Putin Got Everything He Wanted

Alan Zendell, May 12, 2018

It’s finally clear what the Russians were up to during the 2016 election. Facts that have come to light in the last couple of weeks make it clear that their primary objective was sowing discord among Americans. By exacerbating hot button issues like guns, jobs, religious differences, and crime, often posting incendiary articles on both sides of an issue, they seem to have achieved their objective.

What’s remarkable is the sheer number of items published, mostly on Facebook, hundreds of thousands of posts, skillfully conceived and orchestrated throughout the election campaign. The project was so well conceived and executed we had no idea we were being fleeced. And look at the result: our confidence in social media has (perhaps justifiably) been eroded, our mid-term elections are approaching with no guarantee that we’ll be any smarter or any more hack-proof than we were two years ago. And as a nation we are angrier and more divided than at any time since Vietnam, maybe since the Civil War.

The Russians didn’t create our divisions. They always existed, but Putin’s brilliant team of psychological warfare specialists working from Saint Petersburg picked at them like old scabs, and we bled. And Putin proved once again what a dangerous and unscrupulous adversary he is.

What we’ve learned also tells us a lot about the likelihood that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, and the degree to which that may have influenced the outcome of the election. Despite the incompetent attempts to obtain dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russians by DT Junior, I think it’s now clear that any collusion that may have occurred was instigated by the Russians. Surely there was some on the part of Trump’s surrogates, but it seems extremely unlikely that it represented a scheme conceived by the president. That would imply that he’s as politically savvy and smart as Putin, and he’s not.

The fact that of the hundreds of thousands of attempts to influence Americans on social media, a sizable percentage were pro-Clinton, tells us disruption was a more important goal than favoring one candidate over the other. Still the preponderance of Russian meddling favored Trump. When it was first suggested that Putin wanted Trump to win the election, several possible explanations flooded the media.

Did Putin have something on Trump that would give him leverage over him? Maybe, but sixteen months of Trump as president make it pretty clear that embarrassing Trump is a tall order. Whatever else he may be, he’s totally shameless, and a president who continually invents his own facts and lies openly is not easy to blackmail.

Many people promoted the idea that Putin thought Trump would be easy to manipulate. Trump proved early on that he was easily baited and his use of Twitter is if anything, undisciplined. There’s no doubt that Putin is a master of politics and international relations, and that he feels he has no equal among other world leaders. He probably does believe Trump can be had, but there’s no reason to believe he doesn’t feel the same way about Clinton. And given Trump’s volatile, nasty nature, the deliberate, cautious Putin might well have preferred dealing with the steady, predictable Clinton in some ways.

The truth is we don’t need to look any further than Putin’s main objective to understand why he wanted Trump to win. It fits perfectly with his overall objective – maximizing discord and divisiveness among Americans, because nothing could have been more divisive than Trump as president. With a dysfunctional Congress in Washington and a divided electorate, Putin knows he can choose his battles and pick us apart wherever we’re weak.

It’s not about Putin wanting to destroy us, it’s about economic and diplomatic dominance. With our trade relationships in question, our traditional alliances far less certain than they were two years ago, and our basic democratic institutions constantly under attack by Trump, Putin has achieved everything he wanted.

And all this time as Trump screams that there was no collusion and Mueller’s investigation is a witch hunt, the irony is that Trump is probably innocent, but he’s not innocent of all the other things he’s accused of. He’s being masterfully baited and he steps into every trap that’s set for him. His own words told us he is a sexual predator. His actions tell us he thinks he can quash anything he doesn’t like the way he did in business, and these things may ultimately emasculate his administration.

Will he be impeached or indicted? Probably not, but as he runs roughshod over every institution in Washington, he will find himself more and more isolated. It took several years to develop, but there came a day in 1974 when the leaders of Richard Nixon’s Republican party told him they could no longer support him, and he resigned. Could that happen to Trump? Most of the Republicans in Congress have no love for him. They tolerate him and support him purely out of expediency. Let’s see what happens as the mid-terms approach.

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Stability

Alan Zendell, May 10, 2018

We know from physics that there are several ways to achieve stability in physical systems, and that principle translates well into the world of politics and human affairs. One way to achieve stability is for a system to be completely at rest, affected by no forces, internal or external. That model clearly does not apply to anything in our real world.

