If President Trump’s secretly taped conversation with attorney Michael Cohen reminds you of a crime boss and his consigliere, you’re not alone. Trump’s current lawyer and mouthpiece, Rudy Giuliani, evidently agrees.
After CNN first played the tape on Tuesday, Giuliani went on Fox News and downplayed its importance, citing his experience as a mob-busting federal prosecutor: “How about 4,000 hours of Mafia people on tape? I know how to listen to them. I know how to transcribe them. This tape is crystal clear when you listen to [it]. I’ve dealt with much worse tapes than this.”
Spin-wise, this is the best they’ve got? That Trump and Cohen don’t sound as bad as the Gambino family? Yikes.
The recording, made by Cohen shortly before the 2016 election, is a window onto how Trump does business — and, by extension, what kind of person he is. In it, he and his then-lawyer Cohen discuss their machinations to squelch former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal’s story of what she describes as a 10-month affair with Trump. The president of the United States is revealed as a schemer and a liar. That’s no surprise, I realize, but now we can hear him in action — and there is no way he can claim the evidence is “fake news.”
Earlier Tuesday, at the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Trump was speaking about the economy but sounded almost as if he knew the Cohen recording was about to come out. He pointed to the assembled media, delivered his customary insults, and then told the crowd, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
Echoes of a chilling line in George Orwell’s “1984” were unmistakable: “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
And indeed, Trump’s truest believers may look for ways to disbelieve what they hear. They may fall for Giuliani’s attempt to make the issue about whether Trump wanted Cohen to pay to quash McDougal’s story with cash or a check — as if that mattered.
What does matter is that, in the recording, Cohen tells Trump he needs to “open up a company” to pay for “the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David” — an apparent reference to David Pecker, chairman of the company that owns the National Enquirer, which in August 2016 paid McDougal $150,000 for exclusive rights to her account of the affair and then never published a word of it. In the tabloid world, this method of burying a story is known as “catch and kill.”
McDougal says her affair with Trump ended in 2007. Why, nine years later, was it suddenly worth six figures to keep her story from coming out? The context of the Trump-Cohen conversation makes clear that they were thinking about the impending election.
Legal experts have said this means the $150,000 Pecker’s company paid to McDougal may be an unreported campaign contribution; that Trump may have thus been involved in a conspiracy to violate federal campaign finance laws; and that there may have been fraud in the setting up of a shell company to make an illicit payment.
None of that may be smoking-gun material, but take a wider view. Listen to how routine the conversation sounds. In all the scheming and lying, there is no hint of anything out of the ordinary. For Trump and Cohen, it sounds like just another day at the office.
The recording is one of several, perhaps many, seized by federal agents during raids on Cohen’s office, residence and hotel room in April. “What kind of a lawyer would tape a client?” Trump angrily demanded in a tweet. Speaking on MSNBC, former federal prosecutor Chuck Rosenberg had an answer: “Presumably, a lawyer that doesn’t trust his client.”
Cohen once reportedly said he would take a bullet for Trump. But in recent days, he and his media-savvy attorney, Lanny Davis, have made clear that if there is a fall to be taken, Cohen has no intention of taking it alone. This growing estrangement means that if Trump tries to shut Cohen up by pardoning him, the president would not even have the fig leaf of friendship to hide behind. It would be a naked obstruction of justice.
Listen to that one recording and then think about the voluminous trove of material collected in the Cohen raids. For a long time, only Trump and Cohen knew what was in there. Now federal prosecutors do, too. Soon, it seems likely, all of us will.
Dana Milbank is on vacation. Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.