Yesterday was such a torrent of news from Michael Cohen and his all-day testimony that I confess I’m still trying to absorb it. News is an inherently social phenomenon. That’s what makes it news as opposed to information. Our process of absorbing the news, which is notionally individual, is also communal. As the Russia story and Trump administration drags on, we increasingly see two stories, which are both increasingly distinct and yet deeply related, indeed inseparable parts of the same story.
The biggest news to me remains that Trump had a heads up about the Wikileaks document dump, stolen goods that he and his team knew were driven by Russia and that he had a backchannel to Wikileaks through Roger Stone. This is hardly surprising given what we know and especially after the information contained in Roger Stone’s indictment. But now we appear to have the specific evidence, at least one specific moment when we know Trump knew. Yes, we are largely relying on Cohen’s word. But there are reasons why I think his claim in this case is quite credible.
The other point is more atmospheric, in the sense that we already knew the core facts. But through most of the 2016 campaign Trump was trying to land a hugely lucrative deal in Moscow for which he needed and actively solicited the assistance of Vladimir Putin. As Cohen testified yesterday, he would go from the hustings where he would insist he had no business with Russia, praise Putin and then later ask Cohen for an update on his progress toward their Moscow payday.
The irony is that I suspect the whole thing was likely smoke, Russia dangling a few hundreds of millions of dollars in front of Trump, as he ran for President, to see how much he’d dance and grasp for the cash. We know how much he did. Given who Trump is, that alone was probably sufficient for him to cater to Russian interests through the campaign and it may have been enough compromising information in itself at least to explain his early moves as President catering to Russia.
Of course, we know he turned his campaign over to a guy deep in hock to pro-Russian interests who apparently bartered information about the campaign back to Russian intelligence sources. But the existence of this negotiation and the shattering act of betrayal it represents is simply staggering. Of course, there’s more. Far from the deal ending in June or July of 2016, it seems more likely that the dangle just grew in new directions as Trump moved closer to the Presidency.
To me it is so patently obvious that Trump knew and directed the Trump Tower meeting that this likely, though not certain, evidence doesn’t greatly move the dial for me.
The other part of the story was the clear indications that there is a major investigation underway in the Manhattan US Attorney’s office which endangers the President and goes to the deep corruption of his private business, apart from direct connections to the Russia probe. Insurance fraud, money laundering, foreign corrupt practices, tax evasion – anyone who’s studied the Trump Organization knows the range of possible crimes.
What strikes me about this rising threat to Trump is that while these crimes may be distinct from the specifics of the Russia betrayal they are the seedbed from which it grew. Fundamentally, Trump is a win-at-all-costs player, as Cohen said, and a crook. Maybe there’s personal kompromat, maybe Trump has been in cahoots with the Russians since the 80s. But far more likely in my mind he’s just a crook. Putin saw an easy mark and Trump simply didn’t see any difference between mortgaging the country to Russia for his own personal enrichment and any other scam he’s participated in.