The Trump labyrinth
President Trump's legal difficulties are a maze. It's so complex that I doubt there is a single person alive who could deliver an accurate and comprehensive two-sentence summary of the relevant twists and turns from January 2017 onward.
High-minded bores are in the habit of telling us that to be informed citizens who participate in a democracy one must absorb the contents of history's "Great Books." But it is hard to see how The Federalist Papers or Kant's second formulation of the categorical imperative are any use here. The only books that are going to help you make sense of the headlines are spy thrillers, detective novels, and the comedies of P.G. Wodehouse.
This is especially the case with the latest sidestory involving Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels, a ludicrous black comedy stuffed inside an impossibly complicated post-Cold War international saga of corruption and deceit —The Tailor of Panama by way of Ronald Firbank.
Even getting a handle on the characters is difficult. Cohen is supposed to be the president's attorney. This is, strictly speaking, true, at least in the sense that he appears to be the holder of a law degree. Most of us go through life without requiring the service of lawyers on more than a handful of occasions. Trump has one on quasi-permanent retainer whose job seems to consist solely of making rude phone calls and dispensing six-figure sums to pornographic actresses on the president's behalf without even bothering to consult the man — or, if you believe Rudy Giuliani's hilarious (and kind-of sort-of walked-back) interventions, with his approval in the full expectation of reimbursement.
But Cohen is also a phenomenally wealthy man in his own right, a real estate mogul worth around $100 million. His latest sideline appears to be fleecing morons at corporations willing to pay absurd sums for what could loosely be described as "advice" concerning the president. AT&T alone gave him around $600,000 last year for what it referred to, inimitably, as "actual work." Is that adjective meant to be reassuring? The nearly $2 million he earned from giving potted seminars on Trumpism all went — where else? — to the same Delaware-based shell corporation that paid Stormy Daniels in October 2016. This is very much in keeping with his previous business relationship with Trump. In the past Cohen's modus operandi has been piggybacking on the (presumed) wealth and reputation of his patron. The labyrinthine details of his partnerships with Trump, and their endless intersections with Russian and Ukrainian and mafia characters, could fill several dizzying volumes.
The question is what all this means and where it's going. It all gets very confusing, especially when the plot unfolds in the language of "ties" and "links" and vague appellations like "the Kremlin" or "Moscow," as if a building or a city were a person. It is easy to attach too much significance to some of these relationships. In a globalized economy everyone from Bill and Hillary Clinton to Jay-Z and Beyoncé have significant "ties" to Russian business interests. Russia is an oligarchy; anyone who has made money there in the post-Soviet era has done so thanks to his bribe-enhanced connections with the government. This is equally true in the United States, though for mysterious reasons we tend not to have a problem with this arrangement.
Like any good thriller writer, the Author of History likes to keep His readers guessing. It looks increasingly likely that the chapters about Robert Mueller's open-ended special counsel investigation into possible collusion between Trump's presidential campaign and the Russian government were a series of red herrings. One year on the special prosecutor has turned up nothing but a handful of meaningless guilty pleas from people charged with jumbling their facts or lying about insignificant encounters.
Meanwhile, Cohen's payments to Stormy Daniels and his subsequent shakedowns of various Fortune 500 companies — our knowledge of which we owe, naturally, to the latter's attorney — seem more and more like some kind of denouement, one that involves a very obvious violation of federal campaign finance law. Cohen is almost certainly going to be prosecuted, whatever Giuliani says about the irrelevance of Trump's adulteries to American voters, but it is also possible that Trump himself could be implicated.
"Toady and boss get their comeuppance from cunning woman" is a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. It's also very easy to summarize.