Former personal attorney to President Trump Michael Cohen and CNN’s Don Lemon discuss President Trump’s unwillingness to say he would accept the election results and the peaceful transfer of power should Joe Biden win the presidency in November.
After being released from prison to serve the balance of his sentence in home confinement, Bill Barr got word that Cohen was finishing up a book about Donald Trump. Barr’s Bureau of Prisons (BOP) gave Cohen an ultimatum: stop writing/talking/posting about the president or go back to prison. Upon seeking clarification of the conditions being proposed by the BOP, Cohen was returned to prison. Cohen filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, contending his imprisonment by Barr was illegal. Today, a federal court judge agreed, ruling that Barr/BOP retaliated against Cohen for exercising his First Amendment right to free speech.
The mogul-turned-president has long relied on loyalists to push the limits in defense of his image, but Roy Cohn, David Pecker and Michael Cohen all wound up out in the cold
For decades, Donald Trump has depended on loyalists to take care of especially sensitive and difficult tasks. These guardians of his image—including the
- Red-baiter Roy Cohn, the
- tabloid publisher David Pecker and the
- lawyer Michael Cohen
—learned a hard lesson from their service. They pledged fealty to Mr. Trump and dedicated themselves to shielding him. For a while, they became wealthier and more powerful through their association with him. But Mr. Trump ultimately offered little back in protection or respect.
Mr. Trump’s first fixer was Cohn, the disgraced former chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. In the 1970s, as a lawyer for the powerful, Cohn manipulated the media and the legal system to secure business advantages for Mr. Trump. He cast his client as a fabulously successful developer who transformed his father’s collection of low-end apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Queens into a Manhattan-based empire of luxury condominium towers.
Cohn defined the role of fixer for Mr. Trump, but after Cohn became sick with AIDS in the 1980s, Mr. Trump distanced himself, steering business elsewhere. Weeks after he won the presidency in 2016, Mr. Trump told friends at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, that after hosting the dying Cohn for dinner there, “I had to spend a fortune to fumigate all the dishes and silverware.”
Mr. Trump’s views of media and celebrity were shaped by Cohn and his successors, the men he relied on to project a particular version of himself—one that often bore little resemblance to reality. Their careers with Mr. Trump shed light on his rise in public life and his victory in the 2016 presidential election.
This account is based on court and congressional documents, texts and other communications, along with interviews with people involved in or familiar with the events.
Mr. Pecker’s celebrity gossip and personal-lifestyle empire—primarily the tabloid National Enquirer—promoted Mr. Trump’s political aspirations for almost two decades, starting in 1999.
Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s special counsel at the Trump Organization, styled himself as the boss’s loyal problem solver. A personal-injury lawyer and taxi-medallion owner raised on Long Island, Mr. Cohen became Mr. Trump’s armed press attaché in the late 2000s. Over the years, he wore a gun in an ankle holster and used legal threats to suppress bad headlines about his boss.
Together with Mr. Trump, Mr. Cohen and Mr. Pecker worked during the 2016 presidential campaign to “catch and kill” stories about former Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal and former adult-film star Stormy Daniels, who privately alleged that they’d had affairs with the Republican candidate. Both women were paid to keep silent.
Mr. Cohen was charged with campaign-finance violations and is serving three years in prison. Mr. Pecker’s company, American Media Inc., admitted breaking the law while doing Mr. Trump’s bidding and reached an agreement with prosecutors to avoid criminal charges.
Mr. Trump’s reward to his fixers was what he offered all those in his service over the decades: exposure to his world, the chance to play a bit part in his story. These operatives were attracted to Mr. Trump’s aura, to the force of the huge personality that led him to the presidency. But when they had fulfilled their missions, they were dispensable. Mr. Trump didn’t believe he owed his fixers anything.
Mr. Pecker was the son of a Bronx bricklayer. He became an accountant and then rose in the publishing world through shrewd power plays. Mr. Pecker forged connections with influential figures, whose foibles were off-limits in his publications and were dubbed by staffers FOPs (Friends of Pecker).
In 1997, while running Hachette Magazines Inc., Mr. Pecker hatched a deal to publish a custom magazine called Trump Style. “Trump Style? That’s like the oxymoron of the century,” Hachette executive Nick Matarazzo said when Mr. Pecker told him of it. When advertisers didn’t bite, Mr. Pecker became enraged.
