Opinion

I want to wean myself from thinking about Trump. But I can’t.

Michael Cohen, personal lawyer to President Donald Trump, exits from Federal Court in New York on April 16, 2018.
Michael Cohen, personal lawyer to President Donald Trump, exits from Federal Court in New York on April 16, 2018. Bloomberg

Like a lot of folks, I’ve been trying to wean myself from thinking about Donald Trump. It’s not working.

Last week, Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the timing of negotiations to build Trump Tower Moscow and how often he’d discussed the dealings with Trump during the presidential campaign. He also admitted he’d worked to organize a Trump trip to Russia after the Republican nomination was secured.

Cohen lied, he said, to hide Trump’s involvement, match Trump’s public falsehoods, and deflect the Russia investigations. Cohen told a packed Manhattan courtroom he “made the misstatements to be consistent with (Trump’s) political messaging.”

So what, you ask? The Trump crew lies all the time and Cohen has already established himself as Trump’s adultery payoff pimp and coercion man. Is there, suddenly, gambling in the establishment? Come on.

It’s not so much, in this case, that Cohen lied. It is, rather, who he lied to and what he lied about. The president’s lawyer admitted lying to the Congress about his client’s dealings with a hostile foreign power to keep the legislators and the country from knowing his client was playing footsie with our leading foreign adversary.

It is impossible to know, yet, whether Trump told his lawyer to commit perjury on his behalf. It may only be that Cohen knew, without an updated mandate, that committing crimes to protect his ever-illicit boss was his accepted (or even sought-after) lot in life. But whether that’s true or not, there can be no doubt that Trump, obsessed with the investigation, knew his lawyer lied to Congress about his business dealings and he didn’t lift a finger to correct the falsehoods lodged on his behalf. Trump continues to play the Mafioso, even in the White House.

Cohen committed (another) crime. A serious one. He did it to cover up his boss’ mendacity on involvement with Russia. Few would appreciate a candidate for the presidency, or a president, selling out the national interest to make money on a building in Moscow. Or giving the Russians such dangerous leverage over him.

But Trump and his fixer weren’t to be deterred by (weak) concerns like the obligations of democracy. The money and the crime took precedence. Perhaps Cohen acted only with tacit approval and then concrete and precise ratification.

But separating Trump from the criminality and the violation of constitutionally-imposed legal norms would absurdly elevate form over substance. Perjury carried out by Trump’s agent, on his behalf, with his (at least subsequent) approval, and without his required intervening correction, is, in real terms, Trump’s perjury as much as Cohen’s.

Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 65 that impeachment lies for “those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”

Hamilton, meet Trump.

Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said a couple days ago Cohen’s guilty plea is a stern and potent warning: “It’s a loud message to everybody that is interviewed by our committee, regardless of where the prosecution comes from, if you lie to us we’re going to go after you.”

Nice talk. Threats are easily made. We’ll see if the declared umbrage applies to the general pressing the battle plan or only to the foot soldiers doing his bidding. I’m not holding my breath.

Gene Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at UNC-Chapel Hill.







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