On Thursday, court documents regarding Stormy Daniels from the case against Michael Cohen were released to the public, and while this might seem like just an addendum to a fading story, it offers a fascinating glimpse into how different the political world is right now, compared with three years ago, when Donald Trump first ran for president.
One of the most insightful things Trump ever said was, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible.” But in 2016, he didn’t quite believe it, not completely.
Now President Trump does believe this. As a consequence, between now and next November, he’ll deal with scandals very differently from the way he did back then.
The reason I say he didn’t quite believe it can be found in the new documents. As you’ll recall, during the 2016 campaign, Trump and his associates arranged to pay Daniels $130,000 to buy her silence about an affair she says she had with Trump.
According to the documents, they were frantic to put a lid on the story. This resulted in a series of phone calls and text messages among Cohen, Trump, spokesperson Hope Hicks, Daniels’s lawyer, and two executives from the parent company of the National Enquirer (the company had arranged a separate hush money payment to another woman with whom Trump allegedly had an affair, Karen McDougal).
Philip Bump summarizes what happened on a single day, Oct. 8, 2016, as the effort to keep Daniels quiet reached a fever pitch:
Hicks called Cohen, looping Trump. Hicks then called Cohen back. Cohen called Pecker, then called him again. Howard called Cohen. Cohen called Hicks. Pecker called Cohen. Cohen called Trump. Howard called Cohen, then called him again. More than half-an-hour of calls, including an eight-minute call with the candidate.
Then a few weeks later, when the Wall Street Journal published an article about McDougal, Cohen texted one of the Enquirer executives, “He’s pissed,” obviously referring to Trump. But when the story seemed to gain little traction, Hicks texted Cohen, “Keep praying!! It’s working!” (We should also note that Hicks seems to have lied to Congress about her involvement in all this.)
From where we stand today, the strangest part of the incident is that they all thought Daniels’s and McDougal’s stories becoming public would be hugely damaging to his campaign.
But even if that wouldn’t have been the case, we have to be clear about a couple of things. First, it appears Trump broke the law. Cohen is currently in prison in part because of his violation of campaign finance laws, violations that he committed in a conspiracy with the future president. I use the word “conspiracy” because that’s what it’s called when two or more people agree to commit a crime together, which is what they did.
You might think that the crime — making a large, unreported in-kind contribution to a political campaign — isn’t murder or anything. But it’s still a crime, and everyone involved acted as if they knew full well that it was, taking efforts to conceal it. Cohen set up a shell company in Delaware to make the payments, and Trump then reimbursed him (you can see a check with Trump’s signature on it here).
Cohen pleaded guilty to this crime, and the only reason Trump was not also prosecuted is apparently that he’s the president of the United States. Which brings us to the second thing to be clear about: Trump lied about it to the public. He was asked directly whether he knew about the payment to Daniels, and he said no.
But that’s all in the past. After surviving a dozen different genres of scandal, from financial (the revelation that he and his family engaged in tax evasion to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars) to personal (an accusation that he raped a woman in a department store dressing room) to policy (separating children from their parents and keeping them in cages), all of which barely budged his remarkably steady but low approval ratings, Trump and those who work for him now know that what he said about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue is absolutely true.
So when the next scandal comes, and the next one and the one after that, they won’t be so worried. They have a playbook, and they know how to implement it. First, Trump will deny whatever shocking behavior has been revealed. Then if that becomes untenable because the proof is there for all to see, he will say that in fact, whatever he did was good.
His aides will be dispatched to repeat the claim, and Republican officeholders will enthusiastically echo his arguments, no matter how absurd (watch this video of Lindsey Graham, best friend to the late John McCain, insisting that it’s okay for Trump to launch racist attacks at members of Congress because McCain never endured the suffering Trump does). The conservative media apparatus will be immediately activated to spread the word. And the Kremlin will probably lend a hand through its social media operatives and army of bots.
The scandal will come and go, and no matter how shocking the facts, its effects will be minimal. The faith of Trump’s most ardent supporters will not be shaken. He’ll survive it just as he has all the others. That doesn’t mean he’ll win reelection, but at this point it’s foolish to think a scandal is going to make his defeat inevitable. No matter how horrifying it is.