The tragic comedy that is the career of Michael Cohen just got a bit funnier, after leaked bank documents show that the president's personal lawyer spent 2017 collecting payouts from from firms like AT&T and pharma giant Novartis, with important business before the White House.
The companies in question have largely responded by saying these payments were not bribes, but money owed for consulting services that turned out worthless. But Korean defense manufacturer, Korean Aerospace Industries’ excuse is the one truly worth savoring. Spokesman Oh Sung-Keon tells the Washington Post that it was unaware of the connection between Cohen’s company Essential Consultants, and the President, and that Cohen was hired “to inform reorganization of our internal accounting system.”
At least we know why these companies actually hired Cohen. It may be a bit shady for close associates of the president to sell access in the guise of consulting, but given the difficulty of establishing clear distinctions between influence-peddling and consulting, it’s a practice that occurred under other presidents and will continue in the future.
What remains unclear is why the President ever hired Cohen. An erstwhile ambulance chaser and manager of taxi-cab medallions, investigative journalist Seth Hettena reports that Cohen was brought in to the Trump Organization in 2006 as a favor from Trump to Cohen’s father-in-law Fema Shusterman. “"Fema may have been a (possibly silent) business partner with Trump, perhaps even used as a conduit for Russian investors in Trump properties and other ventures," a former federal investigator tells Hettena.
This theory would explain why Trump would retain as his personal lawyer a man who has proven himself to be not the most careful or competent attorney Deep Brooklyn has to offer. Cohen is kept on as a favor to Schusterman, who is the conduit for shady money coming from Eastern Europe and Russia which funds Trump’s golf course and real estate projects when nobody else will.
The Resistance hopes that with this weeks revelations, which include documents showing that Cohen was also paid by a company controlled by sanctioned Russian oligarch and Putin-ally Viktor Vekselberg, brings us tantalizingly close to the smoking gun that proves collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.
But would a smoking gun really even matter? What is presumably offensive about collusion with Russia is that it would be an example of Donald Trump subverting American interests for his own personal gain. But the evidence that the president and his administration do this on a daily basis is overwhelming, and it has yet to do enough to dent the enthusiasm of his supporters to actually put his presidency at risk.
It’s common to bemoan this as the result of the polarization of American politics and the rise of “negative partisanship,” whereby voters dislike of the opposing party overwhelms any reservations he has about the party he typically supports. But a look at the two most serious presidential scandals prior to Trump taking office—the 1997 Monica Lewinsky scandal and the 1986 Iran-Contra affair—shows that this tendency is powerful, and has been with us for at least thirty years.
Iran-Contra saw president Reagan approve arms sales to Iran in exchange for money to illegally finance Nicaraguan rebels, and then lie consistently about it. Congressional committees investigated, and senior administration officials even went to jail. Reagan’s approval rating sank momentarily, but the American public simply didn’t care about the lying, the illegality, or even that the actions contradicted Regan’s own hardline stance against Iran.
In 1997, the Democratic Party, a party that stands for women’s rights, and which would be powerless without the support of women, stood by and supported a President as he sought to destroy the personal reputation of a 22-year-old female intern whom he used for sex. Like Reagan, Clinton’s approval ratings eventually recovered from the scandal, and it was the opposing party that suffered electorally for pressing the issue and demanding accountability.
The totality of Trump’s corrupt behavior, lying, and incompetence probably outstrip the misdeeds of either Reagan or Clinton. But the same partisan logic that enabled millions of Americans to simply ignore behavior they would otherwise see as disqualifying will likewise protect Trump. The only difference is that the JV-squad that surrounds the president is a lot less smooth the the entourages of either Slick Willy or the Teflon President. The antics of Michael Cohen won’t bring down the president, but they will make it the GOPs defense of Trump all the more undignified.
Christopher Matthews is a writer who splits his time between New York City and Accra, Ghana, with an interest in the intersection of markets, the economy, and public policy. He previously held staff positions at Axios, Fortune Magazine, and Time Magazine, and has been published in Forbes and Debtwire.