Alan Zendell, June 15, 2017
Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was widening his investigation of Russian meddling in our election to include possible obstruction of justice by senior advisors to the president and even the president himself. President Trump immediately tweeted: “They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story. Nice. You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people!”
If it were anyone but Donald Trump, people might reasonably conclude that his response was the righteous indignation of a man who believed he was falsely accused. But we know better. Perhaps he really is innocent, but there’s no way to tell from the things he says. He was schooled by the best, fixer and attorney Roy Cohn. As the Washington Post and others have often reported, Cohn “showed Trump how to exploit power and instill fear through a simple formula: attack, counterattack and never apologize.”
James. D. Zirin wrote a wonderful article in Time last April which explained how Cohn, the unscrupulous, corrupt attorney who was eventually disbarred for his crimes, schooled Trump in the art of Paranoid Politics. It’s important to understand the difference between paranoia and paranoid politics, and the difference sheds considerable light on virtually everything Trump says and tweets. As Zirin explained, when “Trump breached the barriers of political correctness and the Constitution to preach criminalizing abortion, mass deportation of immigrants, or barring Muslims from the country,” those words were neither “born of a sincerely nurtured ideology” nor evidence that Trump himself was paranoid. Instead they were simply a classic example of paranoid politics, which is nothing more than the art of appealing to the darkest aspects of human nature to arouse fear and anger.
Cohn also schooled Trump to never let the truth get in the way of his defensiveness. It was the same approach he used as lead counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy and with his many mob clients, who, according to David Cay Johnston, writing for Politico, included “‘Fat Tony’ Salerno, boss of the Genovese crime family, the most powerful Mafia group in New York, and Paul Castellano, head of what was said to be the second largest family, the Gambinos.” Johnston documented Trump’s relationship with these mobsters, who controlled the concrete business in New York, in connection with the construction of Trump Towers and other buildings. Salerno’s involvement with Trump Plaza was part of the indictment that ultimately landed him in prison, but the more important point in today’s context, was what Trump learned watching Cohn’s defense of the mob.
The newspapers in the 1980s were filled with arrogant, angry denials by organized crime figures that had been well known for decades. Cohn gambled, time and again, that conventional wisdom and obvious guilt were irrelevant unless they were corroborated in court. There’s an eerie similarity between the things Trump says and tweets today and public statements of Cohn’s criminal clients. It’s no coincidence, either.
Cohn originally advised Trump to deny everything and go to court when his father was accused of refusing to rent apartments to African Americans. There was no discussion of guilt or innocence, just a strategy of defiance and intimidation. Trump conducted himself that way in all of his many legal battles and counter suits throughout his career, and the strategy was a winning one for him. He was often successful in intimidating his enemies, and even when he lost he achieved financial settlements that were very much in his favor without any admission of guilt. None of those actions ever did permanent damage to either Trump or his businesses, and even the $25 million settlement to people swindled by Trump University in the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign was only a minor bump in the road. Why would he change tactics now?
We’ve had corrupt politicians, even corrupt presidents in the past. But there’s an aspect to Donald Trump’s case that’s sinister to the point of being creepy. Talk to committed Trump supporters and you often come away with the realization that they don’t care whether he’s guilty. The more he gets away with things that would land other people in prison, the more that inflates his Robin Hood-like populist appeal. It’s irrational but it’s true. Arguing with one of Trump’s supporters about whether or not he’s guilty is like arguing about the existence of God with the devout of every religion.
It remains to be seen whether Trump is guilty of any involvement with the Russians during the campaign. It also remains to be seen whether his bullying style crossed any legal lines in attempting to influence investigators looking into his staff’s actions. But one thing is absolutely clear. You can’t believe a word Trump says or tweets when he’s not under oath.
If and when he is – that remains to be seen as well.