In a tweetstorm this morning aimed at containing the fallout from Wednesday night’s revelation by Rudy Giuliani that Donald Trump repaid Michael Cohen for hush money Cohen paid to Stormy Daniels, the president attempted to thread the various legal needles involved in trying to explain how this arrangement did not violate campaign finance law.
Whether that argument succeeds on its own narrow legal terms is, of course, interesting and important (as is the question of whether Trump’s current story is true or if he is once again lying). But the broader issue posed by the Stormy situation is simpler: A president who is in the habit of cutting secret six-figure checks is a president who is subject to a wide range of implicit and explicit blackmail by anyone ranging from a porn actress to a foreign intelligence service.
Indeed, Trump’s most recent account of the situation manages to both underscore how easy it is to gain leverage over him and how vanishingly unlikely it is that Daniels is the only scandal that’s been swept under the rug.
And while the particulars of the Daniels situation have attracted media attention in part specifically because of how tawdry and comical it is, we have some indications that similar considerations of cover-up and damage control are meaningfully influencing Trump-era policy.
Trump’s story suggests he’s really easy to blackmail
Here is Trump’s current account of the situation, in what’s either his own words or (more likely) the words of an attorney:
Mr. Cohen, an attorney, received a monthly retainer, not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign, from which he entered into, through reimbursement, a private contract between two parties, known as a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA. These agreements are.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 3, 2018
...very common among celebrities and people of wealth. In this case it is in full force and effect and will be used in Arbitration for damages against Ms. Clifford (Daniels). The agreement was used to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair,......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 3, 2018
...despite already having signed a detailed letter admitting that there was no affair. Prior to its violation by Ms. Clifford and her attorney, this was a private agreement. Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no roll in this transaction.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 3, 2018
This story is meant to immunize the president against charges of having violated campaign finance law. Kellyanne Conway’s husband, the prominent attorney George Conway, tweeted this morning that the White House’s legal argument is wrong. But even if it’s right, it underscores how vulnerable Trump is to pressure.
In essence, the exculpatory story is that the president hands out hush money so readily that his attorney has carte blanche to cut six-figure payoff checks on his behalf without checking with the client. Indeed, in this case we’re supposed to believe that the president was so willing to part with his money (this is a man who once cashed a 13 cent check that was sent to him as a prank) that the woman with dirt on him didn’t even need to be telling the truth to be worth paying $130,000.
There’s a form of faux-sophisticated argumentation to the effect of, well, people knew Trump was a philanderer, so what does it matter. But the critical point here is that Trump himself thought it mattered to the tune of more than $100,000, and it seems overwhelmingly likely that there are other women with whom there are other, similar arrangements.
Which establishes that Trump is a mendacious philanderer. Which was pretty well known on election day 2016. The voters decided to elect him anyway. https://t.co/hglfN3i5Ag— Brit Hume (@brithume) May 3, 2018
Indeed, to this day, Trump is continuing his legal efforts to prevent Daniels from speaking in public either because her story is extremely damaging to Trump or (more likely) to discourage other people with whom Trump has signed nondisclosure agreements from speaking.
This is an extraordinary level of vulnerability for a man in a uniquely powerful position, and it’s made all the more extraordinary by the fact that he is non-transparent in completely unprecedented ways. We have virtually no knowledge of the president’s business interests or finances, and we recently learned that even something as basic as the physical exam of his personal health that was released to the public is a sham.
And while the Daniels story is somewhat farcical, there’s evidence that serious issues are in play in the nexus of Trump’s secrets and corruption.
US policy is driven by Trump’s cover-ups
A report in Wednesday’s New York Times detailed the fact that the Ukrainian government decided to cut off all cooperation with special counsel Robert Mueller in a (successful) effort to secure Javelin anti-tank missiles from the American government.
Or at least that’s how you would characterize the story if you think sending Javelins to Ukraine is good policy. An alternate reading, if you’re more skeptical of arming Ukraine on the merits, would be that the Ukrainians used the prospect of cooperation with Mueller to shake down the president and get him to cough up the Javelins.
Of course it’s very possible there was no explicit quid pro quo at all. It was simply well-known that the Ukrainians wanted Trump to reverse himself on the missiles and that Trump wanted the Ukrainians to reverse themselves on cooperation with Mueller, and one way or another, the deal came together.
This is the very same Trump who, a few weeks ago, canceled sanctions on Russia that his administration had already announced — just the latest in a long string of poorly explained situations in which the president, personally, seems worried about angering Moscow in a way that his broader team is not. One big, obvious problem here is that Trump has lied over and over again about the extent of his campaign’s contacts with emissaries from the Russian government. And while this is something Trump has been interested in concealing from the public, it’s not something he can conceal from the Russians themselves. Whatever happened, they know about it and Trump knows they know; that gives them leverage over him.
This is exactly why Sally Yates warned Trump long ago that Michael Flynn was a security risk, but rather than address the risk, Trump tried to hush it up.
That’s been the story of Trump’s whole life — breaking the rules and using money he inherited from his father to make problems go away. It’s been a remarkably successful strategy for him, despite considerable collateral damage to the long list of people he’s screwed over — from unpaid contractors to defrauded Trump University students — and now that he’s president, we all get to pay the price for his various cover-ups.