His relationship with Mr. Trump was a series of chits accrued and favors cashed in. Before Mr. Pecker took over at American Media in 1999, the Enquirer had feasted on stories of Mr. Trump’s affairs and breakups. After Mr. Pecker’s arrival, his gossip empire didn’t print a bad word about Mr. Trump.
As the publisher promoted Mr. Trump’s rise, Mr. Trump fed American Media tips and offered Mr. Pecker business advice. When Mr. Trump spotted an article about the company’s financial troubles, he scrawled over it with a Sharpie: You’ll be on top again in no time. Mr. Pecker framed the note and proudly displayed it in his office.
When American Media was based near Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Pecker would hang around if Mr. Trump was in town so that he could hitch a ride back to New York on the mogul’s jet. Mr. Pecker’s National Enquirer breathlessly promoted Mr. Trump’s 2011 exploratory presidential bid, and his Globe and Star propelled the “birther” conspiracy theory that Mr. Trump used to attack President Barack Obama and raise his own political profile.
Mr. Cohen came to work for Mr. Trump in 2007, after impressing him during a board uprising at a condo building. But the deals he attempted at the Trump Organization fizzled, and the boss came to question his legal skills.
In 2009, Mr. Trump gave company lawyer George Sorial an unpleasant task: persuade Mr. Cohen to resign. He’d had it with Mr. Cohen, who no longer seemed like a good fit. But Mr. Cohen decided to stay, taking a pay cut and doing more thankless work.
One of his duties was telling small-business owners that they could expect severely reduced fees or none at all for the services they provided to Mr. Trump. The boss reveled in hearing these accounts.
Like Mr. Pecker, Mr. Cohen encouraged his boss’s ambitions, positioning himself as a political adviser. In 2010, Mr. Cohen showed Mr. Trump a Time magazine story about a poll testing the mogul’s appeal as a candidate. What if Mr. Trump did run? “Wouldn’t that be something?” Mr. Cohen asked.
Mr. Cohen turned to Mr. Pecker for help. Mr. Cohen and National Enquirer staff produced a series of increasingly obsequious tabloid stories hyping Mr. Trump’s unofficial candidacy and directing readers to Mr. Cohen’s website, ShouldTrumpRun.com.
Mr. Cohen’s tough-guy routine raised some eyebrows. In 2012, he horrified a campaign aide for Mitt Romney, pulling up a pant leg to show off his pistol during a fundraiser before stashing the gun in a car. Another time, he tried to barge past Mr. Trump’s security chief, Keith Schiller, after being informed that the boss was in a meeting. Mr. Schiller threw him to the ground and said, I told you, you’re not going in.
Mr. Trump kept Mr. Cohen around but didn’t seem to respect him. When Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the evangelical leader, told Mr. Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign that he and his wife really liked Mr. Cohen, Mr. Trump responded, Really? Really?
Mr. Cohen played a behind-the-scenes role in Mr. Trump’s presidential bid, to the chagrin of the actual campaign staff. For the launch event, Mr. Cohen proposed bringing an elephant to Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. After that was rejected, he coordinated with a friend—whom Mr. Trump had nicknamed “The Screamer” for his boisterous voice—to pay 55 actors in cash to attend the event.
Mr. Cohen’s most significant task, along with Mr. Pecker, was to identify potential threats to Mr. Trump’s campaign and squash them. The three men met at Mr. Trump’s office in August 2015, and Mr. Pecker offered to use the Enquirer—in coordination with Mr. Cohen—to intercept harmful stories and ensure they never surfaced.
On June 27, 2016, after Mr. Trump learned that Ms. McDougal was shopping around her story of an alleged affair with him, he phoned Mr. Pecker. Can you make this go away? Mr. Trump asked.
Mr. Pecker bought the story for $150,000, under a contract designed to appear as a content pact guaranteeing the model two magazine covers. In return, Ms. McDougal had to keep quiet. Mr. Pecker and his top editor, Dylan Howard, also helped to broker a deal in which Mr. Cohen paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 through a shell company to buy her silence.
The Wall Street Journal later revealed both hush-money deals. After the Daniels agreement became public, Mr. Trump called Mr. Cohen—with Melania Trump on the line. “Michael, did you really pay $130,000 to Stormy Daniels?” Mr. Trump asked. “Why didn’t you tell me about it?”
Mr. Cohen, who later said that he had consulted extensively with Mr. Trump about the payment, picked up the cue. Mr. Cohen said he’d planned to tell him after the election but had thought it safer to keep Mr. Trump out of it. He assumed the first lady saw through the lie.
