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Opinion A taxonomy of Michael Cohen and potential Trump corruption

Here's a breakdown of the people that President Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen has dealt with and the investigations he's entangled in. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)


What did President Trump know about Michael Cohen’s quasi-shakedown operation, and when did he know it? That’s an important question, but in this particular case, we need to add a second one: Whether or not Trump knew about Cohen’s efforts, to what degree did he personally benefit from them?

Thanks to major new investigative pieces by The Post and the New York Times, we now have real insight into how Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, set up a company in October 2016 called Essential Consultants, which paid off the hush money to Stormy Daniels and subsequently took in millions of dollars in fees from corporations looking for “insight” into how the Trump administration functioned.

The story is straightforward enough. After Trump’s shocking win, corporations suddenly realized they couldn’t rely on traditional lobbying channels for access, and Cohen raced to capitalize on it. He overtly marketed himself as the president’s “fixer” to potential clients, and presented himself to companies as someone who was knowledgeable about Trump’s, er, thinking on questions important to their bottom line.

The result: Companies such as Novartis (which worried about policy impacting drug prices) and AT&T (which had a proposed merger) shoveled huge sums of cash into Cohen’s shell company. They didn’t get much in return, other than a legal and P.R. headache: Last fall, they were interviewed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Investigators from the Southern District of New York and Mueller’s team are probing what we all want to know, which is how deep Cohen’s scheme ran and how it may have involved Trump himself.

Opinion writer Ruth Marcus analyzes the "disgusting Washington ethics story" of Michael Cohen making millions off his relationship with President Trump. (Video: The Washington Post)

And so, with the help of Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, I’ve created a taxonomy of possible scenarios, on a spectrum of corruption from least to most serious:

Trump didn’t know nothin’ and didn’t gain much of anything. Trump lawyer (sic) Rudy Giuliani is denying that Trump knew about any of these payments to Essential Consultants. If so, it would mean that Trump was unaware of the whole scheme and the only way Trump himself benefited from the company is from its $130,000 payment to Stormy (which he appears to have reimbursed). Cohen himself may be in serious trouble — investigators are likely probing whether he offered specific government favors in exchange for the money — but it may not mean much about Trump.

Trump benefited more than we know, but he was unaware of it. Remember, Giuliani has previously conceded that Cohen might have made payments to other women. “I would think if it was necessary, yes,” Giuliani told ABC News. This takes on new meaning in light of the latest revelations, because it raises the possibility that Cohen’s company was used to pay off others for their silence.

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Trump may not have known about this, of course, but even so, it would be remarkable: It would mean Cohen, Trump’s bagman for many years, squeezed companies who wanted “insight” into Trump’s administration to cover his shady payoffs, which were important to getting his longtime client elected. “If any of that money was used to cover expenses that benefited the president, that could essentially constitute payments to the president,” Bookbinder said, though this might not have serious legal significance for Trump.

Trump benefited more than we know, and he was aware of it. A related possibility is that Cohen’s company paid off more women than we know — or took care of other similar business protecting the president’s image — and that Trump was aware of it. Recall that Giuliani said Trump started paying off Cohen for the Daniels hush money and other possible expenses (though Giuliani claims Trump didn’t know why he was paying Cohen) back in early 2017. At the same time, Cohen started marketing his “insight” to companies.

“It will be important to determine what the president knew about this company and how it worked,” Bookbinder said.

Some of the money went directly to Trump. The most serious possibility, Bookbinder noted, is that Essential Consultants functioned as a “pass through” for money raised from these companies to go directly to Trump himself. Bookbinder suggested that we can’t rule out the possibility that Trump had a direct interest of some kind in Cohen’s company.

That may seem very far-fetched. But such a scheme would fit in comfortably in Trump’s Washington. “If it were to turn out that the president had some kind of interest in Essential Consultants, it wouldn’t be so different from everything else that’s going on, in the sense that he’s got all these businesses that people who want to impress him are giving money to,” Bookbinder said. Even this might still be legal. But then the question would become whether the payments were made in the expectation of a quid pro quo, Bookbinder noted: “If the payments are linked to efforts to influence a specific action, that could become bribery.”

It’s very possible that the most benign scenario is the correct one, of course. But given all we’ve seen so far, who would want to predict that with any certainty?

