The legal net closing in on Donald Trump

In the president’s world, as in the Mafia, disloyalty is the unforgivable sin

Edward Luce 


Investigators faced a high evidential bar to break the attorney-client privilege between Donald Trump and Michael Cohen. Mr Cohen cleared it with distinction © Reuters


The US republic is under threat, according to Donald Trump: “It is an attack on what we all stand for,” he warned. America’s president was not referring to Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons, nor Russian assassinations. He meant last week’s federal raid on Michael Cohen, his personal lawyer — and keeper of his secrets. American values are equivalent to Mr Cohen’s legal immunity, according to Mr Trump. That is how the president’s mind works.

It is quite different to how a legal brain works. Investigators now possess ten boxes of Mr Cohen’s documents and have downloaded the contents of his devices. A judge has upheld their right to break Mr Trump’s attorney-client privilege, which requires a high evidential bar. In the case of a sitting US president, it is unusually high. Mr Cohen cleared it with distinction.

By his own admission, Mr Cohen “would do just about anything” for Mr Trump. That involves paying off porn stars with whom the president has allegedly had affairs. It has also included acting as Mr Trump’s business go-between in Russia and eastern Europe. He dabbles in valuable New York taxi medallions, too. Mr Cohen is the Trump family fixer who is also a lawyer. Fans of The Godfather will recognise a coarser version of Tom Hagen.

There is no mystery why Mr Trump is so worried. Mr Cohen joins the growing list of close Trump associates under interrogation. Given his business dealings, he may well join Mike Flynn, Mr Trump’s first national security adviser, and Rick Gates, a former campaign official, in cutting a deal with the investigators. Either that or risk many years in jail.

Each time the net tightens, Mr Trump reaches for the proverbial nuclear button. His target is Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney-general, who approved the raid on Mr Cohen’s office. Mr Rosenstein also appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel. The fastest way to fire Mr Mueller would be to first replace Mr Rosenstein. Twice before Mr Trump has tried to sack the special counsel. In each case he was talked out of it. Eventually, he is likely to get his way.

Which brings us back to the attack on the American republic. The danger comes from Mr Trump. In his newly published memoir, James Comey, the former FBI director who was fired by Mr Trump, talks about the president’s Cosa Nostra values. Mr Comey’s dealings with Mr Trump reminded him of the New York mafia families that he prosecuted in the 1980s: “The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. Loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them world view. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty.”

It is this code that has stopped Mr Trump from staffing his administration. Too many potential officials have signed “Never Trump” letters, or criticised Mr Trump in public. In Mr Trump’s world — as in the mafia — disloyalty is the unforgivable sin. That is why the ranks of his administration keep thinning.

Mr Trump has enmeshed most of the Republican party in that code. Senior Republicans no longer dare criticise him. On Monday, Jim Jordan, former chairman of the powerful Republican Freedom Caucus, refused to admit Mr Trump has ever done anything wrong. Asked repeatedly if he had ever heard Mr Trump lie, he said: “I have not.”

If things go well for the US republic, such spinelessness will become the epitaph of many politicians. Faced with a choice between loyalty and honesty, Republican leaders have chosen loyalty at any cost. That bill keeps mounting. Last week, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, said he would not run again. Many hoped Mr Ryan was giving himself room to do the right thing. Since he no longer faced re-election, he could now hold Mr Trump to account. That is unlikely. Like anyone who does business with Mr Trump, Mr Ryan has devalued his moral standing. The more you cover up for the head of the family, the harder it is to escape. There is no witness protection programme for politicians.

The bigger tests are still to come. Mr Mueller has yet to take action on the Democratic email hacking; on the conflicts of interest of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law; and on the Trump campaign’s alleged co-ordination with WikiLeaks. Each of these poses dangers. Mr Mueller is made of sterner stuff than most. According to Mr Comey, when the special counsel had a knee operation a few years ago, he turned down anaesthesia in favour of biting on a leather belt. The US republic will need more such mettle for what lies ahead.

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