Tuesday, April 17, 2018

End Stage

Drawing by Mike Luckovitch, New Yorker, 3 November 2008, via Boston.com.

So which is it? Have we entered at last, with the FBI raid on Michael Cohen's various document stashes, on the "End Stage" of the Trump presidency already, as Adam Davidson has just proclaimed in The New Yorker? Or is this just another illusory moment, as Steve M suggests, where we're thinking, surely the conservatives are going to realize now what kind of schmuck they've elected to the presidency while the voters themselves are going to say, with Greg Gutfield,
when America hears Comey whine that Trump is like a Mafia boss, they go, "No shit, Sherlock. That's why we like him." ... He may be a Mafia boss, but he's our Mafia boss.
I think—for one thing—I think they're writing about different things.

Davidson's piece is really interesting, backed up with some reporting memories, of the Iraq War, when the American masses eventually began to realize what an imposture the whole project was, and shortly thereafter the mortgage crisis, when it turned out that

Because these C.D.O.s had come to form the core value of most major banks’ assets, no major bank had clear value. With that understanding, the path was clear. Eventually, people would realize that the essential structure of our financial system was about to implode. Yet many political figures and TV pundits were happily touting the end of a crisis. (Larry Kudlow, now Trump’s chief economic adviser, led the charge of ignorance.)
He thinks that something broke this week, as we began to acquire a clearer sense of what kind of criminal Trump's "lawyer" is—he's never played a role in the 3,500 lawsuits in which Trump has found himself as defendant or plaintiff, he's never defended him in a criminal case, he's never done his taxes or written his will (I imagine!) or done anything you need to go to law school to do. And what Trump depends on him for (there's a good chance that Cohen has actually been victimizing him, in cahoots with his pal Keith Davidson, collecting hush money for the girls from Trump and men like Elliott Broidy—for the girls, no doubt, but keeping very healthy commissions for themselves).

And, as it turns out. that he really was in Prague when Christopher Steele thought he was, in August 2016 after the Republican convention and Paul Manafort's ousting from the campaign, meeting with Russian officials working to "sweep" Manafort and Carter Page out of the picture like so many ex-Playboy playmates. Because if he wasn't, how did Steele find out about it? Not that there was some random Michael Cohen visiting Czechia but that there was a Michael Cohen talking to Russian parliamentarian Konstantin Kosachev and a number of Romanian hackers to talk about Trump campaign problems, and why did Cohen lie about it so vociferously and so long, why is he still lying about it today? Oh, that Michael Cohen?

Oh, and now—I seem to have been working on and off on this for a year or so—we learn that he had another client at some point in the last year and a half (i.e., since the presidential election), in addition to President Trump and Billionaire Broidy, whose name he was anxious to conceal on grounds of attorney-client privilege but who is actually Fox News's Sean Hannity, who you don't think of as having Playboy Playmate mistresses, but who knows? One of the things we've been learning over the past months is that you can't tell with people who are rich enough (Hannity's annual income is said to amount to $36 million) to have no breaks on their inclinations.

The way this was revealed, in the course of the hearing on whether Trump and Cohen can look that the documents taken from Cohen's office and apartment and hotel before the investigators get a chance, which they predictably lost, was high drama; nobody was expecting it, including Cohen's attorneys, who were prepared to deliver Hannity's name to Judge Wood in a sealed envelope, until a somewhat heroic lawyer representing various press organizations, Robert Balin, asked to approach the judge and told her that the public interest required the public revelation of the name, and no interest on the part of client no. 3 could outweigh it, and Judge Wood thought for a while and she couldn't think of any reason either, and Cohen's lawyers ended up uttering Hannity's name aloud to gasps and titters all around.

