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What Michael Cohen's conduct reveals

Since late 2017, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has been shining a light into the shadowy corners of Michael Cohen's ...

Posted: May 16, 2018 9:34 AM
Updated: May 16, 2018 9:34 AM

Since late 2017, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has been shining a light into the shadowy corners of Michael Cohen's shell company, Essential Consultants, to discern any possible connections to Russia. But, in some ways, what's in plain view -- a Trump confidante taking advantage of his boss's new position -- is more disconcerting.

We learned last week that, shortly after the election, Cohen set about soliciting large payments from corporations on the promise that he could deliver access to the new President. He touted his relationship as President Donald Trump's personal lawyer and fixer to prospective clients, including Novartis, AT&T and Korea Aerospace. Novartis even agreed to pay Cohen $100,000 a month for a year without even meeting him. "I'm crushing it," Cohen told friends, according to the Washington Post.

The money, bizarrely, went into the same shell company Cohen had set up to pay the $130,000 hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels. The company, Essential Consultants, has no board, employees or website.

It is evident that Cohen promised not only access, but discretion -- or, to be more precise, opacity. Because he did not register as a lobbyist -- unlike many other former government officials who attempt to cash in on their government service -- he was not bound by lobbying disclosure requirements, adding another layer of secrecy to his dealings. The companies, once Cohen was outed, were caught flatfooted, and offered a shifting series of far-fetched reasons for retaining him, such as Korea Aerospace's initial claim that it hired Essential for legal counseling regarding US accounting standards.

Mueller, whose central mandate is to unravel any links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign, no doubt will give special scrutiny to Cohen's receipt of $500,000 from Columbus Nova, which is led by Andrew Intrater, cousin to Russian oligarch and Putin ally Viktor Vekselberg.

Setting aside Mueller's ongoing investigation, the more immediate and important question is what Cohen's guileful arrangements say about the President and his closest circle of associates.

There are three broad possibilities to explain Cohen's conduct.

The most benign is the explanation advanced last Wednesday by Trump's latest legal team addition, Rudy Giuliani, whose credibility on the facts has been, at best, checkered since he has come aboard. Giuliani asserts that Trump had no idea about the payments to Essential Consultants, and that Cohen was totally freelancing.

Notably, this is the same account Trump's associates, Cohen included, first offered about the Stormy Daniels payout.

In any event, while Giuliani and company have been trying to distance Trump from Cohen in recent weeks, remember that Cohen was Trump's most loyal soldier, the man to whom Trump turned to clean up his biggest messes. And Cohen's relationship to Trump, who plucked him out of an obscure practice as a personal injury lawyer after he took Trump's side in a board dispute, was everything.

It is inconceivable that Cohen would put that relationship at risk for a few million dollars. Therefore, even under the Giuliani scenario, Cohen would have had to believe that Trump would have no objection to Cohen's exploiting Trump's name and position.

This means that Cohen may have felt assured that his insider status brought with it a license to fleece. The analogies of ex-FBI Director James Comey and others to Trump as a mafia kingpin enforcing "some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth" are apt.

As with other Trump conduct, we shouldn't let the uncertainty of the most outrageous possibility obscure what is odious about even the most benign. At a minimum, Cohen's conduct suggests that some members of the Trump gang came to political power with a sense of entitlement and a willingness to exploit their proximity to the new President for personal gain.

The second, and somewhat less benign, explanation is that Trump had at least general knowledge of Cohen's grifting. After all, it would have been only prudent for Cohen to have given him some idea, particularly if he felt there were any danger of Trump being angry were he to learn through other sources -- a possibility that would have been hard for Cohen to discount.

But if Trump knew what Cohen was up to, he shares in the culpability, which is presumably why Giuliani is at pains to deny the possibility.

There is a third, crazy and entirely non-benign possibility, which is that Trump not only agreed to Cohen's scheme but shared in the profits from it. It would be in keeping with the Trump career business model, which has been to license his name in return for a share. He has employed this approach in his signature real estate projects, but no less to vodka, steaks and menswear.

Of course, there is no known proof of the hypothesis, and no responsible prosecutor would pursue it without some evidence. Moreover, it would have been an incredibly foolish step for Trump to have taken.

But under any of these scenarios, we are left with a very unsettling portrait of the sort of behavior that Trump has enabled -- if not endorsed -- in his closest associates, who took his unlikely rise to power as an opportunity not to govern, but to plunder.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 15229

Reported Deaths: 723
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds99925
Lauderdale73561
Madison72023
Scott65012
Neshoba63038
Jones59825
Forrest55338
DeSoto5337
Rankin4217
Leake42112
Holmes39728
Copiah3104
Jackson30513
Attala29216
Yazoo2734
Newton2714
Leflore25831
Harrison2577
Lincoln25628
Monroe25525
Lamar2355
Oktibbeha23512
Lowndes2119
Pearl River20931
Pike20211
Adams19615
Noxubee1856
Wayne1771
Warren1719
Washington1687
Covington1652
Bolivar16011
Jasper1574
Smith15011
Lee1496
Kemper14411
Clarke14318
Chickasaw13312
Lafayette1314
Coahoma1214
Carroll11711
Marion1159
Clay1124
Winston1121
Claiborne1112
Lawrence1021
Simpson1010
Yalobusha905
Hancock9011
Tate891
Grenada893
Wilkinson889
Itawamba877
Union835
Marshall833
Montgomery831
Sunflower813
Jefferson Davis772
Tippah7311
Panola703
Webster691
Calhoun644
Humphreys607
Amite601
Walthall550
Tunica543
Prentiss523
Perry503
Choctaw432
Jefferson421
Tishomingo320
Pontotoc323
Stone300
Franklin282
Tallahatchie271
Quitman260
George251
Alcorn171
Benton150
Greene121
Sharkey70
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 17359

Reported Deaths: 618
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Mobile2191115
Jefferson1780102
Montgomery163238
Tuscaloosa73814
Marshall6879
Franklin5457
Lee54033
Shelby50319
Tallapoosa42364
Butler40217
Chambers35325
Walker3442
Elmore3398
Madison3274
Baldwin2839
Dallas2603
Morgan2511
Etowah24811
DeKalb2433
Lowndes23812
Coffee2291
Sumter2206
Autauga2164
Houston2094
Bullock2034
Pike1980
Colbert1782
Russell1670
Marengo1636
Lauderdale1612
Hale1598
Calhoun1543
Choctaw1518
Barbour1501
Wilcox1447
Clarke1422
Cullman1260
Randolph1257
Marion12111
St. Clair1181
Pickens1114
Dale1100
Talladega1093
Chilton1001
Limestone940
Greene944
Winston880
Covington771
Jackson772
Crenshaw763
Macon754
Henry742
Bibb721
Washington686
Blount611
Escambia573
Lawrence480
Geneva400
Conecuh391
Coosa381
Monroe372
Perry370
Cherokee373
Clay272
Lamar230
Fayette150
Cleburne141
Unassigned00
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