If you're a Trump scandal aficionado, Michael Cohen is the gift that keeps on giving. Whenever he vaults back into the news, you know it's going to be some combination of comical and appalling, and extremely bad for his old boss, the president of the United States.
As we learned this week, once President Trump was elected, a surprising number of wealthy and powerful people and organizations decided that if they were going to succeed in the new Washington, they needed access to the wisdom and insight of Michael Cohen. And they'd be willing to pay top dollar to get it. Yes, this ridiculous schlemiel — graduate of the country's worst law school, wannabe tough guy, possessor of a resting "Oh god, I'm going to jail" face — was suddenly the recipient of millions of dollars from corporations and people looking to influence the new president. What better way, after all, than going through his "personal lawyer"?
As documents made public by Stormy Daniels' lawyer Michael Avenatti show, last January, Cohen found himself fielding offers from multiple corporations with business before the federal government who wanted nothing more than to write him six-figure checks. When contacted by reporters, the companies offered laughable explanations for what they were getting from Cohen. AT&T paid him $200,000 to "provide insights into understanding the new administration." An investment firm called Columbus Nova that just so happens to have connections to the Kremlin says it gave him $500,000 "as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures." Korea Aerospace Industries, which is competing for a large Air Force contract, said its payment of $150,000 to Cohen was for legal consulting involved in the organization of its "internal accounting system."
Perhaps most remarkably, the drugmaker Novartis signed a contract to pay Cohen $100,000 per month for a year to get his insights on health-care policy, but after a single meeting with him, they "determined that Michael Cohen and Essentials Consultants would be unable to provide the services that Novartis had anticipated." Yet they kept paying him the entire $1.2 million.
Maybe you find the idea that they would agree to pay him that much money without ever sitting down for a chat implausible. But at this point you're probably asking yourself: How do I get on this gravy train? Or, if you're thinking a bit less selfishly: Wasn't President Trump supposed to drain the swamp?
The truth is that Trump has indeed changed the culture of corruption in Washington, in two main ways.
First, he has made it significantly worse. There have been no alterations to the usual paths for the wealthy and powerful to exercise influence; instead, Trump has greased the wheels. If you're in the administration and you aren't someone who used to represent the corporations you're now regulating (and you'll return to after your stint in "public" service), then at the very least you're ideologically devoted to the principle of enhancing corporate power.
To take one vivid example of these two types: You're no doubt familiar with how scandal-plagued EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has held on to his job because Trump is pleased with his aggressive action to remove any impediment to corporations polluting as much as they please. What you may not know is that if Trump does fire him, the person who would take over is his deputy Andrew Wheeler. Wheeler's job before he became second-in-command at the agency responsible for protecting the environment? He was a coal lobbyist.
The second way Trump has changed the culture of corruption has been to make sure that he and his are the ones wetting their beaks. I'm reminded of something Adam Serwer wrote after former Washington mayor Marion Barry died: While he was widely (and correctly) viewed as a deeply corrupt figure, "Barry didn't bring corruption to D.C. He changed who benefited from it." Likewise, Trump has enabled his people to benefit from the corruption that already existed. Some of the hottest influence-peddlers in town are now not those who understand Capitol Hill or the way agencies operate, but those who have a personal connection to Trump.
And that's where all these payments to Cohen seem to come in. It's clear that there's more to this story, but it seems obvious that one way or another, these companies — and that mysterious Russian oligarch — thought they could get what they wanted from the government by going through Cohen. And they had plenty of money to spend.
All that being said, while you might not believe it, in many ways Washington is less corrupt than ever. While there's an occasional bribery scandal, the old-fashioned kind of corruption — the briefcase full of cash exchanged for a key vote — is far less common now than it was in earlier days. Disclosure laws, a larger news media sniffing around, and electronic record-keeping have combined to make it more difficult to put a congressman in your pocket the way a railroad baron used to do.
But as the saying goes, the real scandal is what's legal. Or at least that was the real scandal, until Donald Trump came to town.