Why Trump Can't Understand the Cases Against Manafort and Cohen

The president is used to operating in a business milieu where white-collar crime is common and seldom prosecuted aggressively.

Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen (Yana Paskova / Getty)

Justice is blind, but she is also often tardy.

This week, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen were each convicted of eight counts in federal court, but the crimes they committed happened some time ago. Manafort has been operating on the fringes of the law for decades, sometimes worrying his business partners. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment cited alleged crimes going back to 2006. Cohen pleaded guilty to evading taxes from 2012 to 2016, as well as to lying to a bank and committing campaign-finance violations that he said Donald Trump directed.

In other words, the behavior for which Manafort and Cohen are now likely to go to prison long predates the Trump presidency. These were not one-time acts, but chronic patterns of behavior. And just like every vanquished Scooby-Doo villain, they probably would have gotten away with it if not for that meddling president.

The dirty secret about many types of white-collar crime is that they’re never prosecuted. In the top income brackets, it’s relatively easy to cheat on your taxes and, if you get caught, simply shrug, apologize, and write the IRS a check. The same is true of laws such as the Foreign Agents Registration Act. When Mueller indicted Manafort for violating the seldom-enforced statute, it triggered a panicked wave of new registrations, as people who’d been skirting the law rushed to avoid legal exposure.

If not for their involvement with Trump, and if not for his win in 2016, Cohen and Manafort might have never faced serious scrutiny, much less prison time. Each represented a sort of all-American success story. Cohen was just a kid from Long Island who, despite attending perhaps the nation’s worst law school, ended up as a millionaire (thanks to investments in real estate and the taxi business) and a close associate of the famed businessman Donald Trump. Manafort, the son of a small-town mayor, lived even more fabulously, raking in tens of millions of dollars as a lobbyist and jetting around the globe.

By the time he volunteered to work on Trump’s campaign, Manafort was broke and already under law-enforcement scrutiny, but associates thought his decision to go run a presidential campaign was a colossal blunder. Knowing how he often worked along the edges of what was legal, they figured helming a political campaign, and especially one as obsessively covered as Trump’s, was practically taunting the media and the feds to turn up dirt on him. In retrospect, those friends were right.

The public still doesn’t know exactly how Cohen got snared, but the investigation was apparently triggered when Mueller passed evidence to the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York. It’s likely that the things that attracted prosecutors’ attention were the two hush-money arrangements Cohen made with women who alleged sexual affairs with Trump. It’s unclear whether Cohen arranged other such payments on his boss’s behalf before entering politics, but that wouldn’t have violated any laws.

In that sense, the day Trump won the presidency was the worst day of their lives. The second-worst day was the day that Trump fired James Comey, eventually leading to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel. As Jack Goldsmith writes in The Weekly Standard, “Manafort and Cohen would likely be free today had the Russia investigation stayed within traditional Justice Department channels using traditional Justice Department resources. But once [Deputy Attorney General Rod] Rosenstein appointed Mueller, the grinding logic of a single-minded, heavily-resourced, subpoena-wielding independent prosecutor pursuing every avenue toward a determined end took over.”

Like Cohen and Manafort, who apparently expected to keep getting away with their tricks indefinitely, Trump seems perplexed that prosecutors are bothering to go after Manafort and Cohen for such piddling offenses as bank fraud and campaign-finance violations. Trump said he felt “very badly” for Manafort, dismissing the charges against him as old, which isn’t much of a rebuttal. The president was less complimentary of Cohen, deriding him as a bad lawyer and a weakling, yet he also added this:

The second part of this refers to a fine levied against the 2008 Obama campaign. Looking at these specific cases, the crucial differences are that the Obama campaign wasn’t accused of a conspiracy to violate the rules, and the candidate himself wasn’t accused of directing the conspiracy, as is the case with Trump and Cohen. More broadly, what Trump seems to mean is that campaign-finance violations are typically dealt with as a simple regulatory matter: If you make a mistake, you pay a fine and the matter is resolved.

Trump’s comments are indicative of his own m.o. before becoming president. As a businessman, he frequently bent or broke the rules and the law, confident—correctly—that he would be able to pay a fine, settle, and do whatever else it took to make something go away without ever having to go to trial or face criminal charges.

During the young Donald Trump’s first turn in the public eye, the Justice Department accused the Trump Organization of discriminating against black would-be tenants; the company settled, agreeing to make changes without admitting guilt.

In 1991, with impending debt payments threatening to send Trump belly-up, his father, Fred, walked into one of his casinos and bought $3.5 million in chips, the equivalent of an interest-free loan—and a violation of state gaming laws. The younger Trump kept his gambling license in exchange for a $30,000 fine.

When, in a bid to save costs, Trump employed unauthorized immigrants from Poland to work on the construction of Trump Tower, he settled the ensuing lawsuits for $1 million. Even more brazenly, when he got into trouble with the city of Palm Beach, Florida, for violating zoning rules, he agreed to make a donation to veterans in exchange for dismissing legal problems. Yet rather than make the charitable gift himself, he directed his foundation, mostly made of others’ money, to do it. In other cases, Trump hasn’t even had to ante up to evade trouble. He has often stiffed contractors and simply refused to pay, guessing correctly that they won’t, or can’t afford to, sue him.

For Trump, crime simply isn’t something that well-to-do men like himself, or Cohen, or Manafort do. It’s something that young men of color do. Businessmen can always find the right price to make trouble go away.

To see his former associates convicted of felonies, and the special counsel charging after him, must gall Trump, as though the earth has shifted under his feet and the rules have changed. Things that people used to be able to get away with are landing them in prison. But what has changed is not the rules, but Trump’s own position: Actions that might have escaped scrutiny for just another rich man in New York City draw much greater attention when they involve the president of the United States.

Time and again, Trump seems unable to grasp why it’s different being president. He riffs and improvises when speaking and on Twitter, the same tactics that made him a frequently entertaining guest on Howard Stern’s radio show, not recognizing that doing the same thing as part of delicate diplomatic negotiations can have catastrophic results. He blithely calls for the firing of various officials, and is saved from disaster only because his aides are savvier than Henry II’s and know to ignore him. He treats everything from legislative pushes to nuclear negotiations as real-estate deals, with predictably bad results.

Trump’s reaction to the Mueller probe and associated prosecutions follow the same logic. One interpretation of the president’s claim that Mueller is presiding over a “witch hunt” is that he’s being disingenuous and simply fighting dirty. But there’s another way to read it: Trump is genuinely shocked that anyone would really bother to prosecute the crimes and alleged crimes in question. If he ends up getting burned, like Manafort and Cohen have, he may come to rue the day he won the presidency as much as they must.