In the predawn hours of April 9, 2018, FBI agents filtered into a side entrance of Manhattan’s Loews Regency Hotel and took the service elevator to room 1728. As Mr. Cohen’s wife sat on a bed, the agents, bearing a warrant, carted away materials relating to the hush-money agreements and Mr. Cohen’s private business affairs.
That same morning, other agents arrived at Mr. Pecker’s and Mr. Howard’s residences with warrants authorizing the seizure of their cellphones. Mr. Pecker gave his lawyers a simple instruction after the FBI showed up: “Get me out of this.” The publisher received immunity against federal charges; he told prosecutors that the true intent of the payment to Ms. McDougal was to help Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign by concealing an embarrassing story about the candidate. Prosecutors also declined to charge Mr. Howard, his deputy.
Mr. Trump predicted that Mr. Cohen wouldn’t turn on him, but the fixer was frantic. “One thing I can tell you is that I’m never going to spend one day in jail. Never,” Mr. Cohen told two lawyers who met with him eight days after the raids. As Mr. Cohen’s legal fees mounted, the Trump Organization resisted paying, and Trump lawyers were lukewarm to inquiries on Mr. Cohen’s behalf about a presidential pardon.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Mr. Cohen broke from Mr. Trump, a man for whom he once had said he’d take a bullet. He pleaded guilty to nine criminal charges, including two campaign-finance related counts related to the hush-money payments, which he accused the president of directing.
I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law. It is called “advice of counsel,” and a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made. That is why they get paid. Despite that many campaign finance lawyers have strongly……43.3K people are talking about this
Mr. Trump had said he didn’t know about the payments and later that he’d learned of them after the fact. After Mr. Cohen’s sentencing, Mr. Trump tweeted, “I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law.”
American Media’s nonprosecution agreement offered a path out of trouble for Mr. Pecker and Mr. Howard. But soon an Enquirer story about an extramarital affair by Amazon Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, who had been at odds with Mr. Trump, fueled speculation that Mr. Pecker was back protecting the president, and federal authorities began investigating again. A spokesman for American Media declined to comment on the ongoing probe.
American Media’s largest financial backer could brook no more scandals. In April 2019, the publisher said that American Media was putting its tabloids, including the Enquirer, up for sale. Nine months later, that sale hasn’t been completed.
Mr. Pecker has ceded his title. His tabloid has become a toxic asset, and his legacy will forever be connected to Mr. Trump’s hush-money scandal.
Mr. Stone was found guilty of all seven counts against him, including five involving making false statements to Congress. Federal prosecutors made the case that Mr. Stone lied to Congress about his efforts to make contact with the organization WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign. The jury of nine women and three men began deliberating Thursday morning at a Washington D.C. courthouse after a one-week trial.
The witness tampering charge carries a stiff penalty, with Mr. Stone facing as much as 20 years in prison, although first-time offenders often get far less than the maximum penalty. The other charges carry a maximum of five years.
WikiLeaks published several troves of Democratic Party emails stolen by Russian hackers as part of a Kremlin campaign to boost Mr. Trump at the expense of Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded.
““Roger Stone had no intention of being truthful with the committee…he is just making stuff up,” prosecutor Jonathan Kravis had told jurors, saying Mr. Stone did so to help Mr. Trump.
Mr. Stone is the sixth associate of Mr. Trump to be convicted on charges stemming from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian activity in the 2016 election.
Mr. Mueller’s report didn’t establish that the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with Russia. The Stone trial was one of the final loose ends from the Mueller investigation, which wrapped up in March.
Mr. Stone’s defense attorneys portrayed him as a serial exaggerator who was merely pretending to have inside knowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans to inflate his standing in Mr. Trump’s inner circle. They offered no witnesses in Mr. Stone’s defense. They rested their case after playing a roughly hourlong clip of Mr. Stone’s testimony in front of Congress.
“There was no purpose for Mr. Stone to have to lie about anything to protect the campaign, when the campaign was doing nothing wrong,” Bruce Rogow told jurors in summing up the case. He also noted that Mr. Stone spoke to Congress after Mr. Trump was elected, so couldn’t have hurt Mr. Trump’s campaign.
Mr. Stone has been a Republican operative for decades, beginning in 1972 when he served as a junior staffer on President Nixon’s reelection campaign. He went on to work for Ronald Reagan in his presidential bid. When in New York organizing for the campaign in 1979, he was introduced to Mr. Trump by attorney Roy Cohn.
