The charges make fascinating reading, particularly because there is such an eerie similarity between the crimes that President Trump’s lawyer pleaded guilty to and those that Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was found guilty of on the same day. Oh, not in the details — Cohen’s malfeasance was a seamy bit of Americana involving taxi medallions and byzantine loan deals, while Manafort’s rather more dramatic story was replete with dodgy Ukrainian officials and appalling sums dropped on vulgar ostentation. But both stories involve tax fraud and fraudulent loan documents. Which is to say, dishonesty — and stupidity.
Dishonesty explains itself. But the stupidity bears some examination. Tax fraud is never right, but provided one’s moral fiber was sufficiently flimsy, it used to be an arguably reasonable calculated risk. Lots of businesses transacted most of their exchanges in cash, giving the proprietor the opportunity to siphon off a percentage before the IRS learned about the income. And if you had serious amounts of money, there were foreign banking havens that would happily hide it.
A combination of technical and legal changes is making it harder to pull this sort of thing off. Cash has significantly declined as a medium of exchange, while banking surveillance has tightened dramatically. Your bank reports any large cash transactions straight to the government (causing headaches for banks and for small businesses that have a legitimate reason to be depositing cash). As for moving money abroad, rich-world governments have spent the past decade forcing foreign tax havens to open up their books.
That’s not to say no one ever gets away with tax evasion, of course; there remains a significant gap between the taxes the IRS collects and those it is owed, and the IRS should be given more resources to close that gap. But tax chicanery has become significantly more challenging than it was in the past, and even those of grasping nature and atrophied conscience should refrain out of sheer self-interest.
Consider all the money that Manafort spent on tasteless expensive clothes — in part, perhaps, because it was a relatively easy way to get his foreign funds into the United States. Why not just forgo a few ostrich jackets and suits that screamed “1970s family room couch” and get right with the IRS? Why didn’t he and Cohen put aside some of their considerable earnings for a rainy day rather than resort to loan fraud?
Well, because they are both clearly spectacularly greedy and shortsighted, and evidently not troubled by shirking their civic obligations or defrauding people. And it seems hardly a mere coincidence that they ended up in the orbit of a man who displays so many of those qualities himself: cheating vendors, lying to the public on an unprecedented scale, using the highest office in the land to enrich himself.
Even so, they might have gotten away with it had they not been circling Trump’s rising star. There’s a Jimmy Kimmel sketch from early 2016 spoofing “The Producers,” in which Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick play not two producers overselling shares in a show that is designed to fail, but two political consultants stage-managing a presidential campaign purpose-built to lose. If you’ve seen the movie or the Broadway show, you know that it ends with the producers accidentally producing a hit, thus exposing their fraud. Did the Trump Show unfold the same way for Manafort and Cohen?
And could the same be true for their former employer? Cohen has now admitted to campaign finance violations in open court and implicated the president directly. Trump can’t be prosecuted for it while he’s in office, but he certainly can when his term ends. Or sooner, if he is impeached and removed from the White House, an outcome that seems very plausible if Democrats manage to get control of Congress.
Allowing Stormy Daniels to go public in 2016 might have been temporarily embarrassing. And it might have cost Trump the election, though given the other sins his supporters have forgiven, I rather think not. But even if so — wouldn’t that have been better, really? It seems folly to risk jail for an office whose duties he has so little interest in performing.
But then, what sort of judgment do you expect from a man who would hire Paul Manafort as his consultant, or Michael Cohen as his lawyer?