There are two models that do, however. One, which I’ll call Model A, is a system that is dominated by a single overwhelming force. It will remain stable as long as no other significant forces are present. The other, Model B, is a system in which many forces of different types and magnitudes are present, but they are kept in a state of near-equilibrium. Both systems can be de-stabilized if energy is not applied in just the right way to maintain them.

The analogy for Model A in international relations is a world in which one country is so dominant, militarily and economically, that it can consistently impose its will on every other country. The analogy for Model B is a world of interconnected, interdependent relationships in which each nation finds enough benefit that it has an incentive to maintain the status quo. People who support free trade, open boundaries, and few or no tariffs favor Model B, and prior to the 2016 election, the United States was a positive force pushing the world in that direction.

Objectively speaking, the Trump administration has so far done everything possible to reverse that trend. It has attempted to close our borders and restrict the flow of immigrants. It has withdrawn or attempted to tear down free trade agreements in both the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific Rim and withdrawn from a worldwide agreement to reduce carbon emissions. It has alienated its NATO partners, and now it has unilaterally withdrawn from the Iran Nuclear Agreement in complete disregard of the wishes of our traditional allies. Everything about this administration has had an isolationist tone and reflected a go-it-alone attitude combined with a Model A belligerence that says, “Might Makes Right” to the rest of the world.

While acknowledging that I favor Model B, I grant that there is a lot that can be debated in favor of both models, and here is where the physics analogy may at least illuminate issues, free of emotion and politics.

Model A will work as long as the dominant nation remains dominant. In physics that requires a constant application of energy which can only occur at the expense of something else. In any closed system energy is a zero-sum game, and the same is true in politics and international relations. We’ve seen what happens whenever any nation achieves dominance and tries to maintain it over time.

In modern times, consider the British Empire, the fascist regime in Germany, the Japanese expansion in the first half of the twentieth century, and the Soviet Union. The cost of staying on top is invariably self-destructive, and over the long run, the result is always the same. We see the same forces at work in North Korea, where even in a relatively closed society, the contrast between asperity in the North and prosperity in the South have forced Kim Jong Un to realize that the path he was on was unsustainable. Unsustainability, the polar opposite of stability, is also precisely the lesson we learn from physics.

That’s not to say that Model B is easy to sustain. Maintaining equilibrium among numerous competing forces is a complex and risky game. But free trade and openness at least provide all parties with an incentive to compromise, where bullying through greater strength only causes anger and resentment. In human interactions, the masses will invariably bring the bully down. No single nation can stand against the combined anger of others aligned against it, and that’s the risk we take going down Trump Highway.

It’s always fun to watch someone rebel against a corrupt, inefficient system. Humans love an underdog, even if he’s an immoral billionaire, at least until it all comes crashing down around him. And what if in his own way, he turns out to be just as corrupt as the people he defeated? That’s another classic feature of human nature – history tends to repeat itself.

To be fair, Trump may turn out to be the hero he thinks he is. Maybe the Koreas will re-unite, and when they do Trump will get much of the credit. Maybe Iran will decide to play nice with the rest of the world. Maybe, somehow, Israel’s neighbors will end their undeclared war against them and choose to prosper from Israeli technology.

All of those things could happen, but physics tells us that we’re better off learning to balance competing forces attempting to create a whole that’s bigger than its parts than trying to win at everyone else’s expense.

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Pants on Fire

Alan Zendell, May 6, 2018

He’s lied his entire life – it’s well documented. He’s made promises he never intended to keep and defrauded people all his life. That’s well documented, too.

He lied when he said he couldn’t release his taxes because they were under audit; the IRS said that was nonsense. He lied again when he said he’d release them when the audit was done, then changed his mind. He lied when he told average Americans that the tax bill he supported was primarily aimed at lowering their taxes and then helped pass a bill that was aimed almost entirely at increasing corporate profits. He lied when he said that would cause corporations to share their tax windfall with employees; the great majority of those profits have simply been spread among their stockholders.

He lied when he claimed his “travel ban” wasn’t a Muslim ban, and the courts threw it back in his face. He lied when he said he supported the DACA kids, then tried to slam the door on them at every opportunity. Now the courts have said that was illegal and given him ninety days to get it right.

