For years, Michael Cohen delighted in doing an awful job. He cleaned up Donald Trump’s messes. Cohen first came to President Trump’s attention more than a decade ago when a group of apartment owners in Trump World Tower, a glass skyscraper across from the United Nations, accused Trump of “financial impropriety.” Cohen, who was the treasurer of the board, took Trump’s side against his fellow owners and helped quell the revolt. Since then, Cohen has taken pride in declaring himself “the fix-it guy,” and “the guy who would take a bullet for the president.”
In that role, Cohen has reportedly worked with the National Enquirer to buttress Trump’s phony charges that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, he has threatened journalists who reported on the claim that Trump raped his ex-wife Ivana, and he’s allegedly used his own money to pay off Stormy Daniels, who claims she and Trump had an affair. The pattern is clear. Trump acts in some reckless, selfish, sordid, irresponsible, or ugly way. Then Cohen comes along to make sure Trump doesn’t suffer the consequences.
What’s striking about all this is that Trump, by becoming president, has turned a great many federal employees into the functional equivalent of Michael Cohen. Last summer, when Trump called journalists “the enemy of the American people,” Vice President Mike Pence was called on to perform a Cohen. “Rest assured,” Pence declared, “both the president and I strongly support a free and independent press.” Last month, after Trump refused to acknowledge Russian electoral interference during his meeting with Vladimir Putin, the Cohen role fell to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to The New York Times, “amounted to an elaborate cleanup effort by the United States’ top diplomat for Mr. Trump’s performance in Helsinki.”
The day before, it had been Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s turn. By imposing tariffs on foreign goods, the president had provoked the European Union, Canada, Mexico, and China to slap retaliatory tariffs on American farm products. This threatened to ruin Trump’s upcoming trip to Iowa. So Perdue unveiled a hastily conceived subsidy package for farmers victimized by the trade war. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture,” declared Senator Pat Toomey, “is trying to put a Band-Aid on a self-inflicted wound.” But that wasn’t quite right. The Department of Agriculture may have provided the Band-Aid, but Trump inflicted the wound.
Sometimes, Trump’s messes are so large that vast numbers of federal employees are drafted into the Cohen role. Trump did not consult the Department of Health and Human Services before adopting the “zero tolerance” policy that separated undocumented immigrant children from their parents. Nor did he and his top aides create a plan for how to reunite these fractured families. But when a federal judge ordered the administration to meet a deadline to reunite them, “the leadership of the Department of Health and Human Services, which shelters the children and must now undertake reunifications, sent out a plea to federal public health workers for help with an exhaustive manual search of records,” according to the Times. An email from one official declared that “HHS is requesting volunteers over the weekend to review case records. Everyone here is now participating in this process, including the Secretary who personally stayed until past midnight to assist.” Sacrifice your weekend to fix a blunder that Trump might have avoided had he consulted you ahead of time. That’s classic Michael Cohen.
But even the many government workers struggling to reunite separated families constitute a mere fraction of the Americans currently doing Cohen’s old job. Consider Trump’s agricultural subsidies, which are meant to fix the problem he created by imposing tariffs with no plan for what to do if other countries retaliated. American taxpayers are paying for them. American taxpayers are also paying the salaries of the bureaucrats working overtime to reunite immigrant families. And every time an American meets a foreigner and tries by her behavior to salvage this country’s reputation for maturity and decency, that’s a version of Cohenism too.
Cohen himself is now out of the game. He’s no longer cleaning up after Trump. Instead, he’s trying to prevent all that cleaning up from landing him in jail. The whole experience, it turns out, didn’t end well. It’s not likely to end well for his fellow Americans either.