It’s easy to be bored by corruption scandals. For one thing, it’s not exactly earth-shattering news that politicians are in it for themselves. For another, stories of business fraud and improper favors almost always pale in comparison to the more far-reaching crimes and immoralities that are carried out every day via bombings, deportations and cuts to pensions and social services — and that are all perfectly legal.
But the FBI raid on the office of Michael Cohen earlier this month, Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer and jack-of-all-sleazy-trades, marks an important threat to Trump’s presidency that could have all kinds of consequences.
We don’t yet know what dirt federal investigators have on Cohen — and, by association, Trump — but only the most diehard “deep state” conspiracy theorists would deny that there must be something serious to prompt a raid on the lawyer of the President of the United States.
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And only the flunkies on the payroll of Fox News or the Trump Organization would deny that there are a seemingly limitless number of potential crimes to look into. Like real estate ventures with money launderers and crooks in Indonesia, Georgia and Brazil (not to mention New Jersey). Or the payment (possibly violating campaign finance laws) made to silence Stephanie Clifford (aka Stormy Daniels) about her affair with Trump.
There are probably dozens of other things we don’t know about. But Michael Cohen does, and a good deal of U.S. politics might turn on whether this longtime Trump sycophant will flip on his boss to keep himself out of jail.
Trump, of course, claims that investigators are violating attorney-client privilege and a host of other civil liberties — the same ones he gleefully steps on when it comes to immigrants, people of color and anybody who gets in his way.
It’s possible that the FBI is trampling on Trump’s legal rights, but less likely than if its target was Muslim or a political protester, to judge from the recent past.
But Cohen is less Trump’s lawyer than his fixer, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to see a billionaire and his crooked lawyer being held accountable to the law.
The same goes for the entire gang of grifters assembled in the Trump administration. Like Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, who has repeatedly accepted gifts from the energy companies on whose behalf he is wiping out inconvenient regulations. And Trump hatchet men Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, whose unreported lobbying work for foreign governments made them early targets of Mueller’s special investigation into collusion between the Russian government and Trump’s presidential campaign.
It’s telling that even one of the lawyers who Trump brought on to protect himself from the Cohen investigation, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, is himself a potential legal liability.
In addition to being a washed-up loudmouth whose only remaining discernable talent is getting angry on Fox News, Giuliani never made it into Trump’s cabinet in part because of a possibly illegal relationship to an Iranian opposition group, as well as his likely role in working with FBI agents to leak their investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mail scandal during the presidential campaign.
It’a an obvious, but still important, point to make that Trump’s vast web of corruption is especially galling given that one of his favorite methods of attacking the vulnerable is through false accusations of fraud.
Separating babies from parents trying to apply for asylum at the border; forcing Medicaid recipients to work 80 hours a month to maintain health coverage; blocking people from voting if they don’t have the exact right form of ID — all of these cruel attacks are justified as crackdowns on fraud among poor and working-class people, carried out by a government led by the world’s most famous con artist.
But Trump’s corruption isn’t just reprehensible. It’s also dangerous. His corruption goes hand in hand with his authoritarianism — both are about putting those in power above the law.
Trump is obviously not the first or only corrupt American leader, but, just as he’s pushing the acceptability of open racism and sexism to new lows, he’s normalizing naked corruption — and, therefore, impunity for the rich and powerful.
This isn’t just about his scandals — it’s his philosophy of government to replace laws and systems with a series of individual decisions that increase the power of the decision-maker.
Trump’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fines Wells Fargo for defrauding customers even as the administration strips regulations to prevent future crimes. That may seem like a contradiction, but for business, the message is clear: what matters less is legality than staying in Trump’s good graces.
As Adam Davidson wrote for the New Yorker, commenting on the administration’s different treatment of two media companies, one of them a reliable Trump booster and the other more critical:
Currently, the Department of Justice is suing to prevent a merger of AT&T and Time Warner, the parent company of CNN. At the same time, Sinclair is in the process of merging with Tribune Media, a move that would strengthen Sinclair’s network of television stations. The Justice Department seems likely to approve that marriage.
