NEW YORK CITY, near America
Picture the current American presidency as gangster-laden film noir, a tawdry movie with two leading rôles: a thuggish lawyer called “The Fixer,” employed by “The Don,” malevolent godfather of a crime syndicate. The stars: Michael D. Cohen as consigliere, Donald J. Trump as capo di tutti capi.
So it was, in life off the screen, for ten sorry years.
Then came the morning February 27, a cold and sunny Wednesday in Washington. One of the stars broke character on live television. During five hours of testimony before an investigative committee of Congress, Michael Dean Cohen became—of all things simultaneously real and legendary—the honest man of Diogenes’ fabled search.
Mr. Cohen is changed. Mr. Trump remains the same: loathsome.
Convicted of scummy personal dealings and lying to authorities of likewise scummy work for his orange-faced padrino, the former fixer—a one-time deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee—fingered the president of the United States as a cheap sleaze, a criminal, and likely a traitor. En route to a three-year prison term commencing May 3, having forever damaged his family, and having forfeited his license to practice law, Mr. Cohen had nothing to lose by serving up allegations of fraud, deceit, and bigotry against the president.
Damn the campaign of threats and intimidation emanating from the White House and Donald Trump’s Republican minions, Mr. Cohen came clean. Under the circumstances, it was a bravura performance.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, a Democratic Party member of the committee, was moved to say of Mr. Cohen’s epiphany, “This is a story of redemption.”
Indeed. In a raspy speaking style similar to that of New York movie actor Robert De Niro, the Redeemed One opened his testimony with a convincing statement of remorse, and a hint of what was to come:
I am ashamed of my own failings, and I publicly [accept] responsibility
for them…I am ashamed of my weaknesses and misplaced loyalty [and of] the things I did for Mr. Trump in an effort to protect and promote him.
I am ashamed that I chose to take part in concealing Mr. Trump’s illicit acts rather than listening to my own conscience.
I am ashamed because I know what Mr. Trump is.
He is a racist.
He is a conman.
He is a cheat.
The most damning documents Mr. Cohen gave the committee were cheques he received from client Trump, each in the amount of $35,000 (€30,760), including two cheques issued in the first months of Mr. Trump’s presidency. Meant to appear as normal retainers for legal services, the installments were in truth a reimbursement to Mr. Cohen for $130,000 (€114,600) he fronted with funds from his home equity line of credit. The money was subsequently laundered through a shell company and wired to a Los Angeles attorney for smut flick diva Stormy Daniels; in return, Ms. Daniels was to keep quiet about (ahem!) servicing Mr. Trump.
Not a whisper of the Stormy Daniels encounter—an alleged tryst in Las Vegas in 2006, weeks after First Lady Melania Trump gave birth to little Barron Trump—was to be heard during Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign for the presidency. Thus did The Fixer do his duty, which he confessed to Congress involved lying to the new mother. But then, contrary to the hush-up agreement, Ms. Daniels publicized the assignation, inclusive of a tantalizing detail: She spanked the future president’s bare buttocks with an issue of Forbes magazine featuring Mr. Trump as cover boy.
L’affaire Stormy was not simply one tawdry episode in the long and squalid life of 72-year-old Donald John Trump. Mr. Cohen’s facilitation of bribery to advance the presidential ambitions of his client constitutes felonious violation of federal campaign law. So ruled the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, which in its judgment against the defendant fixer cited “Individual One” as an unindicted co-conspirator in bribery. Mr. Cohen named Donald J. Trump as the Individual in question.
Other of Mr. Cohen’s revelations were circumspect. After all, he is an important coöperating witness in ongoing investigations into Mr. Trump’s numerous nefarious alleged activities—among them: bank fraud, tax fraud, wire fraud, theft of emails from the Democratic National Committee, lying to federal authorities, suborning perjury, illegal personal enrichment by virtue of public office, collusion between the Trump campaign committee and Kremlin computer hacks and disinformation artists to claim the Oval Office for what Russian military intelligence officers call “our boy.”
The Russian collusion question is the purview of Robert Mueller, head of a special investigation commission in Washington set to issue what promises to be a scorching report any day now. Meanwhile in New York, the Manhattan federal prosecutor and the state attorney general in Albany are combing through a swamp of dubious dealings involving the Trump Organization, the president’s corporate entity, and the Trump Foundation, his faux charity.
—On February 28, the day after Mr. Cohen’s appearance before the congressional committee, the attorney general of Israel announced his intention to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on several counts of corruption. The most serious charge involves what government investigators describe as a “bribe-based relationship” between Mr. Netanyahu and the controlling shareholder of Israel’s largest television corporation.
Here in the U.S., there is considerable debate about the legality of bringing an indictment against a sitting president—given longstanding policy, if not legal predicate. Even so, a former Republican federal prosecutor in Manhattan, David Kelley, said last Thursday that “policy” must not determine the justifiably legal indictment of a president the likes of Donald Trump.
Mr. Kelley’s view joins that of a growing number of legal scholars and practitioners of constitutional law. That number includes Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney general under former President Barack Obama.
