As cunning as a raccoon, author Michael Wolff walked in the front door of the White House early last year and has returned with a book, Fire and Fury, that cements Donald Trump’s image as a shallow, narcissistic, dim, post-literate, impulsive, temperamental and doddering buffoon who blusters and lurches from crisis to crisis. For most of a holiday-shortened week, excerpts from the book published in New York and the Hollywood Reporter predicted that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III would “crack Don Junior like an egg,” that Trump thought he would lose the 2016 election, that the Constitution was more difficult for him to understand than quantum physics.
These hot licks temporarily elbowed Mueller’s Russia investigation out of the spotlight until Thursday evening when the New York Times delivered a report that added a layer of patina to the obstruction of justice case Mueller is thought to be building. According to the Times’ Michael Schmidt, last March Trump had his top White House lawyer lobby Attorney General Jeff Sessions to keep him from recusing himself in the growing Russia investigation.
The most striking quotation collected by Schmidt appeared before the jump. Frustrated by the fact that Session had gone wobbly on him, Trump asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Trump asked. Cohn, who was once described as a “legal executioner” by journalist Ken Auletta, represented Trump from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s until the one-time Joe McCarthy henchman died of AIDS. “All I can tell you is he’s been vicious to others in his protection of me,” Trump once told Vanity Fair’s Marie Brenner about the lawyer. It’s here that Wolff’s unrestrained depiction of the incompetent Trump dovetails with the scandal that has vexed his presidency from its first days: Trump is surrounded by people who do his bidding, even as they mock him, but what he has prayed for in vain is a ruthless lawyer who would defend him from his enemies and save him from himself, just the way Cohn always did.
As Schmidt revealed in his post-Christmas interview with Trump at the Grill Room of his West Palm Beach, Fla., golf club, Trump’s idea of a useful attorney general is someone who defends his boss first: “Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him. When you look at the IRS scandal, when you look at the guns for whatever, when you look at all of the tremendous, ah, real problems they had, not made-up problems like Russian collusion, these were real problems. When you look at the things that they did, and Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that, I’ll be honest, I have great respect for that.”
If Cohn were still alive, perhaps he would extract from the Wolff book a composite of his client from which to mount a defense. With the Senate sitting as Trump’s jury, Cohn would maintain that nobody as scatter-brained as his client could have possibly coordinated in a criminal fashion with Russian hackers or Russian officials. As for the obstruction of justice charges, who knows what Cohn would do? Stamp his signature legal evasions on Trump attorney’s John Dowd assertion that “the President cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer…and has every right to express his view of any case.” Blackmail members of the Senate? Cohn, who liked to punch back twice as hard—usually with a countersuit or salacious tabloid allegation—would think of something.
In the Wolff book, former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon characterizes the now-famous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort took with a gang of sketchy Russians with language that not even the stoutest Trump haters have uncorked. “The three senior guys in the campaign thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the 25th floor with no lawyers,” Bannon is quoted. “Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately.” [Emphasis added.]
Bannon, Trump’s Fire and Fury co-star and apparently its primary source, has offered a low-to-nonexistent profile to watchers of the Mueller investigation and the Capitol Hill probes. If Bannon has yet to face interrogation, Fire and Fury all but guarantees that subpoenas with his name at the top will be processed. “[Trump] doesn’t see what’s coming,” Bannon says in the book, declaring the president unable to fathom “how much Mueller had on him and his family.”
This slam, consistent with the Trump cluelessness that’s evoked again and again in Fire and Fury, shocks doubly because it implies that Bannon, who joined the campaign late (August 2016) and has yet to be snagged in the general dragnet, seems to have a deeper understanding of the hazards facing Trump than Trump does. The money trail is the prize the investigators seek, Wolff reports from Bannon’s lips. “This is all about money laundering. Mueller chose [senior prosecutor Andrew] Weissmann first and he is a money-laundering guy,” Bannon said. “Their path to fucking Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr., and Jared Kushner. ... It goes through Deutsche Bank and all the Kushner shit. The Kushner shit is greasy. They’re going to go right through that.”
How much of Bannon’s gabble is actionable and how much of it is his usual wild-man froth will be adjudicated in the coming weeks. Despite Wolff’s heavy reliance on anonymous sources and his reputation in some corners of fact-fudging, almost nobody who doesn’t owe their paycheck to the president has persuasively argued that the book distorts. Some of his findings might be threadbare but the consensus verdict that’s forming transcends ideology. National Review’s Jonah Goldberg writes, “The president is a man out of his depth, propped up by a staff and a party that needs to believe more than what the facts will support.” In the Atlantic, James Fallows declares that Trump’s ignorance and ineptitude have for some time been an “open secret.” You know it, Congress knows it, everybody knows it, Fallows laments.
As a latecomer to the Trump campaign, Bannon might not have been in a position to witness the full spectrum of the Russia interventions and connections. But if even a sliver of the tales he shared with Wolff about dirty money are true, the Mueller probe could result in a bounty of financial prosecutions.
But back to Russian meddling: The Times ran a piece last weekend that establishes that Trump isn’t the dumbest person caught up in the investigation. It’s former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos. According to the Times, in May 2016, the “Coffee Boy” bragged to a top Australian diplomat in a London bar that Moscow had assembled dirt on Hillary Clinton—thousands of stolen emails existed that the Russians might put to work to embarrass her campaign. The Australians forwarded the information to the FBI, which launched a July 2016 counterintelligence probe into Russian election meddling that moves the origin of Trump investigations to its earliest point.
Only a flake would share incendiary information like this, even “during a night of heavy drinking,” as the Times reports. Papadopoulos must have been stoned on stupid juice.
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