There are legitimate legal reasons for the Justice Department to treat the two mergers differently, but when the President makes his self-interest so plain it is impossible to fully trust the process.
We should be clear that Trump didn’t invent corruption, and he certainly didn’t invent the entirely legalized form of bribery that falls under the category of corporate lobbying. The main difference between the Trump administration and earlier generations of Oval Office racketeers may not be their crimes, but their context.
The White House officials caught doing favors for the 1870s railroad industry or 1920s oil barons were just as much sleazy parasites as Trump and his cronies today.
But while those earlier parasites were feasting on a young American capitalism that couldn’t be stopped by a little corruption from growing into the largest economy in world history, today’s leeches are blindly engorging themselves while the country they are supposed to be running stumbles into a potentially historic decline.
The Michael Cohen investigation is separate from Mueller’s investigation into collusion with the Russian government.
The Cohen raid was carried out by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which means that even if Trump fires Mueller, and the Republican Congress backs him up, the investigation into Cohen’s — and quite possibly Trump’s — crimes would keep going.
On the other hand, the two investigations will likely overlap, and they could become inseparable if Cohen decides to cooperate with both Mueller and the Southern District.
In any event, the lesson we need to learn from everything that’s taken place in the Trump era is that scandalmongering is not the way to challenge the Trump regime, nor his far-right shock troops.
The Trump presidency might still be rocked by either Russiagate or the various inquiries into Trump’s business empire (our money is on the latter). If it is, that’s so much the better for the left, which can celebrate Trump’s suffering while pointing out that his scandals show how the whole system, economic and political together, is rotten to the core.
But for the liberal establishment, obsessing over the leaks and speculating about the investigations has been little more than a distraction, sometimes a dangerous one — and often an alibi for doing nothing to oppose Trump in the here and now.
You wouldn’t know it from MSNBC’s round-the-clock coverage, but it remains quite possible that Mueller’s investigation won’t conclude that the president colluded with Vladimir Putin to win the election — either because it didn’t happen or because an accusation like that is hard to prove.
The chances of prosecutable behavior being unearthed from the past or present of the Trump business empire are greater. But in the meantime, the Democrats’ relentless focus on Trump’s scandals has shifted attention from countless pressing issues.
Case in point: The Democratic National Committee recently announced a lawsuit accusing WikiLeaks, along with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, of political espionage during the 2016 election. That could have a potentially chilling effect on whistleblowers and journalists who publish classified information.
Meanwhile, the Democrats have done nothing to challenge the instances of naked voter suppression that demonstrably did help hand Trump the election in 2016.
In truth, every time Democratic Party leaders talk about Russia, they reveal their own central role in Trump’s election victory. They can’t fathom the idea that they and their preferred presidential candidate had so little to offer voters that a lot of loyal voters stayed home, and some were even drawn to supporting Trump.
None of this means that socialists should be indifferent to Trump’s corruption — or his attempts to obstruct justice by threatening to fire officials charged with investigating him.
There are protests planned by liberal organizations if Trump takes the step of firing Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Those protests will be wholly justified, even if some of their organizers conjure an image of the FBI as crusaders for justice, which they definitely aren’t.
The left will need to engage with those who will join such protests because they hate Trump and want to see him brought down — and who can be won to other struggles against injustice and oppression that badly need to be organized in Trump times.
We certainly won’t make a hero out of a dyed-in-the-wool authoritarian like Robert Mueller. But we can figure out how to make the fight against corruption part of a larger socialist agenda.
Since the times of Karl Marx — who turns 200 years young in May — revolutionaries have stood for the utmost extension of democracy as an instrumental part of the struggle for socialism. We know the fight for a future world cleansed of tyranny and oppression begins with the fight against tyrants and oppressors in the here and now.