It is a time-honored way of rising in Washington: Attach yourself to the right presidential candidate, and once that candidate is successful, you might then secure a position in the White House or another federal agency, where you’ll get valuable experience, work on interesting and important issues, and be positioned to scoop up a lucrative payday should you decide to transition to the for-profit world.
Michael Cohen was one of these people, but with an important twist: Cohen had long represented Donald Trump’s private interests, and personally gained from serving them. Cohen then sought to maximize his gains by helping Trump launch his public career with his presidential run — which Cohen facilitated through criminal hush-money payoffs at Trump’s direction — all undertaken in hopes of hitching himself to that wagon, which he also tried to do once Trump was in office by hawking off fake access to the White House.
It’s precisely this private-public tension that is at the heart of President Trump’s corruption. Trump has to an unprecedented degree sought to maximize his private interests through the capture of public office. Cohen is now going to prison precisely because the effort to help Trump pull that off, in hopes of further enriching himself, exposed him. And that exposure, in turn, is shining new light into the true depths of Trump’s corruption.
That’s the real upshot of Wednesday’s news:
A federal judge on Wednesday sentenced President Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen to three years in prison for financial crimes and lying to Congress, as the disgraced former “fixer” apologized for his conduct but also said he felt it was his duty to cover up the “dirty deeds” of his former boss.
Cohen made an emotional, teary apology to U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III, taking responsibility for crimes that included tax violations, lying to a bank, and buying the silence during the 2016 campaign of women who alleged affairs with the future president.
“My weakness could be characterized as a blind loyalty to Donald Trump,” Cohen told the packed courtroom. He stood, sniffling and fighting back tears as he spoke, and paused occasionally to regain his composure.
The judge also ordered Cohen to pay nearly $2 million in financial penalties.
It’s true that some of Cohen’s crimes were committed entirely on his own behalf, as opposed to relating directly to his work for Trump. The president has seized on the former to cast Cohen as a criminal operating purely in his own interests, and not Trump’s. But it isn’t working, because the crimes in the latter category have now directly implicated the president.
Indeed, in that regard, Wednesday’s news is actually worse for the president than it first appears. Here’s what else happened Wednesday relating to those hush-money payoffs:
Separately, New York prosecutors announced Wednesday that they had struck a non-prosecution agreement with AMI, the company that produces the National Enquirer tabloid, for its role in squelching stories of women who said they had relationships with Trump. AMI paid $150,000 to one of the women before the 2016 election.
As part of the agreement, AMI admitted it made the payment principally “in concert” with Trump’s campaign to “suppress the women’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election,” according to a statement from the Southern District of New York prosecutors office.
This delivers a serious blow to one of Trump’s primary arguments in his own defense: That the payoffs were merely a “private transaction.” After all, pretty much everyone involved in this caper — first Cohen, and now the company that killed the stories in question — has now publicly admitted that the payments were for the precise purpose of helping Trump win the election, that is, for a public purpose.
This is precisely what makes the whole arrangement criminal — because these payments were about getting Trump elected, they were campaign contributions, which means they’re limited and must be disclosed by law. Pretty much the only person who hasn’t admitted knowing that this was their purpose is Trump himself.
But even so, Trump’s defense itself exposes the depths of his corruption. Trump’s argument is explicitly that there was nothing wrong with these payments because they were privately carried out on his behalf — that is, because they were private activities that served his interests. It is simply not part of the equation for Trump that voters were entitled to know about these hugely consequential campaign expenditures — all that mattered, from his point of view, is that they were good for him.
This is also the case with the other big revelation that has been offered by Cohen: That the negotiations over a Trump Tower Moscow project continued at least until June of 2016, while Trump clinched the GOP presidential nomination, something Trump kept concealed from voters. Trump has explicitly justified this as well by saying that it was in his private interests — once again, the fact that voters were entitled to know about the conflict of interest created by these dealings simply isn’t part of the equation. The core of Trump’s corruption — on all this, on his tax returns, on the emoluments clause violations — is precisely that he feels perfectly entitled to keep reaping private gains while keeping the public in the dark about them.
The assistance that Cohen has given to Trump in the latter’s efforts to maximize his private interests at the expense of the public interest is now one reason Cohen is going to prison. In the process, though, Cohen has shined a great deal of light on the inner workings of those efforts — that is, into the depths of Trump’s corruption — and the consequences for Trump himself still remain to be seen.