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Opinion Michael Cohen has tapes of Trump. Here’s why this isn’t a distraction.

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)

We haven’t heard from endlessly entertaining former Trump factotum Michael Cohen in a while, so this is welcome news:

Federal investigators have an audio recording in which then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and his personal attorney Michael Cohen discussed in the fall of 2016 making payments for the story of Playboy centerfold Karen McDougal, who allegedly had an extramarital affair with Trump, according to two people familiar with the conversation.
The recording, made by Cohen, was seized by federal agents now investigating Trump’s longtime confidant for potential bank and campaign finance crimes, according to multiple familiar with the probe.

This is particularly rich given that President Trump has attempted to threaten people by saying he has tapes of their conversations, then never following up, probably because he was just lying. (You’ll remember, “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”) Just to remind you, McDougal is the one who was paid $150,000 by AMI, the parent company of the Trump-allied National Enquirer, in a “catch and kill” scheme, in which they pay for exclusive rights to a story in order to prevent it from becoming public.

Here’s another interesting part of the story:

In the September 2016 conversation, Cohen and Trump were discussing a plan by Cohen to attempt to purchase the rights to McDougal’s story from AMI for roughly $150,000, according to one person familiar with recording.
Trump can be heard urging Cohen to make sure he properly documents the agreement to buy the rights and urges him to use a check — rather than cash — to keep a record of the transaction, the person said.

Although we can’t be sure, it sounds to me like the idea was for Trump to essentially pay AMI back for what they paid McDougal, since $150,000 is exactly what the company paid her, and it’s difficult to imagine another reason Trump would want to purchase the rights to her story when AMI was already sitting on it in order to help Trump. As for Trump’s suggestion to keep a record of the transaction, call me crazy, but I doubt it was because he wanted to be scrupulous about the whole affair; maybe he was thinking about deducting the payment on his taxes.

In any case, something tells me there is more to learn about this, and that perhaps it will shed some light on why a well-known adulterer such as Trump was so eager to keep women like McDougal and adult-film actress Stormy Daniels quiet. And who knows what other tapes Cohen has. But I’m sure some people will react to this news by saying something we’ve heard before — that we shouldn’t pay attention to this kind of trivial stuff because there are far more important things going on, and we don’t want to get distracted.

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It’s an understandable argument. None of us has an infinite attention span, and it’s often only when a story comes to absolutely dominate the news that people in power feel enough pressure to alter their behavior, as we saw with the Trump administration’s abhorrent family-separation policy (an issue that, by the way, is not yet resolved; there are still hundreds of children who haven’t been reunited with their parents).

But even as we try to make the most reasonable decisions about what’s worth focusing on and what isn’t, we need to make peace with the fact that every serious Trump scandal will be preceded, followed and occasionally upstaged by a trivial Trump scandal. That’s the world we live in, and there’s not much we can do about it. It is not because Trump is such a clever media manipulator that he is able to continually distract us from what’s important. It’s because he is quite simply one of the most comprehensively corrupt individuals now living in the United States — and he happens to be the president.

The parade of scandals and controversies has been unceasing since Trump declared his candidacy in 2015, and it will never stop. If you’re waiting for the moment when things will calm down enough for us to focus on one thing at a time, you’ll be waiting until he leaves office.

As for the Cohen tapes, maybe they’ll turn out to be nothing, or at least not much. But one should never discount the power of audio (or video) tapes. Hearing a politician say something in his own voice has many times the impact of seeing his words in print. President Richard M. Nixon would probably have survived had it not been for the White House tapes, not just because of what he said, but because the whole country heard him say it.

And don’t forget it was during the seventh congressional investigation of Benghazi that Republicans discovered that Hillary Clinton had her own email server. Substantively it was all but meaningless — not to mention that it turned out to be the safest place for her to keep her emails, as the Russians could tell you — but, politically, it turned out to be rather a big deal. So you never know when something that looks trivial today could turn out tomorrow to be anything but.