The summer of 1974 saw another corrupt lawyer for another corrupt Republican president “turn,” per the prosecutorial vernacular. As with the present case of Michael Cohen, attorney John W. Dean saw the light and coöperated with federal authorities probing an earlier Republican crime against property of the opposing party—the 1972 break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office complex, a crime in the political cause of Mr. Dean’s client, President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994).
In his appearance forty-five years ago before another committee of Congress, Mr. Dean came to a full flowering of his own epiphany exactly as Mr. Cohen did this year—in klieg-lighted live television.
The “Watergate scandal,” as we know it, forced Mr. Nixon to resign his office in disgrace, as ringleader of a shoddy break-in. Mr. Dean was sentenced for up to four years in prison, eventually reduced to four months.
After confessing his part in a plot to camouflage what Mr. Nixon characterized as a “third-rate burglary,” Mr. Dean painted a larger picture, wittingly or not, by darkly warning of a “cancer on the presidency.” Meaning, among other unhealthy things, the hubris required of lawyers to violate the law and the dignity of their profession for the gummy gain of a political patron; the hubris required to assume they can get away with it.
And the hubris required to ignore an old and disreputable dance: the two-step of thugs and godfathers.
Mr. Cohen sounded a warning as well, about the metastasizing quality of political cancer. At a pregnant moment in his testimony, he paused to glare at the smirking Republican committee members whose time on camera was used not for inquiry but to scold him, ad nauseam, about his self-acknowledged shortcomings. He told the smirkers, “People that follow Mr. Trump as I did, blindly, are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”
The Republicans—to a man and woman, the president’s acolytes—were unmoved. They volunteered to squat on the sidelines of history, past and of the moment. They hewed to a line clearly agreed upon prior to the hearing: Michael Cohen is on his way to prison for lying and henceforth is never to be trusted. Michael Cohen says he will write a no-doubt best-selling book about his years in the employ of a man who exhausts every day with lies large and small. We are shocked—shocked—that the Democratic committee majority would force us to listen to a convicted liar. They thought it amusing to attach a poster to the wall behind their end of the committee table, a poster with an unflattering photograph of The Fixer and the tagline “Liar Liar, Pants on Fire!”
Not once did any Republican committee member take issue with anything of substance related by Mr. Cohen.
It is one thing to read of presidential crime in the press, but quite something else—quite something more powerful—to absorb such news via the oxymoronic medium of Reality Television, the very essence of congressional hearings.
Donald Trump understands at least this. He was impresario and star of “The Apprentice,” which ran for fifteen seasons here and abroad to carry forth the myth of his being a successful tycoon in addition to being the self-described “king” of reality TV. Never mind the long trail of failed enterprises, never mind the multiple corporate bankruptcies, never mind the three thousand-plus lawsuits against him for failure to pay vendors.
Never mind the lies. According to a running tally kept by the Washington Post, Mr. Trump told 8,718 lies to the American public between his inauguration in January 2017 and January 2019.
The drama of congressional hearings involve people we see and hear—real miscreants, real witnesses, and real questioners together in one room and obliged to produce facts. Imperfect as such reality TV is, it is theatre. And theatre is a merger of emotion and the search for truth. It is how many Americans, if not most, come to realize the grave danger of a rogue presidency.
Witnesses to this danger, men such as John Dean and Michael Cohen, are not perfect. But their testimony is. No detective ever got to the bottom of a greasy crime by interrogating splendid folks who belong to the League of Women Voters.
What Donald Trump seems incapable of understanding, and will surely never experience, is the redemptive value of theatre—even in the low form of reality TV. Nor is he likely to understand his fallback one-word pejorative as high irony : The “king” of reality TV dismissed the recent congressional reality TV show as “fake.”
He will never understand the powerful swirl of patriotic reaction among the viewing audience, as educed by Congressman Elijah Cummings. A dignified gentleman bulldog and the Democratic chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform, Mr. Cummings closed off last week’s hearing with a short speech that shall take an honorable place in the history of American political oratory.
Mr. Cummings—whose given name, Elijah, reflects the ancient Hebrew prophet said to have brought down fire from the sky—had this to say to Mr. Cohen, and to us all:
It’s very painful. It’s very painful. You made a lot of mistakes, Mr. Cohen, and you’ve admitted that. And you know the saddest part of this whole thing…? That some very innocent people are hurting, too, and you acknowledge that, and that it is your family.
And you know that if we, as a nation, did not give people an opportunity after they made mistakes to change their lives, then a whole lot of people would not do very well.
We are better than this. We really are. As a country, we are so much better than this.
I don’t know why this is happening for you, but it is my hope that a small part of it is for our country to be better. If I hear you correctly, it sounds like you’re crying out for a new normal—for us getting back to normal. It sounds to me like you want to make sure that our democracy stays intact.
…This has got to be one of the hardest things that you could do. Let me tell you the [television news] picture that really pained me. You were leaving the courthouse, and I guess it’s your daughter [who] had braces or something on? Man, that hurt me. As a father with two daughters, it hurt me.
I want to say thank-you. I know that this can be hard. I know that you are facing a lot. I know that you are worried about your family, but this is part of destiny…[H]opefully, this portion of your destiny will lead to a better Michael Cohen…a better United States of America, and a better world.
I mean that from the depths of my heart. When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked, ‘In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy…? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?’
—Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag