Trump’s Greatest Fear

It’s impossible to know what the president wants so desperately to hide, but every threat to examine his business dealings produces frantic defensive maneuvers.

Bebeto Matthews / AP

It’s always been the business that worried Donald Trump. This was true during the presidential campaign, it was true during the transition, and it remains true now.

The president continues to waffle over what to do about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe—fire Mueller? Fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein?—but for the moment, he seems content with bluster. As federal prosecutors in New York circle his longtime fixer Michael Cohen, however, Trump’s legal team has sprung into action, seeking the right to review and withhold documents seized from Cohen. Meanwhile, well-sourced reporters at The New York Times and Axios both say that Trump is much more rattled by the Cohen case than by Mueller’s investigation.

For days, Trump has been fuming on Twitter about how the raid on Cohen constitutes a violation of attorney-client privilege. Standard procedure in such a case is for a Justice Department “taint team” to review documents and determine which ones are privileged. (Privilege cannot be used to conceal a crime; it’s also unclear when Cohen was acting as a lawyer, and for whom.) Cohen has challenged that process, first saying he should be allowed to review the documents, then asking for a special master to review the documents.

On Sunday, lawyers for the president made an extraordinary request: They believe that Trump’s legal team should be able to review the documents themselves. Legal experts regard the request as extraordinary and unlikely to succeed, though the entire case is extraordinary, from the nature of the raid, to the fact that the president is involved, to Trump’s battles with his own Justice Department.

The fact that Trump would attempt such a maneuver shows how rattled he is by the Cohen investigation. That’s remarkable, given the seriousness of the Mueller probe, which involves a foreign power meddling in American elections, tens of millions of dollars in alleged money laundering, multiple Trump aides pleading guilty to lying to the FBI, and an investigation into whether the president himself obstructed justice, the most serious legal jeopardy for any commander in chief since Bill Clinton.

Trump is clearly agitated about Mueller, but that investigation does not seem to have gotten under his skin like the Cohen raid, which hasn’t even resulted in charges yet. That is in keeping with his longstanding sensitivity about anyone peering into his business. When faced with inquiries about his business, Trump tends to work the refs or to try to distract attention. When that fails, he buys his way out of trouble, paying fines that, while substantial in absolute terms, do negligible damage to his bottom line.

For example, during the presidential campaign, Trump had a conniption fit about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was overseeing a case about Trump University, the fraudulent real-estate seminar Trump ran. He argued that Curiel should be removed from the case and was irreparably biased because of his Mexican heritage. Ultimately, Trump settled the case for $25 million.

Trump’s outburst at Curiel was jarring, especially at the time: It was a brazenly race-based attack on the independent federal judiciary. With two more years of experience watching Trump, however, it appears to be less an aberration than his modus operandi, both in terms of the racial rhetoric and attack on the judiciary, as well as the frantic response to anything that could challenge his private business dealings.

Trump again demonstrated this defensiveness when he refused to release his taxes, as every presidential nominee in recent memory had done, and although he initially obfuscated by claiming he was under audit (which he never proved) and would release them once the audit was complete, it became clear that this was mere pretense, and Trump had no intention of releasing the documents, which could provide valuable information about his business deals.

After being elected, Trump refused to divest himself from his company or to establish a blind trust, instead opting for a partial detachment that ethics experts said answered none of the concerns about conflicts of interest that a blind trust is designed to remedy.

And in office, he has continued to insist that his business affairs be shielded from public scrutiny. In July 2017, Trump responded to a question from Times reporters about “red lines” by saying he felt Mueller would exceed his commission if he poked into personal dealings.

“No, I think that’s a violation,” he said. “Look, this is about Russia. So I think if he wants to go, my finances are extremely good, my company is an unbelievably successful company. And actually, when I do my filings, people say, ‘Man.’ People have no idea how successful this is. It’s a great company.”

Then, in December, he reportedly sought to fire Mueller (for a second time) after news reports suggested that the special counsel had sought personal financial records from Deutsche Bank. The reports turned out to be inaccurate, and Trump backed down, but his furious reaction points to his touchiness on the matter.

Now comes the Cohen blow-up. There’s no way to know for sure quite what it is that Trump is so agitated about, nor to say whether it involves a crime, but for some reason, the president is extremely upset about the prospect of prosecutors viewing documents related to Cohen and, presumably, to their relationship. This is especially notable because, as veteran Trump-watcher Timothy O’Brien points out, although Cohen may know where some of the proverbial bodies are buried from the last decade or so of Trump’s career, there are other Trump Organization officials who played a more central role in its affairs and presumably know much more than him.

The irony is that even though inquiries into his personal business seem to rattle Trump more than the Russia probe, it’s the Russia probe that precipitated the Cohen raid. According to press reports, the FBI and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York raided Cohen on a referral from Mueller, who had obtained evidence outside his purview but still relevant for potential prosecution. One important element of the Cohen raid is his role in payments to two women who alleged affairs with the president, Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, and from there it threatens to spread into other corners of the Trump business realm—at least that seems to be the president’s concern. This journey from sex scandal to business scandal is a curious mirror image of Bill Clinton’s travails, which began with an inquiry into his business dealings at Whitewater and ended with his impeachment in a sex scandal.

I have written elsewhere about how Trump tries to apply lessons from his business career to politics. For example, his experience with developments that failed spectacularly has made him strangely sanguine about his ability to bounce back from political defeats. The skirmish over Cohen’s documents is a test for other tactics he learned in business. Once again, he is attempting to work the refs, demanding access to the documents and portraying the raid as a great blow to civil liberties. That may or may not work. If it does not, his tactic of paying a fine and moving on is unlikely to apply here.

The great mystery remains what Trump thinks is in the Cohen files that could damage him so. There is a range of liabilities: We know about payments to ex-mistresses, past associations with mafia figures, violations of federal and state laws and casino regulations, sketchy development deals overseas, and sexual-assault allegations—but whether the files contain damaging details about these things, or about something novel, is something only Cohen and Trump really know. Regardless, the past few days have made plain something that has, for years, been hiding in plain sight: The president views his personal business history as his real liability.