Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Songbird Day


ALL DUE PROPERS to the great Maya Angelou: Now we know why a songbird sings — sometimes it’s to keep from being a caged bird for any longer than the law allows.

Michael Cohen — the longtime attorney, consiglieri and former Kevlar vest for candidate-now President* Donald Trump — has thus seen the error of his ways. That was the message delivered Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan as Cohen pleaded guilty to five counts of tax evasion, two counts of campaign finance violations, and one count of making false statements to a financial institution. All of it, in the words of Robert Khuzami, the Southern District of New York deputy U.S. Attorney, “for the purpose of influencing the 2016 election.”

The two campaign-finance violations were for those two hush-money payments — two big checks written to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, to get them to shut up about possible extramarital affairs they had with The Donald.

At his hearing Tuesday, Cohen said he took the campaign-finance actions — paying the two women $280,000 “in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office.” Trump’s previously denied knowing anything about it. Cohen faces sentencing in December.

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Lanny Davis, Cohen’s attorney, later told NPR that Cohen would never accept a pardon from Trump. “I know that Mr. Cohen would never accept a pardon from a man that he considers to be both corrupt and a dangerous person in the oval office,” Davis told NPR's “Morning Edition” on Wednesday. “And [Cohen] has flatly authorized me to say under no circumstances would he accept a pardon from Mr. Trump.”

And in Alexandria, Va., Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign manager and ostrichware enthusiast, was found guilty of five counts of tax fraud, two counts of bank fraud, and one count of failure to file foreign bank accounts. (Manafort attended the pivotal Trump Tower meeting in June 2016, with Cohen; a Russian lawmaker, Natalia Veselnitskaya; and Donald Trump Jr., eldest son of The Donald.)

Manafort faces from seven to nine years in prison — and another trial: he’s scheduled to appear to appear in federal court on Sept. 17 in Washington, to face charges of money laundering, witness tampering and lying to the FBI.

Tuesday marked the 579th day of House Trump; it was, not arguably but certainly, the worst in the history of a breathtakingly inept administration. Tuesday was the day when lie was put to Trump’s tireless “Rigged Witch Hunt” accusations. On two fronts, in two courtrooms 235 miles apart, at in practical terms the same moment, two of Trump’s once-trusted lieutenants were, by jury or by self-admission, guilty of various frauds and felonies, some of them directly implicating the President* of the United States in violations of federal law.

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THE SHORT-TERM impact of this one-two punch was first proffered in the media as a series of more or less equal events, but in short order, that changed. The songbird part of the story, its mea culpa dimension, had more weight than the narrative of a clotheshorse fixer going up before a jury of his peers. Manafort became the sideshow, the peripheral event. He was a short-term associate of the Trump 2016 campaign, directing the campaign for all of four months.

Cohen was the real deal. He's had the longer relationship with Trump (at least 10 years) and the more crucial one. As Trump’s personal lawyer, Cohen was in a position to know about everything, to deflect every problem, to minimize every impact.

The media adjusted its lens appropriately by Wednesday. Look at the Wednesday page one of The New York Times; it grasps the power of betrayal as a catalyst for drama, it gets the turncoat aspect that makes the twists and turns of this narrative irresistible.

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Now, of course, we can probably expect that, even with Tuesday’s seismic events, and the repercussions that haven’t even landed yet, it’ll be business as usual in House Trump, the Oval Office occupant will use what just happened as another opportunity to hunker down, to showcase the obstinate temperament honed and cultivated with his longtime mentor Roy Cohn, who instilled in Trump a never-settle mindset that slipped the confines of law and the courtroom a long time ago.

Trump can be expected to be in circle-the-wagons mode for a while, and certainly from now until November. And why not? He knows what’s at stake. And the power of the bully pulpit of the White House isn’t to be underestimated.

For House Trump, Tuesday’s events were just another routine attack against a president* used to being under siege, and acting accordingly. Look at the press briefing on Wednesday. The embattled White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, looking more and more like Ron Ziegler every day, tersely replied to reporters’ questions, trying to maintain the deadpan sang-froid that’s been her stock in trade since she started the job.



ALL OF THIS changes the trajectory of a presidency that’s been sorely challenged from the beginning. The reports of the mood from inside the White House have not been promising. The Washington Post reported that Trump was in “a foul mood” on Tuesday, after the Manafort-Cohen haymakers landed, and “slightly deflated” later in the day, at a rally in West Virginia.

Robert Costa and Josh Dawsey of The Post reported: “ ...[A]t least for now, at least for a day, Trump resisted lashing out in a dramatic and public way. Instead, Wednesday was a moment for calculation and conversation, a pause for a rattled administration, according to White House officials and outside advisers familiar with the discussions. Several advisers who spoke to Trump said he seemed more frustrated than furious, more sad than screaming.”

That’s likely to be the mood at House Trump for a while. As if Omarosa’s tapes weren’t problem enough, and they were and still are, now there’s the prospect of tapes from Cohen (more than the one released earlier in the year) — tapes that, unlike Omarosa’s, may not go into the public record right away, tapes that are likely to be the property of the Special Counsel’s Office. Tapes that House Trump can’t possibly refute because House Trump didn’t know they existed in the first place.

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One White House official not authorized to speak publicly told The Post: “We’ve been through everything; the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape when almost everyone walked away,” said. “This is nothing. He’s fine.”

This White House official is a master of self-deception. The canine-metaphor enthusiast occupying the Oval Office is not fine. This is not a locker-room-talk moment like the Access Hollywood tape; it’s not an overheated rhetorical screwup like the “shithole countries” crack. This is not nothing. What happened on Tuesday is more. This is existential, maybe not right away but soon and for months and months to come.

This drama is a process, not an event, and it’s barely begun. Much of it over the last 579 days has played out in public. Some of it has played out in private, in cloakrooms and other confessionals, and, probably, in the blessed seclusion of a room somewhere in Washington, where Mike Pence has been quietly practicing the words of the presidential oath of office.

Image credits: Cohen: Yana Paskova/Getty Images. Manafort: booking photo. Trump and Roy Cohn: Marilynn K. Yee—The New York Times/Redux. New York Times front page: © 2018 The New York Times Company. Trump: tktktk.

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