Civil rights, Human Rights, Intelligence, Populism

Republicans Sink Further Into Trump’s Cesspool

Feb 28 2019

By Peter Wehner* – The New York Times

What they left out of their questioning of Michael Cohen says more about the degradation of my former party than anything they said.

Michael Cohen’s testimony before Congress on Wednesday revealed as much about the Republican Party as it did about President Trump and his former lawyer. In the aftermath of Mr. Cohen’s damning testimony, several things stand out.

The first is that unlike John Dean, the former White House counsel who delivered searing testimony against President Richard Nixon in 1973, Mr. Cohen produced documents of Mr. Trump’s ethical and criminal wrongdoing. (Mr. Dean had to wait for the Watergate tapes to prove that what he was saying was true.)

Mr. Cohen’s most explosive evidence included a copy of a check Mr. Trump wrote from his personal bank account, while he was president, to reimburse Mr. Cohen for hush money payments. The purpose of that hush money, of course, was to cover up Mr. Trump’s affair with a pornographic film star in order to prevent damage to his campaign.

Other evidence produced by Mr. Cohen included financial statements, examples of Mr. Trump inflating and deflating his wealth to serve his interests, examples of charity fraud, efforts to intimidate Mr. Cohen and his family and even letters sent by Mr. Cohen to academic institutions threatening legal actions if Mr. Trump’s grades and SAT scores were released. (Mr. Trump hammered President Barack Obama on this front, referring to him as a “terrible student, terrible,” and mocking him for not releasing his grades.)

Yet Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, in their frantic effort to discredit Mr. Cohen, went after him while steadfastly ignoring the actual evidence he produced. They tried to impugn his character, but were unable to impugn the documents he provided. Nor did a single Republican offer a character defense of Mr. Trump. It turns out that was too much, even for them.

In that sense, what Republicans didn’t say reveals the truth about what happened at the hearing on Wednesday as much as what they did say. Republicans showed no interest, for example, in pursuing fresh allegations made by Mr. Cohen that Mr. Trump knew that WikiLeaks planned to release hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee in the summer of 2016.

In a sane world, the fact that the president’s former lawyer produced evidence that the president knowingly and deceptively committed a federal crime — hush money payments that violated campaign finance laws — is something that even members of the president’s own party would find disquieting. But not today’s Republican Party.

Instead, in the most transparent and ham-handed way, they saw no evil and heard no evil, unless it involved Mr. Cohen. Republicans on the committee tried to destroy the credibility of his testimony, not because they believe that his testimony is false, but because they fear it is true.

By now Republicans must know, deep in their hearts, that Mr. Cohen’s portrayal of Mr. Trump as a “racist,” “a con man” and “a cheat” is spot on. So it is the truth they fear, and it is the truth — the fundamental reality of the world as it actually is — that they feel compelled to destroy. This is the central organizing principle of the Republican Party now. More than tax cuts. More than trade wars. More even than building a wall on our southern border. Republicans are dedicated to annihilating truth in order to defend Mr. Trump and they will go after anyone, from Mr. Cohen to Robert Mueller, who is a threat to him.

He is their emperor, and they are his political Praetorian Guard.

A second thing that stands out from Mr. Cohen’s testimony is that the Republican Party has been as corrupted by its association with Mr. Trump as Mr. Cohen was by his. As Mr. Cohen told Republican lawmakers, “I did the same thing that you’re doing now. For 10 years. I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years.”

He then issued this warning to them: “The more people that follow Mr. Trump — as I did blindly — are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.” Mr. Cohen later explained the ethos of Trumpworld: “Everybody’s job at the Trump Organization is to protect Mr. Trump. Every day most of us knew we were coming and we were going to lie for him about something. That became the norm.”

The ethic that became the norm at the Trump Organization —- defacing the truth and disfiguring reality in the service of Donald J. Trump — is the ethic that has become the norm of the Republican Party and the American right.

This is what some of us who are conservatives and who have been lifelong Republicans have warned since Mr. Trump began his quest for the presidency — that his corruptions would eventually become theirs.