Mr. Stone registered as a lobbyist on behalf of the Trump Organization in the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to public records. Around that time, he began counseling Mr. Trump on his political ambitions, and the two became friends.
Although Mr. Stone was sidelined from mainstream Republican politics following salacious revelations about his personal life in the mid-1990s, he continued to advise Mr. Trump for years, including helping to lead Mr. Trump’s aborted 2000 presidential campaign on the Reform Party ticket. He served on the Trump 2016 campaign when it started but severed ties in the summer of 2015.
Despite leaving his official role on the campaign, the two men remained in contact leading up to the 2016 election, according to testimony and phone logs introduced in court.
Witnesses testified that Mr. Stone relayed information about WikiLeaks’ plans directly to Mr. Trump and officials at the top of his campaign. Former campaign chairman Steve Bannon told jurors that the campaign considered Mr. Stone to be its “access point” to WikiLeaks, and former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates testified that Mr. Stone spoke about forthcoming WikiLeaks releases as early as April of 2016.
Mr. Stone has denied speaking to Mr. Trump about WikiLeaks, and Mr. Trump told the special counsel’s office he didn’t recall discussing WikiLeaks with Mr. Stone, according to written responses he provided to Mr. Mueller’s office last year.
While prosecutors argued Mr. Stone lied to the House Intelligence Committee and effectively obstructed their investigation by withholding the name of another witness—conservative activist Jerome Corsi—the trial didn’t resolve questions about whether Messrs. Stone and Corsi and Trump had inside information about WikiLeaks’ plans.
In July of 2016, Mr. Stone and Mr. Corsi exchanged emails as they scrambled to learn more about the material the organization planned to release.
Days later, Mr. Corsi responded that WikiLeaks planned “2 more dumps,” including one in October. “Time to let more than Podesta be exposed as in bed w enemy,” Mr. Corsi wrote, referring to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
Soon thereafter, Mr. Stone began boasting privately and publicly about his contact with Mr. Assange. Then, on Aug. 21, Mr. Stone tweeted: “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the barrel” (sic). Weeks later, WikiLeaks began releasing emails stolen from Mr. Podesta, roiling the presidential race.
Mr. Corsi said he merely “figured out” that WikiLeaks had Mr. Podesta’s emails by using publicly available information, and both Mr. Corsi and Mr. Stone have denied being in touch with Mr. Assange directly or indirectly. Mr. Stone has also maintained that his tweet was related to the lobbying activities of Mr. Podesta and his brother Tony.
Mr. Assange has denied being in communication with Mr. Stone.
Mr. Corsi publicly rejected a plea deal from Mueller’s team last year. He said that while he was “constantly amending testimony,” he never intentionally lied to prosecutors. He also acknowledged deleting emails in which he and Mr. Stone discussed reaching out to WikiLeaks, though he denied wrongdoing and was never prosecuted.
To shield Mr. Corsi from scrutiny in the congressional probe, Mr. Stone falsely told lawmakers that he only had one “backchannel” to WikiLeaks, naming radio personality Randy Credico, prosecutors said. They argued that Mr. Stone corruptly persuaded Mr. Credico to lie to the House committee and even avoid testifying.
The other Trump associates who have been convicted in connection with the Mueller investigation are: Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign chairman, convicted by a jury of financial crimes; Mr. Gates, former deputy chairman of the campaign, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and false statements; former national security adviser Mike Flynn, who pleaded guilty to false statements; former Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to false statements, tax charges and campaign finance allegations; and George Papadopoulos, a low-level campaign aide who pleaded guilty to lying.
The Russia scandal is about more than collusion. It’s also about the corruption of America’s elites.
As seemingly every national political figure not already hopelessly in the tank for President Trump rushed Monday to denounce his disastrous press conference with Russian despot Vladimir Putin, few condemnations received as much attention as this one from former CIA Director John Brennan:
Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???133K people are talking about this
I don’t know why Trump and his team accepted, and at times actively solicited, the help of Putin and Russian intelligence in winning the 2016 election, and why they have appeared at times to actively serve Putin’s interests once in office. Maybe they were just taking whatever help they could get; maybe the pee tape is real; maybe Jon Chait’s theory is right and Trump has been a Soviet/Russian asset for three decades.
But I think I know why Trump thought it was okay to do what he did — why he could get away with it. The reason is a culture of elite impunity, where business and political leaders face absolutely no accountability for misdeeds. And it’s a culture that Brennan and many political elites like him have fostered, and from which they have personally benefited.
