What the Michael Cohen story tells us about Trumpian corruption
One image of our debauched age that probably deserves the overused descriptor “iconic” is the now-ubiquitous photo of Donald Trump’s disgraced-and-subpoenaed personal attorney Michael Cohen, evidently caught in the midst of some high-stakes cellphone consult, staring into the camera with a deer-in-the-headlights gaze. If the photo had gone out on the wires with an interpretive thought balloon attached, it would have read simply “Ohhhhhhh shit.”
In Resistance circles, the Cohen photo is taken to be prophetic, a sign of the great reckoning to come when special counsel Robert Mueller submits an airtight array of collusion and criminal conspiracy charges arising from his probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The clear expectation is that every Trump loyalist and White House lackey, from Cohen and George Papadopoulos on up to Jeff Sessions, Mike Pence, and the Dealmaker-in-Chief himself, will be sporting his own variant of the Cohen thousand-yard-stare as they’re picturing themselves in prison stripes.
However, Michael Cohen isn’t exactly the zeitgeist on horseback, and history in any event rarely supplies such clean resolutions to global scandals and federal legal proceedings. No, what Cohen is more likely experiencing in that revealingly candid moment is less the abrupt self-awareness of a guilty perp caught red-handed than the infinitely more desperate and shabby hyperventilations of a cornered David Mamet grifter, suddenly face-to-face with the realization that his pet hustle has been exposed and his kickbacks and bonus fees are drying up.
Indeed, since the Cohen phase of the Mueller probe has kicked in, we’ve gotten a bracing crash course in the petty, venal, rent-seeking model of Trumpian enterprise. Yes, it turned out, once Cohen’s financial data leaked to the press, that the nimble legal fixer who arranged the now-infamous $130,000 hush-money payout to Stormy Daniels had shady ties to at least one Russian oligarch. But the bulk of the backsheesh collected by his laughably named influence-peddling firm, Essential Consultants, came from giant American corporations courting favor and face time with our great lord of backsheesh in the Oval Office.
Which is to say that Michael Cohen, now a designated Saturday Night Live punchline, is squarely in the mainstream of American capitalism, as practiced in all its unabashed oligarchic glory in our brave new millennium. Essential Consultants bilked pharmaceutical giant Novartis for a cool $100,000 per month on the wifty promise that Cohen would furnish critical intel about the drift of health care policy in the Trump White House. And even when such intel would self-evidently amount to “it’s all going to be gradually re-privatized,” Novartis executives nevertheless concluded that there would be nothing of value to be gleaned in the Cohen deal—but since they signed the stupid contract and couldn’t afford to be seen as alienating the president’s inner circle of cronies (or, as a company statement put it, the one-year contract “could not be terminated at will”), they paid the full $1.2 million fee anyway.
Meanwhile, blue-chip telecom AT&T shelled out $600,000 to have Cohen coo agreeable things about the firm’s pending merger with Time Warner into the ear of any Justice Department official he came across—er, excuse me, make that “to provide insights” and “advise on policy matters.” AT&T CEO Randall L. Stephenson has nonetheless pronounced the Cohen contract as a “big mistake” while also announcing the impeccably well-timed retirement of the company’s longtime head of lobbying.
But here’s the thing: these deals appear toxic only because of Cohen’s ties to the Daniels case and a kindred $1.6 million payout he arranged to the reported mistress of GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy (and it should never be forgotten, as the Cohen sleaze deepens majestically before our eyes, that both Broidy and the president’s favorite bagman were also serving together on the Republican National Committee’s finance committee). In point of fact, the systemic shaking down of big-money corporate clients for dubious services rendered is the preeminent business model for Washington’s entire gilded lobbying class—all the more so since the Supreme Court’s disastrous 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission turned K Street, the Capitol, and virtually every political action committee in business into a veritable wind tunnel of kickback cash.
