business ties to Ukraine.)
.. So far, the report that Cohen met with Russians in Prague is unverified. Cohen has vigorously denied it, and he’s shown his passport, which lacks a Czech entry stamp, to reporters. However, according to a report by McClatchy, citing “two [unnamed] sources familiar with the matter,” Mueller “has evidence that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen, secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign.” The McClatchy report, by Peter Stone and Greg Gordon, two veteran investigative journalists, didn’t say whether Cohen met with Kosachev, but it did say that Mueller’s investigators unearthed the fact that Cohen traveled to Prague via Germany, meaning that his passport would not have needed a stamp from the Czech Republic.
.. Third, Cohen was involved in the still mostly unexplained “Ukraine peace plan” that reportedly ended up on the desk of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, in February 2017 just before Flynn was forced to resign over his own contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. The plan, organized outside regular diplomatic channels, was concocted by a Ukrainian politician, Andrii Artemenko, reportedly at the behest of top aides to President Putin. The plan, which would have resulted in eliminating or easing Western sanctions on Russia over its annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea, was cooked up in conjunction with Cohen and Sater. According to the New York Times report, Sater delivered the written plan to Cohen “in a sealed envelope,” and Cohen placed it in Flynn’s office.
.. Fourth, as The Wall Street Journal revealed in a stunning exposé, Cohen was the attorney who arranged a $1.6 million payoff to quiet a scandal involving an affair between Elliott Broidy, a top Republican Party fundraising official, and a Playboy Playmate. But Broidy has a part to play in the Russia scandal, too: Along with an operative named George Nader, who was picked up by federal agents at an airport and who’s now cooperating with Mueller’s office, Broidy was a principal in a scheme to boost US support for the United Arab Emirates over Qatar, in a tangled dispute among Arab nations of the Persian Gulf. Nader is an adviser to the UAE, and as the Times recently reported, Nader maintains business ties to Russia, including working on arms deals.
.. Meanwhile, the Times reported, Broidy “owns a private security company with hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts with the United Arab Emirates, and he extolled to Mr. Trump a paramilitary force that his company was developing for the country.” And it was Nader who arranged the secret meeting between Erik Prince, top UAE officials, and a Russian wheeler-dealer named Kirill Dmitriev, a meeting that Mueller is now investigating because it was apparently aimed at setting up some sort of back-channel links between Moscow and the incoming administration in Washington.
In a legal filing before the hearing on Monday, Mr. Cohen said that, since 2017, he had worked as a lawyer for 10 clients, seven of whom he served by providing “strategic advice and business consulting.” The other three comprised Mr. Trump, the Republican fund-raiser Elliott Broidy and a third person who went unnamed.
.. Before the name was revealed, Mr. Ryan argued that the mystery client was a “prominent person” who wanted to keep his identity a secret because he would be “embarrassed” to be identified as having sought Mr. Cohen’s counsel.
.. On Fox News, the anchor Shepard Smith reported that his colleague had been named as a client of Mr. Cohen’s, saying that it was time for him to address “the elephant in the room.”
.. Just before 4 p.m., he posted a message on Twitter: “Michael Cohen has never represented me in any matter. I never retained him, received an invoice, or paid legal fees. I have occasionally had brief discussions with him about legal questions about which I wanted his input and perspective.”
In a follow-up tweet, Mr. Hannity added, “I assumed those conversations were confidential, but to be absolutely clear they never involved any matter between me and a third-party.”
The reference to a third party seemed to be an allusion to one of Mr. Cohen’s specialties: drawing up confidential settlements.
.. Hannity seemed to suggest that he had not disclosed his link to Mr. Cohen to his network, saying, “My discussions with Michael Cohen never rose to any level that I needed to tell anyone that I was asking him questions.”
.. On April 9 — the night of the F.B.I. raids on Mr. Cohen — Mr. Hannity, in high dudgeon, opened his show by telling viewers to “keep in mind that Cohen was never part of the Trump administration or the Trump campaign.”
“This is now officially an all-hands-on-deck effort to totally malign and, if possible, impeach the president of the United States,” the host added.
.. There is on-air evidence that Mr. Hannity and Mr. Cohen go way back. In January 2017, shortly before the inaugural, Mr. Cohen was a guest on Mr. Hannity’s radio show. The host described him as Mr. Trump’s lawyer and then added, “Also, full disclosure: a personal friend of mine, long before this election ever started.”
.. The chummy conversation took place shortly after the so-called Steele dossier suggested that Mr. Cohen had visited Prague, a claim that Mr. Cohen has denied.
.. Mr. Hannity discussed Mr. Cohen’s alibi — that he had taken his 17-year-old-son to Los Angeles to meet with a baseball coach.
.. Before the chat was done, Mr. Cohen thanked Mr. Hannity, saying: “Sean, I got to be honest, in all fairness, you have been a beacon for Mr. Trump, for the campaign. It’s very rare that people thank you, because everybody is so busy, especially now with the transition. But on behalf of, obviously, Mr. Trump, the campaign, myself — you actually deserve a thank you.”
.. Many years before Mr. Trump was a candidate, Mr. Hannity was there for him. In 2011, when Mr. Trump was making the media rounds to promote an unfounded conspiracy theory — the so-called birther theory — that President Obama had not been born in the United States, Mr. Hannity gave him a forum on his radio and television shows.
.. Years later, his enthusiasm had not cooled. “I’m not hiding the fact that I want Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States,” Mr. Hannity told Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times during the summer of 2016. After all, the Fox News host added, “I never claimed to be a journalist.”
.. As Election Day drew near, other conservatives turned their backs on Mr. Trump after the posting of the so-called “Access Hollywood” tape, during which the candidate rudely boasted of “grabbing” women by the genitals. That’s when Mr. Hannity sealed his bond with Mr. Trump by committing even more fully to him. Although conceding that Mr. Trump’s “words” were wrong, he quickly changed the subject to Bill Clinton, adding that the former president’s “actions” with women were “far worse.”
.. Mr. Hannity did face an unexpected challenge from one of his guests, the lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who unexpectedly told the host that it would have been “much, much better” to disclose that he was a Cohen client.
In a court filing that morning, Cohen’s lawyers said that Cohen had three clients between 2017 and 2018, but only named two: Trump, and former Republican National Committee official Elliott Broidy.
Broidy recently resigned from the GOP organization after news outlets revealed that Cohen negotiated a hush deal worth $1.6 million with an ex-Playboy model who said she was impregnated by Broidy.
The third client was anonymous. Lawyers for Cohen refused to identify Hannity, saying in the document that it was “likely to be embarrassing or detrimental to the client.”
But although Stephen Ryan, an attorney for Cohen, argued at length to keep Hannity’s name hidden, Judge Wood would not relent.
“The client is a publicly prominent individual,” Ryan said, before offering to give Hannity’s name to Wood in a sealed envelope. The suggestion drew an objection from another party in the courtroom, who said that except in limited cases, attorney-client privilege did not relate to the identities of clients.
Wood agreed, and said the client’s name “must be disclosed now.”
After some more argument, Ryan said, “The client’s name involved is Sean Hannity.”
The admission drew audible gasps from the audience... The materials seized from Cohen in the raids comprise up to 10 boxes of printed documents and more than two dozen electronic devices, including cell phones.