It’s much bigger than collusion. It encompasses many decades during which political officials have evaded accountability for broken laws and illicit foreign contacts, and business and corporate elites have skirted punishment for outright fraud. It’s a problem that, ironically, Trump hammered home in the campaign: that there’s a different set of rules for elites than for normal people. It just happens that Trump knows that because he, for decades now, has been taking advantage of elite impunity.
And unless critics are willing to target the problem of impunity, a problem in which some of them may be implicated, stuff like the Russia scandal will just keep happening, again and again.
The culture of impunity
We don’t punish white-collar criminals in this country. Not really, and certainly not by comparison to how we punish poorer, less white people for less severe offenses.
Only one Wall Street executive ever served jail time for the financial crisis. Rampant foreclosure fraud during the crisis, in which mortgage companies illegally forced millions of families from their homes on the basis of false evidence, went largely unpunished. Lanny Breuer, President Obama’s assistant attorney general for the criminal division of the Department of Justice, was so notoriously lax that Obama’s White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler once jokingly asked him, “How many cases are you dismissing this week?”
And no one knows how easy it is to get away with complicated financial crimes better than Donald Trump. For decades, he was able to dodge any consequences for his routine collaborations with the Mafia, even though his relationship with (to give just one example among many) the mob-linked union official John Cody prompted the FBI to subpoena Trump. His real estate businesses are routinely entangled with corrupt officials abroad, with the Trump International Hotel and Tower Baku in Azerbaijan and the Trump office towers in India looking particularly fishy. (Under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, even unknowingly profiting from corrupt activities in a foreign country is a federal crime.)
And the people around him have similarly checkered histories. His longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen is, of course, currently under federal investigation from the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and has been linked to various insurance fraud schemes, including one involving recent Russian immigrants falsely claiming they were hit by cars. Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. were nearly charged with fraud for their conduct in marketing the Trump SoHo hotel and condo development in 2012.
Jared Kushner is facing lawsuits for his role as a slumlord in the Baltimore area and for overcharging rent from his New York City tenants; we know that his company falsified rent control paperwork in New York. Kushner stands out among Trump’s associates in that his father is the rare person actually prosecuted for and convicted of serious financial crimes, which doesn’t seem to have made the younger Kushner any more cautious. If anything, it appears to have made him more committed to the family trade.
Donald Trump, Ivanka, Don Jr., Cohen, and Kushner aren’t under criminal indictment just yet. (Of course, Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chair, is, and for serious financial crimes that are so far largely unrelated to his work for Trump.) Maybe it’s all just a series of awful coincidences. Or maybe they have correctly perceived that you can get away with truly massive white-collar crimes, and have lived their lives accordingly.
Political crimes are basically never punished, even with a body count
This same culture exists, perhaps to an even greater degree, for political wrongdoing. The Russia scandal should have, but largely hasn’t, reminded us that a presidential candidate has collaborated with a foreign government against the American government before, and gotten away with it.
In the summer of 1968, as biographer John A. Farrell has demonstrated, Republican nominee Richard Nixon and his aides actively sabotaged efforts by Lyndon Johnson’s administration to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War. They got away with it, prolonging a war that wound up killing more than a million people in the process. It’s barely even on the list of Nixonian wrongdoing that people remember. Henry Kissinger was at the time a Johnson adviser leaking information for Nixon to use in his efforts. Today he remains a broadly respected elder statesman, even in Democratic administrations.
It wasn’t even two decades later that the next Republican administration conspired with a foreign government, namely Iran’s. This time, the actions weren’t just horrendously immoral but illegal as well; elongating the Vietnam War was, alas, not a crime, but funding the Contras with Iranian arms deal money was. So was lying to Congress about it. Fourteen members of Reagan’s administration were indicted, and 11 were convicted.
It didn’t matter. Before leaving office, President George H.W. Bush pardoned six people involved, all high-ranking policy officials like Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, and CIA covert ops director Clair George. National Security Council official Oliver North and National Security Adviser John Poindexter had, at that point, already gotten their convictions tossed out, not because they were innocent but due to a complication resulting from Congress giving them immunity to testify.
Lawrence Walsh, appointed independent counsel to investigate Iran-Contra, would later write, “What set Iran-Contra apart from previous political scandals was the fact that a cover-up engineered in the White House of one president and completed by his successor prevented the rule of law from being applied to the perpetrators of criminal activity of constitutional dimension.”