* TRUMP HAS NO ‘PLAN B’ ON IRAN: The New York Times reports that Trump has no Plan B, other than insisting that Iran will cave under pressure and come back to negotiate a “better” nuclear deal, something intelligence officials doubt:

One official said that John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, has argued that the Iranians will simply fold under enough pressure. … Few in the Pentagon expect the Iranians to back down. Intelligence analysts expect that Iran will grow more active in Syria and Iraq … And cyberexperts warned that Iran … would almost certainly be back with new strikes aimed at targets in the United States.

Of course, intelligence officials also said Iran was in compliance with the deal, and that didn’t weigh much on Trump, either.

* TRUMP HOPES TO DISTRACT FROM SCANDALS: The Post reports that Trump is hoping that tearing up the Iran deal and holding a summit with North Korea will distract voters from the Mueller probe and other assorted scandals. But:

Trump is not the first president to focus on foreign policy in a period of personal political crisis. As the Watergate investigation intensified in 1973, President Richard M. Nixon tried to play up his role as commander in chief. “Nixon tried to make the point that ‘you Americans may be upset by my scandal, but I am doing such important things in foreign policy that you should think twice before wanting to throw me out,’ ” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said.

Also, the shredding of the Iran deal is unpopular. It’s unlikely voters will look at it and think, “Yes, the Trump administration is deeply corrupt, but great things are getting done, so who cares?”

* DEMS MOVE LEFT WHILE STAYING COMPETITIVE: Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur reports on how Democrats are moving left in the Trump era without nominating less electable candidates:

So far the left-wing “resistance” hasn’t sparked an intraparty civil war so much as a genteel coffee-table discussion. … the resistance is avoiding the suicidal tendencies of the Tea Party, which nominated radical candidates who blew winnable races … Progressives have found ways to move the policy conversation to the left, without attacking moderates. Potential presidential contenders … have endorsed single-payer health care and a federal jobs guarantee.

One key component of this has been that seething anger at Trump has energized voter turnout and the volunteer base, uniting the party and allowing it to focus on the policy conversation.

* COULD GOP GERRYMANDERING BACKFIRE? Politico notes that state Republicans nationwide gerrymandered the House by drawing lines to spread GOP voters efficiently, creating a lot of districts that they won by about 55-45.

But this election year is anything but normal. Many of the once-secure 55-45 Republican districts are very much in play. And North Carolina and Ohio … are turning into the prime examples. … operatives in both states now rattle off a half-dozen Republican districts that could become fierce battlegrounds this fall … some of the Republican incumbents have been caught by surprise by the ferocity of their competition.

Of course, Dems need a big wave to be able to breach these GOP districts, and if they don’t get a big wave but still win the popular vote, gerrymandering could help insulate a lot of them.

* DEMS HOLD ‘CLEAR EDGE’ IN ENTHUSIASM: A new Kaiser poll finds that 45 percent of Democrats are more enthusiastic about voting this year, versus 30 percent of Republicans who say the same. Note this:

The current enthusiasm gap is flipped from KFF’s 2014 midterm polling, in which a slightly larger share of Republicans said they were “more enthusiastic” (27 percent) compared to one in five Democrats and independents (18 percent).

If this is right, the current Dem enthusiasm edge is larger than the one Republicans enjoyed in 2014.

* DON JR. PLANS BIG ROLE IN MIDTERMS: Axios reports that Donald Trump Jr. is planning to do a lot of campaigning and fundraising:

He wants to use his influence within the Republican base to “expand our majority in the Senate and protect our majority in the House,” said a source close to the president’s son. … Don Jr.’s priority states for midterm Senate races: West Virginia, Missouri, Montana and Indiana. … he believes his brand of “MAGA conservatism” — pro-gun, anti-media, anti-establishment — could make a difference in turning out the base in these states.

That Donald Trump Jr. — privileged, arrogant and thoroughly unrepentant about trying to collude with Russia to get his father elected — has great influence with the GOP base really says it all.

* WE ALREADY KNOW THAT IT’S VERY BAD: E.J. Dionne Jr. neatly sums up what we know about the Mueller probe and the latest revelations about companies dumping money (including one linked to a Russian oligarch) into Cohen’s slush fund:

We know enough to conclude that (1) the Russia connection to Trump World runs very deep, and Mueller is no doubt exploring its many tributaries; (2) if Trump is profoundly altering Washington, it is to make the most old-fashioned forms of influence-peddling more common and more blatant; (3) we need to figure out if any of the money sloshing around has found its way to Trump; and (4) Trump will play as fast and loose with fundamental changes in policy as he does with ethics and the truth.

Given the constant flow of new revelations, it’s remarkable that some still confidently insist that they know the Mueller probe will end with a whimper.