It didn’t take long.

The way these things happen is simple and insidious. In this case, because Mr. Trump was their party’s nominee, many Republicans felt duty bound to defend him, even though they would from time to time call him out for his worst offenses. They also held out the hope that Mr. Trump would grow in office and become more presidential.

What happened is quite different: As Mr. Trump was elected and then inaugurated, Republicans became more and more reluctant to call him out and more and more vocal in defending him and attacking his critics; rather than weakening, their loyalty to him intensified. And the president, rather than becoming more responsible, has become less restrained, more volatile, more unhinged. The result is the ethical wreckage we saw on display Wednesday.

Republicans should brace for even more damaging revelations. The evidence presented on Wednesday was of course harmful to the president, but Mr. Cohen quite likely revealed only a small fraction of what the Southern District of New York and the Mueller investigation have amassed. But Mr. Cohen did suggest that federal prosecutors are investigating unspecified criminal allegations involving the president that have not been made public.

When this story is finally told — when the sordid details are revealed, the dots finally connected — the Republican Party will be the political and institutional version of Mr. Cohen, who squandered his integrity in the service of a man of borderless corruption.

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* Peter Wehner is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. He is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who has served in the last three Republican administrations. In 2001, he was named deputy director of speechwriting for President George W. Bush.

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Related 1:

Buoying Trump’s ‘Inflated’ Wealth: $4 Billion in ‘Brand Value,’ Cohen Says

By Russ Buettner and Susanne Craig – The New York Times

In 2013, months before Donald J. Trump approached Deutsche Bank seeking a loan to buy the Buffalo Bills, a mysterious new asset appeared on his financial statement.

It wasn’t a new hotel, office tower or golf resort. It was “brand value” — $4 billion of it, by Mr. Trump’s account.

The Deutsche Bank episode, along with Mr. Trump’s stunning claim of newfound wealth, emerged on Wednesday as his former personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, testified before the House Oversight Committee. Mr. Cohen provided three years of financial statements. “I believe these numbers are inflated,” he commented dryly.

Without ever saying so, Mr. Cohen was tracing the lifelong myth-making practice that Mr. Trump ultimately rode to the White House — magically inflating the value of his business empire to create and nurture the brand of Donald J. Trump, self-made billionaire.

That myth-making began when, as a young man, Mr. Trump falsely claimed to own the real estate empire still owned by his father, the legendary builder Fred C. Trump. It continued through the flashy opening sequence of “The Apprentice” and on to the campaign trail in 2015.

The first public record of Mr. Trump’s financial exaggerations came in 1976, when Mr. Trump, just few years out of college, boasted to a Times reporter that he was already worth “more than $200 million.”

To support this fantastical assertion, Mr. Trump laid claim to various buildings and projects throughout the New York City area. In truth, his father owned it all.

Years later, it emerged in a public filing that his 1976 taxable income had been only $24,594.

In the 1980s, instead of appropriating his father’s wealth as his own, he was quick to diminish his father’s considerable achievements. He consistently cast Fred Trump as a behind-the-scenes cheerleader who ran a modest collection of outer-borough apartment buildings. Mr. Trump never mentioned his father’s considerable wealth, or the financial support that made his gilded life possible. He claimed to have gotten only a $1 million loan from his father — and to have repaid it, with interest.

“He was a solid guy and a bright guy and I learned a lot from my father. In terms of support, that was the No. 1 thing I got from my father,” he told the late-night host David Letterman in 1987, oddly referring to his father, who did not die until 1999, in the past tense.

Last year, a New York Times investigation found that contrary to his claims about a $1 million loan, Mr. Trump had received from his parents the equivalent today of at least $413 million. That figure was increased by legally dubious tax schemes, some of which relied on a reverse manipulation — lowballing assets when the tax man came calling. A lawyer for Mr. Trump said all applicable laws had been followed.

