“He doesn’t give you questions, he doesn’t give you orders, he speaks in code, and I understand the code because I’ve been around him for a decade,” Michael Cohen told the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday about President Trump. It was not the most shocking statement, but it might have been the most insightful.
As when viewing a Pointillism painting, it’s helpful to step back to examine the portrait of the Trump Organization that Cohen painted:
- Everything goes through Trump (including the details of the hush-money reimbursement payments)
- By Cohen’s estimate, Trump used him more than 500 times to threaten and intimidate people.
- Tactics such as “catch and kill” and inflating or deflating his wealth are standard Trump tactics, Cohen says.
- Trump is a pathological liar in Cohen’s telling, looking him in the eye to inquire about the Moscow Tower deal and going out to tell crowds the same day “No Russia deals.”
- Trump used lawyers to shield himself from detection (e.g., Jay Sekulow edited Cohen’s false testimony, the hush-money payments went through Cohen). Lawyers are there not to advise as to legality but to enable Trump’s allegedly illegal acts.
- Protecting Trump requires finessing testimony, scaring witnesses and flat-out perjury.
If all that sounds familiar, you might be a fan of mob movies. In Cohen’s telling, Trump sits atop a kind of crime factory mowing down red lines daily, operating above and beyond the law to enrich its top boss and depending on the ultimate loyalty of underlings. Reporters have often commented that Trump publicly speaks in language a crime boss would use (e.g., deploring “flipping”). That may not be a coincidence. Trump’s self-image and organization are very much styled after a Hollywood movie portrayal of a gangster and his crime family.
As in the movies, the organization breaks down when someone becomes a “rat,” a cooperating witness. You have to find someone deep in the organization to provide insight into the day-to-day operation, to break the code, as Cohen said. These people are criminals, which is why they have access to even bigger criminals. Saying Cohen is a convicted perjurer is like saying Sammy “The Bull” Gravano was a felon. Well, duh. How else were the feds going to catch up to John Gotti and dozens of other mobsters?
Furthermore, Cohen brought documents with him, no doubt a fraction of what prosecutors have, and put other witnesses, especially Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg, in the center of activities. (Weisselberg is cooperating with prosecutors under a grant of immunity.) Smearing Cohen doesn’t get Trump or Republicans very far when there is a mound of evidence stacked behind him.
It was telling, however, that just like mob lawyers defending their client, Republicans only attack the cooperating witness. They have nothing to say about the substance of Cohen’s testimony. None other than former prosecutor and New Jersey governor Chris Christie observed, “The interesting thing is that there hasn’t been one Republican yet who has tried to defend the president on the substance, and I think that’s something that should be concerning to the White House. Why are no Republicans standing up and defending the president on the substance?” I think the question was rhetorical.