Trump’s hush-money case has proven he’s a low-life. Can it prove he’s a criminal? | Margaret Sullivan

Trump’s hush-money case has proven he’s a low-life. Can it prove he’s a criminal? | Margaret Sullivan
Trump’s hush-money case has proven he’s a low-life. Can it prove he’s a criminal? | Margaret Sullivan

When you set out to explore Donald Trump’s personal life and business practices, you don’t expect to meet any paragons of virtue.

Sleazy media figures who buy and “kill” damaging stories? Yes. An adult film actor ready to tell everything to make a buck? Definitely. A parade of spokespeople and staffers who compromised their own integrity during his presidential administration? No doubt.

A conman, philanderer and grifter himself, the ex-president always has surrounded himself with dicey characters. That’s how he rolls. So it’s hardly surprising that Michael Cohen, the star prosecution witness in the so-called “hush-money” case unfolding in New York City, fits right in.

The former Trump lawyer and fixer pleaded guilty in 2018 to campaign-finance violations, tax fraud and bank fraud. He pleaded guilty to lying to Congress. He went to jail. And he was disbarred.

That’s why it would be funny – if it weren’t so cringe-inducing – to hear the way Cohen is being praised by some commentators in the endless talk loop of cable-news trial coverage.

“Michael’s one of the good guys,” was the assessment of CNN guest-talker Anthony Scaramucci, who memorably lasted less than two weeks as Trump’s communications director and who is now vehemently opposed to Trump winning a second term.

I’m all for redemption, but I wouldn’t go that far. I certainly wouldn’t hold up Michael Cohen as an example of a great American.

But, against the odds, Cohen’s testimony does ring true. (Not that one can hear it directly; unfortunately, the trial is not being televised or even recorded for audio only.)

His words, and the description of his demeanor from those inside the courtroom, make a kind of consistent and logical sense. What’s more, much of it has been “pre-corroborated” by testimony and evidence earlier in the trial.

We’ve heard from people such as David Pecker, who ran the National Enquirer, where he caused damaging stories to be given the “catch-and-kill” treatment to help Trump gain the presidency in 2016. We’ve seen supporting text messages and emails and documents.

On the stand on Monday, Cohen didn’t spare himself. He admits he lied and falsified in protecting his boss. He even admitted to secretly recording Trump during a one-on-one meeting and, because the audio has gone public, we can hear the two of them hashing out one of their seedy arrangements; respectable lawyers don’t do that to or with their clients.

And he certainly didn’t spare Trump, instead portraying him as the equivalent of a mob boss, as well as someone intimately involved with every decision in keeping his tawdry relationships secret as he sought the presidency in 2016.

What the New York district attorney must prove, though, is criminality, not low-life behavior.

Will a jury decide that Trump’s behavior amounted to criminal election interference? That will require a lot of connecting the dots – that Stormy Daniels not only was paid off to keep quiet about the time she claims to have had sex with Trump, but that the payment was then recorded falsely in a way that violates campaign finance law.

If those dots are going to be connected, it’s Cohen who must connect them.

It’s not an airtight case. Rather, it is “the least muscular and existentially threatening of the four criminal prosecutions Trump faces”, wrote the Trump biographer Tim O’Brien this week.

But it’s likely to be the only case that’s going to come to trial before the election. For those who want a shred of accountability for Trump’s endless misdeeds, this is the one they’ve got. And, given that, Cohen is essential.

Can jurors find him credible, given his checked past? Even if they do, is it possible to make the leap to criminal violations of campaign-finance law? And could every one of them then agree to convict?

That’s an Everest-high mountain to climb. Trump’s lawyers are sure to bombard Cohen with his weaknesses during cross-examination later this week.

My take is that Michael Cohen is – finally – telling the truth. He’ll hold up well under the hostile questioning. Jurors will believe him and will buy most of his story, given his consistency and the corroborating evidence and earlier testimony.

Finally, Michael Cohen will come off like an honest broker.

As for a jury then connecting that credibility to criminal election-law interference? And then, unanimously, deciding to convict the former president?

That’s a big stretch.

I can believe Michael Cohen’s testimony, but – at least right now – I can’t believe in that outcome.



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