An Interlude of Moral Clarity

Michael Cohen’s testimony was a reminder that this presidency isn’t normal.

Michael Cohen
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

A Racist … A Con Man … A Cheat.Those were the words etched in the chyron as Michael Cohen testified. Yet that litany somehow fails to do justice to Cohen’s moral portrait of Donald Trump.

At the beginning of this presidency, the great fear was “normalization.” The shock of Donald Trump’s election, this theory held, would eventually dissipate. Once he sat behind the big desk, surrounded by oil paintings and heavy curtains, he would be bathed in the incantatory power of his office. The nation would absorb the shock of his misogyny, racism, venality, and dangerous vainglory, and then move on. Perhaps the fact that normalization has slipped from discourse is evidence that there was something to this fear.

Cohen, unabashedly self-servingly, describes his own time with Trump as a microcosm of this same experience. In his telling, Trump’s morality drags down everyone surrounding him, so that a “good person” like Cohen ends up committing terrible misdeeds. “Lying for Mr. Trump was normalized, and no one around him questioned it.”

Normalization is hard to resist. Knowing that the man who controls the nuclear arsenal and directs the surveillance state is unguided by an ethical framework and has a boundless capacity for petty cruelty can make it hard to shut one’s eyes at night. So despite the wildness of Trump’s tweets and the harshness of his policies, the mind inevitably suppresses what it knows about his character so that it isn’t overwhelmed by anxiety.

Nothing in today’s testimony brings the nation directly closer to the impeachment of the president. But Cohen’s testimony provided one of those interludes of clarity that violently dislodges the tendency toward normalization. When a congresswoman asked Cohen, “What do you think [the president] can do to you?,” he replied, “A lot,” and added, “I have fear.” Once again, it’s hard not to feel a little like Cohen.

What I found most profitable in his testimony were the little details about Trump he captures—the casual ease with which the president disparaged the intelligence of his own son or those who served in Vietnam. Trump, Cohen claims, gave the order to pay firms to rig internet straw polls on the Drudge Report and CNBC on the eve of the presidential contest. This is not the behavior of someone with a deep faith in democracy.

Or take Cohen’s description of Trump’s racist remarks. While there’s little surprise in the revelation, it’s bracing to hear Trump’s language. Driving through a neighborhood in Chicago, he allegedly told Cohen “that black people would never vote for him because they were too stupid.” In Trump’s moral universe, it’s fair to judge an entire race for not showing him sufficient political love. These anecdotes capture the president’s dangerously precarious ego and a vanity that knows no bounds.

Vanity seems to be at the core of the Russia scandal, at least as far as we can now describe it with any confidence. When the founders of the republic wrote about corruption, they worried that a leader would confuse his own interests with the nation’s. That’s precisely how Cohen describes Trump’s view of Moscow.

According to Cohen, Trump had no expectation of victory in the presidential race. Instead, he treated his campaign as a giant infomercial aimed at the Russians, whose cooperation he needed for Trump Tower Moscow to proceed. He spent months fawning over Vladimir Putin, publicly apologizing for the abuses of his regime and begging for improved relations, as he tried to firm up the deal. In other words, the current trajectory of American foreign policy began as an effort to make a fortune. These were real financial interests that the president lied about, blatantly and constantly. Whatever else we discover through Robert Mueller’s investigation, that’s a historic scandal in itself.

In attempting to tear down Cohen, his Republican questioners set a litmus test that their primary client will never be able to survive. They said that the nation shouldn’t waste its time on a man with a demonstrable pattern of lying; they said that we should never pay any heed to someone so intent on profiting from publicity. As they fulminated, I revised the chyron in my head: A Racist … A Con Man … A Cheat … A President.