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Opinion All the Trumpians’ lies have one thing in common

Federal prosecutors filed new court papers on Dec. 7 that revealed a previously unreported contact from a Russian to Trump’s inner circle during the campaign. (Video: Melissa Macaya, Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)
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The many modes of mendacity inside the Trump circle would be amusing if the team were not in possession of the nuclear launch codes. Allowing any of these people to give sworn testimony is like handing a fork to a toddler and pointing her toward an electrical outlet. Foreign policy advisers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, campaign operative Rick Gates, attorney Michael Cohen, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, international go-between Alex van der Zwaan, Russian fixer Konstantin Kilimnik: The list is so long, it feels like an Oscars speech. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is now in double-dutch because prosecutors say he lied when he promised to stop lying.

On the other hand, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III lavished praise on Flynn in a recent sentencing memo simply for telling the whole truth and nothing but. Exactly what truths Flynn told remains hidden behind heavy redactions, but it’s a good bet at least some of them involve more lies by more Trumpians.

Whatever he said (we’ll likely learn the details via future indictments), Flynn’s candor earned him a Get Out of Jail Free card. Cohen was not so lucky last week.

Trump’s longtime lawyer, intimidator, message-bearer and mop-up man, Cohen has allegedly tried to find a middle ground between lying and honesty. He has apparently come clean about conspiring with “Individual-1,” the pseudonym with a tsunami comb-over, to violate campaign finance laws while buying the silence of alleged paramours. But the federal prosecutors in New York’s Southern District require the full monty: a clean breast of all crimes ever committed, abetted or witnessed. Cohen declined to be so forthcoming. (Where to begin?)

So the team in Manhattan urged the sentencing judge to throw the book at Cohen, and since they have him dead to rights on tax evasion, it’s a pretty heavy book. Looking at four years or more in prison, along with $500,000 in restitution and an unknown hefty fine, Cohen might be reconsidering his reticence over the weekend.

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Back before his White House gig, Donald J. Trump used to play a discerning judge of competence and skill on a television show called “The Apprentice.” Looking at Cohen, one must conclude that this was an act worthy of Sir Laurence Olivier. There are probably lawyers tending bar or delivering Postmates in Manhattan who would make better executive vice presidents than the unfortunate Cohen.

According to the sentencing memo, Cohen was pulling down a modest income, by big-city legal standards, while running a side business in buying and leasing taxi medallions. Then one day, the board of directors at his condo decided they’d like to remove the name TRUMP from their building, and Cohen organized a successful resistance to oust the board and preserve the name.

Charmed, Trump hired Cohen and began paying him $500,000 per year — seven times what he was making before.

Maybe you’re thinking, what was this formerly low-paid lawyer doing for Trump that was worth half a mil? If so, you might have a future as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York. That is undoubtedly one of the lines of inquiry the feds tried to pursue with Cohen, only to be stonewalled. By all appearances, the witness spoke openly about the byzantine financial workings of his own tax-dodging taxi license business yet clammed up when the topic turned to his career inside the Trump Organization.

In his own sentencing memo, Mueller did note Cohen’s useful help with “certain discrete Russia-related matters” — during Trump’s political career but not, it seems, before. Yet all the lying on Team Trump points in the same direction, and if you head that way you’ll find yourself in Russia or Ukraine. Cohen lied about the extent of his efforts to strike a deal with Moscow to build a Trump-branded luxury tower near the Kremlin. (A contemplated pot-sweetener was to be the gift of a penthouse worth $50 million to one Vladimir Putin.) Manafort lied about his connections and conversations with suspect characters in Moscow and Kiev. Flynn’s lie involved the Russian ambassador. Right down the list, it’s Russia, Russia, Russia.

Meanwhile, Trump’s private business has been dependent on Russian money for decades — including some very dirty money indeed. As early as 1984, Trump personally attended the closing on the sale of five luxury condos in one of his buildings to a member of the Russian mafia. In 2013, police broke up an illegal high-stakes gambling ring run by Russian mobsters out of condos in Trump Tower. A condo just below Trump’s home in the Tower was allegedly the headquarters of a Russian money-laundering operation. In 2008, Donald Trump Jr. told potential investors in Moscow that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” while his brother Eric has been quoted by a reporter as saying in 2014 that “we have all the funding we need out of Russia.”

Oh, what a tangled web.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: What we learned on Friday

Randall D. Eliason: The hush-money payments are a sideshow. Mueller just added key pieces to the Russia puzzle.

Paul Waldman: The latest filings show that nobody can save Trump now

Dana Milbank: The utterly lawless ‘Individual-1’

David Ignatius: Michael Flynn appears to have come full circle