He lied when he promised affordable health care to all Americans, but cheered on Congress’ attempts to pass laws that would have deprived nearly twenty five million people of any coverage at all. Then he took direct action to dismantle protections against premium hikes in Obamacare plans, because undermining his predecessor in the White House was more important than people not being able to afford coverage. And now, even Tom Price, his departed, corrupt DHHS chief who has made a career out of attacking attempts to expand health care for Americans states publicly that the new tax law will significantly increase health care costs for most of us.

He invents his own facts and calls most legitimate journalism “fake news.” He has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than twenty women, none of whom know each other, but in the face of credible testimony against him has called all of them liars. He has lied and contradicted himself repeatedly in the sordid cases of nondisclosure agreements with a porn star and a Playboy model.  

His supporters and detractors seem to agree that he has no respect for the truth. The only difference is that his supporters don’t seem to care. Republicans who have to run for re-election this November are between a rock and a hard place. They’re afraid that abandoning him will anger his base, but equally concerned that independent voters who have had enough of his lies will vote them out of office if they don’t speak out.

Some veteran Republicans, mostly those who are in no danger of losing their seats, are raising questions about the long term effects of his lies. Questions are now being asked about their impact on international relations. Will our allies treat his lies as nothing more than campaign and negotiating tactics and assume that when serious matters are on the table in private he can be trusted to keep his word?

The problem isn’t with our adversaries. Putin and Xi don’t care if he lies. All that matters to them is increasing their influence in world affairs and economics as relations between Trump and our allies deteriorate. He’s reneged on trade agreements and backed out of the worldwide attempt to control carbon emissions and protect our environment. And now he’s threatening to tear up the Iran nuclear agreement even though his is nearly a lone voice in the wilderness. His only ally on this matter, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, is at odds with his own military and security apparatus.

Soon he will be sitting across a table from Kim Jong Un, whose belligerence has for years been based on distrust of America’s intentions. Why would he now believe an American president who declares that we have no intention of invading North Korea or upending his regime? In particular, why would he believe Trump, who has never been willing to pledge either of those things? And watching how Trump has treated our NATO allies, why would South Korean president Moon trust him to maintain our treaty commitments?

All that aside, what I am most concerned about is the effect of our president’s lies and basic lack of morality on our societal norms. Have your children ever said, “Why can’t I lie when the president does all the time?” What will you tell them when they do? What about when your business associates and colleagues treat commitments, contracts, and verbal agreements the way Trump does?

My greatest fear is watching our values erode. What will happen when cheating takes precedence over hard work? What will be left to defend our system if Trump is allowed to denigrate our courts and law enforcement? Our children deserve better than the legacy our president is creating for them.

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A Faustian Bargain

Alan Zendell, May 1, 2018

One of the clichés of modern life is “be careful what you wish for.” The problem isn’t so much with our wishes as with how far we’re willing to go to realize them, and once they’ve become actualized, with the Law of Unintended Consequences. It’s human nature to want what we don’t have, to dream and fantasize about things we believe will make our lives better.

But it’s also human to be shortsighted, especially when we’re driven by our emotions and so narrowly focused on the trees we lose sight of the forest. We’re most prone to error when we’re driven by baser, more powerful emotions like fear, greed, anger, or lust. It is then that we become susceptible to the serpent’s wiles. It is then that we are most likely to accept a Faustian bargain that will be our undoing.

Our founders did it when they permitted slavery, and the consequences nearly destroyed us in the Civil War. As our country grew in size and scope and wealth, we somehow blinded ourselves to the genocide we were committing against all of the native American peoples who stood in our way, and we live with that ignominy today.

For centuries, hardship, poverty, and oppression have made nations vulnerable to charismatic charlatans who promised they would solve their problems and make them rich and powerful. In the twentieth century, Faustian pacts with Fascists and Communists led to worldwide conflicts and produced the legacy of revolutions and petty dictators that we still contend with today.

In our own country we are living with the legacy of a generation of bad decisions and wrong-headed policies. The twenty-first century has seen problems that have gone unanswered for decades bring our nation to the brink of crisis in many ways.

Our failure to take energy independence seriously when that was inconvenient for our largest corporations kept us engaged in the Middle East because of oil, which drew us into seventeen years of misguided conflict that has done nothing to improve conditions in that part of the world. Corporate greed nearly brought down our economy ten years ago, a shock from which we’re still recovering. And today, as a nation we are putting short term comfort and profit ahead of what science tells us is the health of our planet and the lives of our grandchildren.

