The character sketch of Donald Trump by the keeper of his secrets was no surprise to anyone who has given a passing glance at the hulk of malevolence in the Oval Office. He cheats. He defrauds. He lies by way of respiration.
He thinks his son is an idiot, and that only suckers served in Vietnam. He believes blacks are incapable of governing. He acts like a gangster. He stiffs contractors and pays off porn stars. We knew all of that. Getting it under oath from a man who was once executive vice president and special counsel to Trump just gave historians a formality for the obvious.
But if Michael D. Cohen’s description of a president who morphed into “the worst version of himself” was not news, certainly the way Republicans took the baton from the ex-loyalist was. They have now become Trump’s fixers, doing his dirty work, issuing threats and ditching long-held principles like so many empty beer bottles thrown from a car.
Cohen’s portrayal of the fraud in the White House, and the details of a Trump Organization run like a criminal enterprise, are not disqualifying to Republicans. Just the opposite. Trump is a racist, a con, a cheat, in Cohen’s words — but those are among the reasons people voted for him. Proving it only strengthens his standing with a large sector of the electorate and many members of Congress.
When Cohen described how Trump would fail to pay people who’d done work for him, or weaseled his way out of his share of taxes, or inflated his assets for what sounds like insurance and bank fraud — well, those are marks of a good businessman who knows how to game the system.
And when Cohen recounted Trump’s belief that he couldn’t name a country run by a black that wasn’t a “shithole,” he was also trashing the United States under President Barack Obama. But it’s an insult that has found a home in right-wing media.
“Every day, most of us knew we were coming in and we were going to lie for him,” Cohen said of a typical shift at Trump Tower. Professional prevarication on behalf of Trump “was normalized,” he said. “And no one around him questioned it. In fairness, no one around him today questions it, either.”
The hearing before the House committee proved his point. Did one Republican stand up and decry Cohen’s litany of presidential lies? They blasted Cohen the liar, but not the man he lied for. Did one Republican decry the $35,000 check — proof, as Cohen said, that “The president of the United States thus wrote a personal check for the payment of hush money as part of a criminal scheme to violate campaign finance laws”?
It’s been clear, ever since the last of the never-Trumpers were rooted out of the party, that the G.O.P. would be an extension of the grime and grift of Trump’s personal brand. But now the enablers are willing to do what Cohen said he once did for Trump — take a bullet for him.
Among Cohen’s duties as Trump fixer was to threaten people; he did this maybe 500 times, by his recounting. That job has been taken over by Republican elected officials like Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida. He threatened Cohen on the eve of his testimony, mentioning his family in an ominous tweet.
Initially, Gaetz compared witness intimidation to the “marketplace of ideas.” Sure. In the same way that pushing someone in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs is like a sled ride. Gaetz has taken his tweet back, but his crude attempt at thuggery stands out for how loathsome his party has become.
The creepy criminal world that surrounds Trump is not off-putting to many Republicans. It was R. Alexander Acosta who helped to negotiate the deal that gave a ridiculously low sentence to Trump’s billionaire buddy Jeffrey E. Epstein, accused of trafficking children for sex. Acosta is now Trump’s labor secretary, approved by the Republican Senate.
Trump had called Epstein, who pled guilty to soliciting prostitution, “a terrific guy,” adding that, “It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the young side.” This is disgusting.
Republicans who started down this road by making excuses for Trump’s most repulsive personal traits have moved on to bedrock principles. The party of deficit hawks didn’t blink at the trillion-dollar hole in the budget that came with the tax cut, so long as it gave Trump a “win.” They were fine with a president who sided with Vladimir Putin in a traitorous exchange in Helsinki. And the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who has fashioned himself as an institutional guardian of the Constitution, threw that document in a dumpster after he backed Trump’s brazen violation of the separation of powers.
They are headed for a reckoning. In years to come, people will ask, “What did we do to make sure our democracy is intact?” as Representative Elijah Cummings, the committee chairman, put it. For Trump’s new fixers, Cohen gave them an answer: “I did the same thing you’re doing now.”