Tuesday, July 31, 2018|2 a.m.
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If President Donald Trump’s privately taped conversation with lawyer Michael Cohen reminds you of a criminal offense employer and his consigliere, you’re not alone. Trump’s existing legal representative and mouthpiece, Rudy Giuliani, seemingly concurs.
After CNN first played the tape last Tuesday, Giuliani went on Fox News and downplayed its significance, citing his experience as a mob-busting federal district attorney: “How about 4,000 hours of Mafia people on tape? I know ways to pay attention to them. I understand how to transcribe them. This tape is crystal clear when you listen to (it). I’ve handled much even worse tapes than this.”
Spin-wise, this is the very best they’ve got? That Trump and Cohen do not sound as bad as the Gambino family? Yikes.
The recording, made by Cohen shortly before the 2016 election, is a window onto how Trump works– and, by extension, what sort of person he is. In it, he and his then-lawyer Cohen discuss their machinations to squelch previous Playboy friend Karen McDougal’s story of what she refers to as a 10-month affair with Trump. The president of the United States is revealed as a schemer and a liar. That’s no surprise, I understand, and now we can hear him in action– and there is no other way he can declare the evidence is “fake news.”
Earlier Tuesday, at the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Trump was discussing the economy but sounded nearly as if he knew the Cohen recording was about to come out. He indicated the assembled media, provided his traditional insults, and after that informed the crowd, “Exactly what you’re seeing and exactly what you read is not what’s occurring.”
Echoes of a chilling line in George Orwell’s “1984” were unmistakable: “The Celebration told you to decline the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their last, most vital command.”
And certainly, Trump’s truest followers might search for ways to disbelieve exactly what they hear. They may fall for Giuliani’s effort to make the issue about whether Trump wanted Cohen to pay to quash McDougal’s story with cash or a check– as if that mattered.
What does matter is that, in the recording, Cohen informs Trump he needs to “open a company” to spend for “the transfer of all of that details regarding our pal David”– an apparent referral to David Pecker, chairman of the company that owns the National Enquirer, which in August 2016 paid McDougal $150,000 for unique rights to her account of the affair and after that never ever released a word of it. In the tabloid world, this technique of burying a story is referred to as “catch and eliminate.”
McDougal says her affair with Trump ended in 2007. Why, nine years later, was it suddenly worth 6 figures to keep her story from coming out? The context of the Trump-Cohen discussion makes clear that they were thinking of the upcoming election.
Legal professionals have actually said this implies the $150,000 Pecker’s company paid to McDougal might be an unreported campaign contribution; that Trump might have thus been involved in a conspiracy to violate federal project finance laws; which there may have been fraud in the setting up of a shell business to make an illegal payment.
None of that might be smoking-gun product, however take a broader view. Pay attention to how regular the conversation sounds. In all the computing and lying, there is no tip of anything unusual. For Trump and Cohen, it sounds like simply another day at the office.
The recording is one of numerous, perhaps many, taken by federal representatives throughout raids on Cohen’s workplace, house and hotel room in April. “What kind of a lawyer would tape a client?” Trump angrily demanded in a tweet. Speaking on MSNBC, former federal district attorney Chuck Rosenberg had a response: “Probably, an attorney that does not trust his client.”
Cohen when supposedly said he would take a bullet for Trump. But in recent days, he and his media-savvy attorney, Lanny Davis, have actually made clear that if there is a fall to be taken, Cohen has no objective of taking it alone. This growing estrangement indicates that if Trump attempts to shut Cohen up by pardoning him, the president would not even have the fig leaf of relationship to hide behind. It would be a naked obstruction of justice.
Pay attention to that a person recording then think of the voluminous trove of material gathered in the Cohen raids. For a very long time, only Trump and Cohen understood exactly what was in there. Now federal district attorneys do, too. Soon, it promises, all of us will.
Eugene Robinson is a writer for The Washington Post.