Even worse, we have ignored the growth of divisiveness and partisanship until they now threaten the fabric of our country. We’ve had our eyes opened to a level of hate and bigotry that most of us thought no longer existed in America. Our gridlocked, dysfunctional government has reneged on its promise of affordable health care, and we are rejecting the values we were built on, turning our backs on the immigrants that have made us what we are.

Have we made our own pact with the Devil? When Trump took office most Americans believed the greatest threat to our existence was North Korea. As the two Koreas seem to be on the verge of ending their sixty-eight-year-old war, we have to ask some serious questions. Did Trump make this happen or was he just a side show? South Korean President Moon was elected based on his pledge to do everything possible to end the war and re-unite Korea. It’s just possible that this is a family squabble that’s finally coming to an end on its own.

Our president’s buffoonery in Michigan taking full credit aside, he probably deserves some, no matter how offensive his behavior. And therein lies the problem. Because of his ego, because of his need to be a seen as a hero, because of his vulgar, uncouth manner, he distorts everything he touches, and more often than not leaves it in worse condition than it was before.

Even if we credit his rants against Kim as one factor in bringing the two Koreas together, I reject the idea that only Trump could have accomplished this. I’m not confident that his similar rants against Iran will accomplish anything positive – they may make things worse. And when I look at the way our president is ripping at the fabric of our basic institutions and making a mockery of common decency, I have to ask, “At what price? Is it worth it?”

The people who voted for Trump may well have made a pact with the Devil that we all have to live with. Like Faust, they seemed to get what they wanted for a while, railing against an establishment that had failed them, vicariously venting their anger at an obviously corrupted and obsolete system. But in the end, the Devil always gets his due. If we permit Donald Trump to destroy the moral fabric of our country, what will we have gained in the end?

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The Fifth

Alan Zendell, April 27, 2018

We all learned about the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution in school. We’ve all heard of people “pleading the fifth” to avoid incriminating themselves in court, and we’re all very sure we know what that means. But the amendment is actually more complicated than that. In part, it reads: No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury … nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself. And it says quite specifically that someone in the military has no fifth amendment rights during wartime.

The word “unless” in the excerpt above threw me, but my nephew, who is a judge, explained that it does not imply that you can’t plead the fifth before a federal grand jury, even though that’s what it seems to say in simple English. Comma placement makes all the difference.

I asked about that because I just saw Michael Cohen decline to answer questions in federal court. I guess since I saw him do it he could, or the judge wouldn’t have let him, which brings me to the implications of what Michael Cohen said. We were taught in school that invoking the Fifth Amendment is not an admission of guilt. No, but let’s be clear: taking the Fifth isn’t about guilt or innocence, it’s about not exposing oneself to criminal prosecution. So let’s get back to what’s really of interest to those of us who aren’t lawyers. Is Michael Cohen guilty or isn’t he? And of what?

Before we go further, here’s another bit of information most of us didn’t realize:  …a defendant who [chooses] to testify cannot choose to answer some questions but not others. Once the defendant takes the witness stand, this particular Fifth Amendment right is considered waived throughout the trial. That makes the whole conversation more interesting.

When a defendant like Michael Cohen tells a judge that he “declines to testify under his fifth amendment rights on the grounds that answering questions might incriminate him,” what is he really saying? The key word in that sentence is “might,” which literally means that answering the judge’s questions either will or will not incriminate him. It’s not the judge’s charge to decide which of those he means; it doesn’t matter.

Presumably, the only person who knows which interpretation was implied is Michael Cohen, assuming he understands whether or not his actions were criminal. Given that, I asked myself, if Cohen knew for certain that he hadn’t committed a crime, why would he plead the Fifth? Surely if neither he nor the president was guilty of anything, answering the judge’s questions would serve both their interests.

This is almost too easy. Since Cohen chose to invoke the Fifth Amendment, either he thinks he’s guilty of something, or he’s trying to protect the president from prosecution, and testifying would expose him. I almost feel sorry for Michael Cohen. About as sorry as I never felt for the fictional Ray Donovan.

One thing I’m certain of is that Cohen would only have pled the Fifth if he thought he had no other option. I wrote last week about whether Cohen might flip on the president, wondering if swearing he’d take a bullet for him also meant he’d be willing to spend years in federal prison. I imagine that that decision will ultimately come down to whether Cohen believes Trump will have his back to the bitter end.