And in plying his own tabloid-friendly brand of this rent-seeking shakedown, Cohen is only following in the footsteps of his client-idol. After surviving six bankruptcies via the good grace of government subventions, the Trump business empire principally monetizes itself these days as a brand—like Essential Consultants, it sells a whiff of the putative charisma of the Trump success model for a handsome fee. This was clearly the entire M.O. of the fraudulent Trump University grift, as well as the fee-seeking model for the luxe Trump hospitality and real estate operations. To get an edifying close-up view of how the Trump Organization’s branding combine steamrolls the basic civic norms of its global host countries—while creating gigantic conflicts of interest and ethical morasses for the Trump presidency—see Anjali Kamat’s eye-opening New Republic report on the Trump real-estate entanglements in India.
Nor are the alleged high-minded and stubbornly monogamous reaches of the Trump White House any different. The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay reports, in his Pay Dirt newsletter, that Mike Pence’s former congressional and gubernatorial chief of staff Bill Smith clambered aboard the lobbying gravy train in 2014, by founding a boutique influence-peddling shop called Sextons Creek. This high-fee concern hoovered up a cozy $250,000 from Pence’s gubernatorial campaign from 2014 to 2016, and when its spiritual paterfamilias ascended to the vice presidency, the big money started rolling in with a vengeance: on a single day in January 2017, Markay reports, Sextons Creek signed on five major corporate clients: “Verizon, AT&T, Microsoft, AFLAC, and General Dynamics (for the latter four, Sextons Creek was brought on in partnership with another firm, Fidelis Government Relations)”—which also, as it happens, has Bill Smith listed on its lobbying team; small world, huh?
The Sextons Creek shop has achieved a unique sort of Beltway efficiency in its niche market: charging clients almost exclusively for access to Pence. In other words, this is a more respectably Midwestern version of the shakedown schemes assembled under Cohen’s Essential Consultants shingle—mainly distinguished by the absence of payoffs to porn stars and Playboy models:
The firm now lobbies on behalf of 14 companies on issues ranging from energy policy to immigration to tax reform to international human rights. Despite that wide breadth of policy work, for all but one of its clients, Sextons Creek has lobbied just one office in the federal government: that of the vice president. In addition to its principal, the firm employs Pence’s former top health-policy aide, the former Pence-nominated chair of the Indiana GOP, and a host of former Indiana legislators and state government officials.
The firm’s entire lobbying practice revolves around its access to and ability to influence the vice president. For its lobbying work since Trump took office—which, again, has consisted almost entirely of advocacy aimed at the VP’s office—Sextons Creek has brought in about $1.2 million.
Indeed, one might reasonably expect the lobbyists there to follow the feudal logic of D.C.’s rent-seeking sector to its logical extreme and don flouncy livery in Hoosier state colors, tendering payoffs on cushions as they bow their heads reverently before their lord. The gruesome ironies here extend well beyond the Trump campaign’s transparently insincere pledge to “drain the swamp” in D.C. of unseemly backroom favor-trading and graft. What’s truly mind-bending about the entire Trumpian gospel of the shakedown as it’s now settled into the greater Washington rentier hustle is how defiantly it parodies Trump’s many promises to bring the good old manufacturing order into the center of American enterprise. Because none of these gilded scams produce anything at all—other than payoff after payoff from their unfortunate contract partners.
Compared to the Sextons Creeks and Essential Consultant shops that make up the real conservative Dark Web of Recursive Grifting, Michael Cohen’s second-most infamous client, multimillionaire slumlord Sean Hannity, is a strictly two-bit hustler, shaking down his working-class tenants for three-figure late-payment penalties, and attempting to evict them for failing to pay for their own bedbug extermination contracts. Fortunately, though, the Trump White House’s unofficial chief of staff can still enviably position himself to scale up and cash in—a couple of quick checks to Essential Consultants or Sextons Creek, and he could be headed for Mumbai, baby! Or better yet, why not eliminate the middleman and set up his own K Street LLC? It’s not like Sean Hannity, of all people, needs to pay for access to the Trump White House. (What’s more, it’s not as though the man’s an actual journalist.) Fair and Balanced Consulting at your patriotic service, grateful Americans!