For years, Mr. Trump has provided unaudited financial statements as evidence of his wealth, both to reporters and to banks when seeking loans. (The deal for the Bills never came to pass.) In a 2007 deposition, he said the values could even fluctuate based on his “feelings,” and compared real estate valuations to political spin.

“I’m no different from a politician running for office,” he said. “You always want to put the best foot forward.”

The documents that Mr. Cohen presented to Congress show dollar amounts that bounce around more than Mr. Trump’s eclectic signature. In the 2013 statement, for example, the cash and marketable securities category more than doubled, to $346 million, from the year before, even as a note claimed that Mr. Trump had paid off a number of liabilities. That year, his claimed net worth climbed to $8.66 billion, up from $5 billion the year before.

Mr. Cohen said he often presented these financial statements to journalists at publications like Forbes to get Mr. Trump on lists of the wealthiest Americans.

Last year, Jonathan Greenberg, a former reporter for Forbes, recounted in The Washington Post that back in the 1980s, long before Mr. Cohen entered the picture, Mr. Trump had called him pretending to be John Barron, a supposed spokesman for Donald Trump, to get himself on the magazine’s list of the richest Americans.

Behind the scenes, though, when it came time to pay taxes, Mr. Trump was instrumental in depressing the value of his family’s assets.

In 1995, for instance, Donald Trump and his three siblings claimed in confidential tax documents obtained by The Times that properties owned by their father, including 25 apartment complexes, were worth just $41.4 million. They claimed that two rental buildings at Trump Village, in Coney Island, were worth negative $5.9 million. The maneuver spared the family from paying millions of dollars in gift and estate taxes. The actual value of these properties was revealed in 2004 when banks valued them at almost $900 million.

Tax experts told The Times that those types of maneuvers were legally questionable.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democrat, asked Mr. Cohen about the tax schemes described in the Times investigation during the hearing on Wednesday. Mr. Cohen responded that those actions took place before he arrived at the Trump Organization.

Republicans members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, along with the White House, repeatedly sought to discredit Mr. Cohen on Wednesday, pointing to his pleading guilty to financial crimes and lying to Congress.

Mr. Trump’s true wealth and entanglements would be far better understood had he followed the decades-old tradition of presidential candidates’ releasing their tax returns.

Mr. Cohen was asked to address the veracity of Mr. Trump’s claim that he could not release the returns because he was under audit. Mr. Cohen said the opposite was true: Mr. Trump was concerned that releasing his returns would lead to an audit, and possible penalties.

“What he didn’t want was to have an entire group of think tanks that are tax experts run through his tax return and start ripping it to pieces and then he’ll end up in an audit,” Mr. Cohen said.

A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 28, 2019, on Page A16 of the New York edition.

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(*) Russ Buettner is an investigative reporter for The New York Times’s Metro Desk. He has been reporting on the New York City region since 1992. He joined the The Times in 2006 after working on investigations teams at the New York Daily News and New York Newsday. Susanne Craig is an investigative reporter who writes about the intersection of politics, money and government. She has covered Wall Street for The Times and has served as Albany bureau chief. Previously, Ms. Craig was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal and worked at The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. 

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Related 2:

What We Have Learned From Cohen So Far

By Noah Bookbinder* – The New York Times

Republicans can attack his credibility, but his charges are specific, persuasive and backed by strong evidence.

In day-long testimony before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former attorney, made several devastating revelations about the president — revelations that portend a new era of accountability for the president and his close associates. It was a big day, but it is only the first of many.

Mr. Cohen’s claims, if true, add to the evidence that Mr. Trump and his campaign had prior knowledge that Russia may have been interfering in the 2016 election and did nothing to stop it. Mr. Cohen testified that he was in Mr. Trump’s office when Roger Stone called and told Mr. Trump that he had just spoken with Julian Assange, the editor of WikiLeaks, who told Mr. Stone that “there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”

Those emails were hacked by members of Russian military intelligence and shared with WikiLeaks, and the first release occurred precisely when Mr. Stone apparently told Mr. Trump they would be. During the same period, the Trump campaign sought or accepted multiple meetings with Russia-linked individuals who claimed to have damaging information about Ms. Clinton. If there was “no collusion,” as Mr. Trump so frequently claims, it was not for lack of trying.