While there’s lots of evidence that returning loyalty isn’t one of Trump’s strong suits, maybe Michael Cohen is a special case. Trump has often praised him publicly, telling the media that Cohen is his valued attorney and friend, and how much he depends on him. Trump would never throw his consigliere under a bus, would he?

Cohen might have thought that when he pled the Fifth. But not many minutes later, the president was on the phone to Fox and Friends, claiming that Cohen is a businessman and that, honestly, he doesn’t get involved in Cohen’s business and doesn’t even know what it consists of. And not only is Cohen not his go-to attorney, he actually does only a miniscule part of Trump’s legal work.

Cohen is lucky he doesn’t have tire marks on his face. Does he seriously think he can trust the president to protect him after that? What are the odds that he’ll flip now?

I agree with Trump about one thing. It’s a shame we’re distracted by this stuff when we really should be watching what’s happening in Korea. But whose fault is that Mister President?

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The Macron/Trump Bromance

Alan Zendell, April 25, 2018

I don’t know where French President Emmanuel Macron stays when he’s in Washington but I imagine he wishes his suite included a soundproofed room. It’s easy to picture him returning from his day with President Trump, locking himself in, and screaming his throat raw. Whatever else we might say about the French president, he seemed to put up with Trump’s insufferable ego all day without batting an eye.

I forced myself to watch their joint press conference at the White House yesterday, expecting to cringe throughout, and the Donald did not disappoint. Macron spoke in quiet, eloquent accented English, polite and diplomatic in every way, but when Trump took the microphone we were treated to his classic, nearly inarticulate style. Seemingly unable to utter a complete sentence without distracting himself, virtually every thought included self-praise.

Trump took credit for a long list of things, most of which were in my opinion neither credit-worthy nor things that could actually be directly attributed to anything he did. And when he wasn’t boasting outrageously and asserting that he could fix all the world’s problems, he was attacking his predecessors, our Congress, and leaders of nations who are supposed to be our allies, who remarkably, have done everything wrong for decades.

After listening to all that with a straight face, Macron must have wished his soundproofed room came equipped with a hot shower. If most Americans haven’t been sufficiently embarrassed by the uncouth boor who occupies the White House, the contrast with Emmanuel Macron’s civil elegance put an exclamation point on it.

Unlike many American politicians who have become lapdogs to gain Trump’s favor, however, Macron is not shy about publicly disagreeing with him. But he does so in a cultured, impersonal way, careful never to say anything that might offend our Narcissist in Chief. The media has labeled their relationship a “bromance” and  described Macron as the “Trump Whisperer.” Trump seems to love it, but imagine how that’s viewed in France. It’s crude, vulgar and offensive, and Macron is already paying a price for going along with it back home, where many view him as having an ego almost as large as Trump’s.

This morning, Macron addressed the U. S. Congress. In spite of Trump’s virulent rant against the “insane” Iran nuclear deal just yesterday, Macron asserted that it would be irresponsible to scuttle the present deal, as Trump has threatened to do next month, until there is a viable alternative in place. While Trump has slyly implied that no one but him (and possibly his new buddy Macron) knows what he will decide on May 12th, it’s difficult to imagine how he could orchestrate a sudden change in policy without prior consultation with all the signatories of the deal.

On climate change Macron did a delicate little dance. It’s clear to everyone that he thinks Trump is dead wrong on climate change and the environment. But instead of disagreeing in his speech to Congress he simply asserted his confidence that America would eventually return to the Paris agreement. His comment that after all, there is no Planet B, couldn’t have been better stated.

Finally, Macron addressed the danger of “fake news.” Listening to what he said with an uncritical ear might convince someone that he was agreeing with Trump. But in fact, he was saying the opposite, attacking the acceptance of alternate facts without corroboration as a serious threat to democracy and free elections. On close examination it couldn’t have been clearer that he has a serious disagreement with the way the Trump administration uses the term. France has a new law that the government plans to use to curb fake news, especially during elections.

In the deliberately vague terms administrations like to use when they answer questions about progress or changes in policy, we are left with the impression that Macron the Trump Whisperer might have moved Trump on some of the issues on which they disagreed. As Trump likes to say, “We’ll see what happens.” Back home, the French media think it’s all just play-acting, with each leader using the other to improve his own standing.