Hannity has, of course, denied that Cohen is his attorney in any sense that could possibly make any difference:
"Now I have, eight attorneys I use for various things in my life, and in this particular case, you know, I like to have people that I can run questions by. And Michael, very generously, would give me his time, and we’d always say, “Attorney-client? Yeah, good.” And I’d ask him a legal question. And that’s it. And… I don’t think this is that complicated. How did this blow up to be such a big deal? I never had any case with him that involved any third party." 
Hannity went on to explicitly deny that Cohen handled settlements for him—”No, that’s not what happened. Ever.”—and repeated that he’d never paid Cohen any fees, immediately before stating that he might have given Cohen money on occasion. “Never paid any fees,” he said. “I might have handed him ten bucks, ‘I definitely want attorney-client privilege on this.’ Something like that.”
Only he also insists his interactions with Cohen are protected by attorney-client privilege, which is pretty unusual to do with somebody who isn't your lawyer at all ever. I don't think there's any reason to ask whether Hannity is telling any sort of truth here—I love the way he lurches from "never paid any fees" to "maybe ten bucks" here and there, as if a lawyer was something like a caddy or doorman to whom you'd toss a farthing for exceptionally good service—"Here, my man, don't drink this all in one tavern"—because it's evident from the behavior of Cohen and his attorneys that they do have documents referencing Hannity that they really don't want the New York Eastern District US Attorney's office to be looking at. Whether it involves a buxom Playmate of his own or home sales to people with money they'd like to bury in a back yard someplace, it's something Hannity would strongly prefer to have covered up. (I heard Stormy's lawyer, Michael Avenatti, say the same on TV.) Follow the paper.

The thing Steve says, and it's a thing he always says, and he's always right, is that none of this accumulating evidence is going to affect Trump's base voters. It's not like the Iraq War, it's not like the 2008 financial crisis, because it's the operation of a personality cult, or a reality show, as you prefer. Republican voters during the W administration were seeing people they knew maimed and killed in the Middle East, or seeing their mortgages fall under water. Nobody is affected that way by the Trumpery, whether it's the corruption or the election cheating or the monstrous self-involvement—I'd go on to say, because Trump is a character in a show, if you don't care about international cooperation or income inequality or corruption in government or any of these broad issues in a targeted way, as something shaped by the president's behavior. The core Trump voters have a very magical idea of how these things work—not because they're dumb, but because it's not part of their everyday experience except when they're paying taxes (Trump's famous tax bill has fallen clear off the radar for the rest of this year, though) or trying to get a permit from some idiot bureaucrat.

They're appreciating politics aesthetically, as a TV show, and Trump's the greatest character ever. You don't dump Hamlet, or Emma Bovary, or President Selina Meyer, just because they fuck up. You get more excited!

On the other hand, that's just not the most important fact. For one very simple thing, the 38% to 44% contingent that loves our emperor forever in this way is still a minority, and the 50% to 59% who disapprove of him, and who do have a more direct understanding of how government works, have always been a majority for the past year, ever since a little short of the first 100 days, and the question of who wins depends on the hugely variable enthusiasm of the latter group, not the unchanging commitment of the former. And to the disapprovers, the events of the last week are evidence that they're right, that Trump is a clown and a criminal—it's an enormous reinforcer.

And then opinion on Trump isn't directly comparable to opinion on the war and the financial crisis (Davidson brought those up as examples of dramatic opinion shifts he'd directly witnessed as a reporter, not as predictors of what was going to happen), but to opinion on George W. Bush, whose image changed not because his base began to perceive him as a bad person, but because the nation as a whole, those who thought he was wicked and those who thought he was noble, started thinking of him as impotent and ridiculous, out of his depth, as in that classic Luckovich cartoon at the top. Trump will begin to lose his base, overnight as Davidson suggests, when they realize that he and Cohen and Hannity and the whole grotesque operation are losers (I think this already accounts for Alex Jones's exhausted tears the other day). Which isn't even what the Mueller investigation is trying to do—their mandate, of course, is to uncover what happened and whether there was any criminal misbehavior involved—but what it inevitably will do, because that's what Trump is.

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