And because the rule of law wasn’t applied, many of the perpetrators remain members in good standing of Washington’s foreign policy establishment. Poindexter returned to government to run the George W. Bush administration’s Information Awareness Office and “Total Information Awareness” program, leaving after a public controversy around a betting market he wanted to create where bettors would’ve profited if a terrorist strike occurred. Abrams, whose far worse transgressions in the Reagan years involved his support for El Salvador’s brutal military dictatorship and his efforts to cover up the El Mozote massacre, worked as a senior National Security Council official for the entirety of the George W. Bush administration.
In that administration, of course, dozens of policymakers collaborated to systematically violate US and international law forbidding torture. While low-ranking Army soldiers and officers were court-martialed in certain cases, like Abu Ghraib, the people ultimately responsible for the policy regime got away with it. John Yoo and Jay Bybee, who put together memos authorizing systematic torture of detainees without trial, escaped all prosecution. Yoo is a tenured professor at UC Berkeley. Bybee is a federal judge with life tenure.
The Obama administration not only declined to prosecute CIA officials who tortured detainees in accordance with the torture memos but failed to prosecute them even in numerous cases where those guidelines were exceeded. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop explained in 2014, the Justice Department didn’t even bother to bring charges in the cases of Gul Rahman and Manadel al-Jamadi, who were literally tortured to death.
Nor did they bring any charges against Jose Rodriguez, who authorized the destruction of 92 tapes showing the CIA torturing detainees, or against anyone who assisted Rodriguez. Gina Haspel, who Rodriguez has said drafted the order to destroy the tapes, and who ran a CIA black site for torture in Thailand, is now the director of the CIA.
Impunity means we will only get more wrongdoing
With that history — with such a clear record that neither businesspeople engaged in systematic financial wrongdoing nor political officials involved in criminal activity and illicit deals with foreign powers will ever face any consequences — why on earth wouldn’t someone like Trump, a man who lacks any willingness to sacrifice his self-interest in order to do the right thing, work with Russia? Why wouldn’t he feel okay asking Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails? Why would Donald Trump Jr. have any reservations at all about accepting help from the Russian government, declaring, “If it’s what you say I love it”? People like them, in their shoes, have done the same or worse before and gotten away with it. Kissinger even got a Nobel Prize.
The obvious rebuttal here is that the Trumps are different. They’re distinctly immoral, uniquely willing to fly in the face of decency and patriotic duty and basic morality to make money and gain power. They don’t need a culture of impunity to do horrible things. To which I’d respond: yes, obviously. That’s who they are. But there will always be people like that, and there will be more as long as we maintain a system that gives them total immunity from criminal or even professional consequences for their actions.
Donald Trump Jr. himself, in his typical “say the loud part quiet and the quiet part loud” way, laid all this out pretty clearly in an interview with the Senate Judiciary Committee. “What about the thing that says, ‘It is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,’” Heather Sawyer, a Democratic counsel for the committee, asked him. “Did you also love that?”
“I don’t know,” Donald Jr. replied. “I don’t recall.”
“Did you understand that that would be problematic?” Sawyer pressed. Trump answered: “I didn’t think that listening to someone with information relevant to the fitness and character of a presidential candidate would be an issue, no.”
Donald Jr. was coached meticulously before that hearing, so it’s hard to read too much into what he’s saying. But I believe him. I believe he genuinely didn’t think that collaborating with the Russian government to get his father elected would be an issue.
That’s what impunity means: It means not thinking that grievous wrongdoing will one day be an issue. It helps explain why even decorated civil servants like John Brennan at best remained silent about, and at worst participated in, the CIA’s torture regime. It wasn’t an issue for him, ultimately; he eventually became director, where he could defend torturers at greater length.
But that’s exactly the problem. It should be an issue. We’ve set up a system where the baseline assumption is that nothing short of, I don’t know, full-on in-person murder can disqualify an elite political or business figure from their posting. And that means that people like the Trumps will continue to believe that criminality and collusion are just fine. Unless we’re willing to break down that system, and interrogate the role that even Trump’s enemies have played in building it, we will get two, three, many Trumps in the future.
Correction: I initially wrote that Jon Chait believes Trump has been an Russian “agent” for three decades. In fact, Chait believes that Trump “might” have been a Russian “asset” for three decades. I regret the error.
Rachel Maddow reports on the evasiveness and obstruction of testimony by former Donald Trump aide Hope Hicks before the House Judiciary Committee, but finds insight in a passage about how the Trump campaign handled the Access Hollywood tape while a rumored lewd tape of Trump with Russian prostitutes was assigned to Michael Cohen to handle.