As America watches in suspense, President Donald Trump’s talents as an escape artist are being pitted against the seemingly inexorable march of the rule of law in real time. But, despite the prosecutors’ heavy artillery and the FBI’s implacable force, you can’t count Trump out. He and Michael Cohen, his inimitable lawyer and “fixer,” come from a world that’s tougher and far less scrupulous than the one that most government officials and politicians now inhabit.
Indeed, when people talk about Trump’s troubles, they usually cite the Watergate scandal as the template. But that might not be right. It may be that, when compared to Trump, President Richard M. Nixon was an amateur at running a cover-up. Trump — his tax returns still secret, his companies still under his control, with much of his cover-up efforts defiantly done in public — may be the grand master here.
Trump lawyer Cohen built his career in the guts of New York City — controlling a fleet of taxicabs (he reportedly owns dozens of taxi medallions) as well as operating a casino and developing real estate. It’s not just that there’s no nonsense in these worlds — it’s that there’s no veneer of adherence to norms, niceties or even basic rules. It’s all about bare knuckles. You eat what you kill. Period.
Trump and Michael Cohen come from a world that’s tougher and far less scrupulous than the one that most government officials and politicians inhabit.
As former Trump Organization executive Louise Sunshine told The Washington Post this week, “When it comes to Michael Cohen, anything is possible. Anything and everything is possible.”
For people who are used to normal procedures, the FBI’s Monday morning no-knock raid on Cohen’s office and homes was unsettling — an intrusion, perhaps, on lawyer-client privilege. But how abnormal was it by Cohen-Trump standards?
Cohen has been unflagging in his public loyalty to Trump, famously vowing he’d take a bullet for his employer and is often referred to as Trump’s “pit bull.” One of the lawyer’s best-known performances involved threats to a Daily Beast journalist who was investigating a story that Trump insisted was a lie. “I will take you for every penny you still don’t have,” Cohen screamed at the journalist over the phone, “… So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting.”
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There are many, many more quotes like this one. Cohen has made them his signature.
Compare this to the gang Nixon relied on for his escape. Nixon’s guys certainly did nefarious deeds, but they weren’t really born or bred for their chosen line of work. They might have stuffed ballot boxes in college student elections or smeared opponents in fierce and dirty political campaigns, but they had hesitations. Their criminal instincts were attenuated. They weren’t really built for cover-ups.
Nixon’s guys certainly did nefarious deeds, but arguably they weren’t really born or bred for their chosen line of work. They weren’t really built for cover-ups.
Consider one of Nixon’s most zealous Watergate “plumbers,” G. Gordon Liddy, a Fordham graduate who served in the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover — not a bad training ground for skullduggery. Liddy had the most operational experience of Nixon’s group, yet his proposed dirty tricks sound less monstrous than banal — entrapping Democratic officials with prostitutes, for example.
Nixon had no one on his roster like Michael Cohen. After law school, Cohen became a personal injury lawyer. Later, perhaps through his Ukrainian-American father-in-law, who owned taxicabs, Cohen got into the business himself. Nixon also had no longtime personal bodyguard like Keith Schiller, whom Stormy Daniels said would sometimes answer the phone when she called Trump’s direct office line. Trump quickly shifted Schiller into the White House and ultimately sent him to fire FBI Director James Comey.
Instead, Nixon had Jeb Magruder, Egil “Bud” Krogh and, of course, Charles Colson. Above them were Attorney General John Mitchell, counselor John Ehrlichman, and Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman. These guys came from backgrounds where the knuckles weren’t so bare.
They had respectable, conventional backstories: colleges like Brown and University of California, Los Angeles; law schools like Georgetown and Stanford. Haldeman worked at an elite Madison Avenue advertising agency before joining Nixon’s campaign. Ehrlichman had been a land use attorney in Seattle. Colson was an aide to the assistant secretary of the Navy, a more or less buttoned-down Washington lawyer, although he would ultimately scheme about firebombing the Brookings Institution.
In carrying out the Watergate coverup, Oval Office tapes later revealed, Nixon, Haldeman and Ehrlichman would go around and around the same questions. This meandering was partly because Nixon shrank from firing his two top aides — he wanted them to conclude on their own that they should resign. They never did.
When Nixon finally bit the bullet and got rid of them, during a Camp David trip in the spring of 1973, Ehrlichman was bitter. He told Nixon, as Ehrlichman later wrote in his memoirs, that he wanted the president to explain to his children why he had been fired.
It’s extremely doubtful that Cohen would say anything like this to Trump.
Instead, Cohen reminds me of when a federal judge I knew was presiding over the trial of an infamous mob boss. I walked into the judge’s chambers one day and saw a guy sitting in the outer office, looking bored and on edge at the same time. It was the judge’s bodyguard, part of a round-the-clock protection detail assigned to him while the trial was going on, and for who knew how long afterwards. The bodyguard personified the difference between people who dabble in threats — and people who do it for a living.
The Trump-Cohen arrangement was designed by people who make a living out of threats and defiance.
The Trump-Cohen arrangement was designed by people who make a living out of threats and defiance. It’s consistent with what we know about a candidate who insists he can just refuse to release his tax returns, a nominee who says out loud, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails,” a president who, even as you read this, is openly raking in dollars from the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
So will the combination of Trump’s calculations and Cohen’s loyalty carry the president through the storm? It remains to be seen. Up against these major league players, we have the major league players of the Robert Mueller investigation. What is clear is that compared with all these guys, Nixon’s gang wasn’t even in the running.
Suzanne Garment, a lawyer, is the author of “Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics.”