But Mr. Cohen’s most damaging revelations related to Mr. Trump’s personal involvement in a potential criminal conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws and cover up those offenses. This possible conspiracy was the subject of a comprehensive report issued by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the watchdog organization that I direct. In the report, we detail how Mr. Trump could be personally liable for unlawful campaign contributions in the form of payments involving Mr. Cohen to silence women who claimed that they had affairs with Mr. Trump. These potential violations are no small matter. Rather, they appear to have been committed for the purpose of suppressing negative stories about a central issue of the campaign: Mr. Trump’s attitudes toward and alleged mistreatment of women.

Mr. Cohen testified there was “no doubt” that Mr. Trump knew what these payments were for, that candidate Trump directed him to “use my own personal funds from a home equity line of credit to avoid any money being traced back to him that could negatively impact his campaign.” The decision to pay Stephanie Clifford, known as Stormy Daniels, for her silence directly followed the revelation of an “Access Hollywood” video in which Mr. Trump claimed that he sexually assaulted women. Mr. Cohen testified that Mr. Trump decided to make the payment to Ms. Clifford because Mr. Trump worried that a second scandal would negatively affect his chances of winning the election.

The most compelling evidence produced by Mr. Cohen on Wednesday was not anything he said but two documents he produced: copies of two $35,000 checks he received in 2017, one signed by Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, and Donald Trump Jr., the other by President Trump. With these and nine other payments over the course of that year, Mr. Cohen was “reimbursed” by the Trump Organization and President Trump for the money that Mr. Cohen spent to pay Ms. Clifford for her silence. The payments also included a $60,000 bonus for Mr. Cohen — presumably a reward for his loyalty.

These checks are key. They corroborate Mr. Cohen’s testimony and provide hard evidence that Mr. Trump and senior executives at the Trump Organization knew of and committed overt acts in furtherance of a conspiracy to violate campaign finance law and cover up those violations. Additionally, the checks are evidence that Mr. Trump knowingly made a false statement when he failed to report his liability to Mr. Cohen on his personal financial disclosure form in June 2017. This potential felony was committed while Mr. Trump was president.

Mr. Cohen explained he was confident that Mr. Trump would repay him the $131,000 that Mr. Cohen borrowed in his own name, quoting a conversation he had with Mr. Trump in the White House in February 2017. Mr. Cohen testified that President Trump said: “Don’t worry, Michael, your January and February reimbursement checks are coming. They were FedExed from New York and it takes a while for that to get through the White House system.”

Mr. Trump’s intent to influence the election by directing these contributions would be a crucial part of any potential prosecution for felony campaign finance violations. Mr. Cohen’s testimony is substantial, powerful evidence that President Trump understood he had a liability to Mr. Cohen from the beginning of his presidency and that Mr. Trump acted with the requisite intent to be subjected to prosecution for criminal campaign finance violations.

Although Mr. Cohen’s credibility repeatedly came under attack by the president’s allies on the committee, there are many reasons to trust what Mr. Cohen said today. Many of his most important claims were backed by documents, and federal prosecutors in Manhattan have access to millions of records and at least 12 recordings of Mr. Trump that were seized in searches of Mr. Cohen’s office, home and hotel room last spring. After his prosecutions, Mr. Cohen knows well the costs of lying.

Our constitutional order is set up to instill within every citizen a belief that public service is, at base, a public trust. Mr. Cohen’s testimony adds to the growing evidence that President Trump violated that sacred trust by failing to report foreign interference in the 2016 election, by violating federal campaign finance law to win the 2016 election and by lying to the American people and their government to cover up those offenses after he became president. What consequences should follow as these and other facts are established is as much a question for Congress and the American people as it is for federal prosecutors.

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*Mr. Bookbinder is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics.  

 

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