I’m hardly in a position to know what goes on in Trump’s head, but the whole thing reminds me of a scene from the 2003 film, Love Actually. Billy Bob Thornton, playing an arrogant American President, is visiting London for an introductory meeting with the new British Prime Minister, played by Hugh Grant. The president says he has come to listen to the needs of the UK government and he will be happy to grant anything they ask for – as long as it’s something he wants to give them. Many in France view the three day visit of Macron to Washington in the same cynical light.

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Cohen Flip

Alan Zendell, April 20, 2018

These days we make predictions at our peril, particularly when they have anything to do with Donald Trump. Still, as rumors begin to fly that his personal attorney, fixer, and consigliere, Michael Cohen might flip on him when he talks to Robert Mueller, the temptation is impossible to resist. Cohen has famously said he would take a bullet for his friend Donald. Even if that’s true, would he be willing to spend the rest of his life in federal prison for him? Some things are worse than a quick death.

Would Michael Cohen flip on the president? Do birds fly? Michael Cohen suffers from the same disease of arrogance and narcissism that his boss does. It might be the undoing of both of them, but it’s far more likely to unravel Cohen’s existence.

Trump’s allegedly brilliant attorney has been derisively compared to the fictional Ray Donovan, who entertained Showtime viewers as a Hollywood fixer from South Boston who would do whatever was necessary to clean up after his clients. In the fantasy world of Hollywood, he could bribe, intimidate, brutalize, even kill people with impunity, because the television version of reality was so corrupt, there was always someone to pay off or blackmail.

But it turned out that even Ray Donovan could be brought down, and he ended his time on television as a broken shell of a man who had nothing to show for his efforts. Could that be the fate of Michael Cohen?

Cohen may or may not have once been a brilliant attorney, but decades of doing Trump’s dirty work demonstrate an uncompromising lack of scruples more than legal skills. He doesn’t even seem to have been able to craft airtight nondisclosure agreements, and as legal documents go, they’re pretty simple. This is just another example of how running the government is different from running either a business empire or a television show.

Whether or not you’re a fan of James Comey, his characterization of Trump’s management style as one modeled after the mob bosses he rubbed elbows with for years is right on. Mentored by Cohen’s almost namesake, mob lawyer Roy Cohn, Trump spent his entire business life bullying his way through obstacles using his money, his marketing skills, lies, misrepresentations, and a variety of intimidation techniques, and Cohen was at the forefront of most of those dealings. They didn’t always win, but their occasional losses could be chalked up as the cost of doing business.

Traveling in the wake of the turmoil stirred up by his boss, Cohen can be forgiven for forgetting that he wasn’t invulnerable. Decades of coming out on top in every important way and believing that unswerving loyalty to Trump would always be reciprocated if it all hit the fan made him dangerously complacent. And despite all the warnings that running the government is not a reality TV show and government isn’t a business, Mr. Cohen now likely finds himself in violation of federal statutes that will end in a series of indictments. Maybe he should have been honing his legal skills during the past two years instead of unquestioningly doing Trump’s bidding.

Now he’s finding out that losing a lawsuit or reaching a financial settlement with a plaintiff is not the same thing as facing a federal prosecutor. If you’re still stuck on television tropes, think Eliot Ness and Al Capone. Guys like Robert Mueller are the real Untouchables. Even worse, Cohen has seen Trump throw former allies under busses without batting an eye. From Jeff Sessions to Steve Bannon to Paul Manafort, the evidence is clear that when Trump has to choose between his own welfare and anything except Ivanka, Trump always puts himself first.

There are more indictments coming, and there’s no reason to believe that Trump would or even could use the power of his office to protect those who broke laws on his behalf. Michael Cohen may appear to function like a real-life Ray Donovan, living high and never letting anything get in his way, but I doubt that he’s ever seriously considered getting caught and being left out in the cold. And it’s only very lately that he’s had to confront the real possibility of life in a federal penitentiary.

Early on, Trump’s partners and surrogates believed they would be saved by presidential pardons in the end. No doubt, Trump’s sudden pardoning of Scooter Libby last week was intended to reinforce that belief in the minds of Cohen and others who likely face prosecution. But Trump is famous for making threats and promises he never intends to keep, and no one knows that better than Michael Cohen.

So the next time someone asks you if you think Michael Cohen will flip on the president, just smile.

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