Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, and the idiotic corruption of Trump Inc.
In the early months of the Trump presidency, wags loved to debate which member of the new administration was the "Fredo."
Fredo, if you remember your Godfather movies, was stupid and weak, left behind when his younger brother, Michael, took over the crime family. He was so unaware of his failings that he betrayed his brother in a bid to get a piece of the action, and then bristled like an angry child when caught. "I can handle things! I'm smart, not like everybody says, like dumb," Fredo hotly whined as the plot came crashing down around him. "I'm smart and I want respect!"
With Michael Cohen's guilty plea on eight counts of financial crimes on Tuesday, followed within moments by Paul Manafort's conviction on eight counts of bank fraud and tax evasion charges, and coming as the revelations from Omarosa Maginault Newman's new book continued to reverberate, and as it became clear that the White House counsel had provided a ton of testimony to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, one thing is clear:
In this White House, it's Fredos all the way down.
Start with Cohen, Trump's longtime personal attorney. The crime that tripped him up was making hush-money payments during the 2016 campaign to Stormy Daniels, the porn star who claims she had an affair with Trump, who was a married man at the time. (Cohen effectively said in court that he made this payment at Trump's direction, for the purpose of influencing the election, and that Trump paid him back.) This wasn't the brightest move: Cavorting with porn stars was part of the Trump brand already. He'd appeared in softcore porn videos, had his picture on the cover of Playboy, managed to get the New York Post to proclaim he was "THE BEST SEX I EVER HAD!" and appeared regularly on Howard Stern for leisurely frat-boy chats.
Trump's reputation as an unfaithful hedonist wasn't just baked into his brand — he'd actively cultivated it. So why spend money on a coverup in the campaign? Especially when there was a clear and obvious danger the transaction might later be scrutinized?
The payment to Daniels was a needless, idiotic, unforced error: A pure Fredo move.
How about Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman? He has long been prominent in GOP circles, but by the time he took over Trump's campaign in 2016, he was knowably tainted: His efforts helping elect a strongman in Ukraine were extensively documented — as was the appearance of his name in a secret ledger suggesting a pro-Russian party had paid him $12.7 million in cash. It was bound to attract scrutiny and did. The exception? The Trump campaign, which didn't bother to vet him.
Hiring help without checking that it's legit? Sounds like something Fredo would've done.
And now look at Manafort: guilty of eight counts of financial fraud, including failing to file a foreign bank account, bank fraud, and tax evasion. Manafort faces 240 years in prison.
Or take Omarosa. Putting a reality TV villain on the White House staff didn't end well? Who could have foreseen that?
The consistent through-line with this administration is not just that it does things badly, not just that it's so corrupt — and it is exceedingly corrupt — but that it seems to be bad and corrupt in the dumbest possible way almost every single time. In this sense, America has been lucky in getting this particular constitutional crisis. The Trump administration is riddled with corruption, yes, but obviously, almost transparently so. Trump's cronies keep thinking they're smarter than everybody else, only to find out they really aren't.
This is true even in the Russia collusion case. Remember that it got started, in part, because a drunken Trump campaign aide blabbed to Australian diplomatic officials that Moscow had dirt on Hillary Clinton. Silly, critical indiscretion? That's how Fredo went down.
And remember: It was President Trump himself who helped kickstart rumors of collusion when he went before television cameras and suggested the Russians try to get ahold of Clinton's missing emails. When Hillary's emails were leaked — and it became apparent the Russians had a hand in it — Trump was bound to look culpable whether or not he was actually guilty.
Which brings us back to Tuesday's action in court. Manafort was always problematic, but it's Cohen who really fits the profile. Like Fredo, he was passed over — after a long association with Trump, he was left behind, outside the White House, when Trump became president. Like Fredo, he overreached in an attempt to create his own mini-empire — taking payments from big corporations seeking access to Trump. And like Fredo, he took sides against the family: His release of taped conversations with Trump means he'll never been accepted back into the inner circle ever again.
You know what happens to Fredo in the end, don't you? He ends up in the bottom of a lake, sacrificed to protect the ambition and sensibilities of the family's leader. It wasn't a pleasant way to end. But it was inevitable.
Trump's remaining loyalists might take note, at least metaphorically.
Last week it was Omarosa. Today it's Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort. Next week it'll be someone else. The question in the Trump administration isn't if anybody fits the Fredo profile. The real question is if anybody doesn't.