Michael Cohen got wise to Trump. Will the rest of the United States?

Sad journey of president’s former lawyer and fixer is an extreme version of his country’s

Michael Cohen put his chips on, and faith in, someone who didn't deserve it. He was dazzled. He was entertained. He wanted a patron. He needed a guide. So he disregarded all the warning signs, ignored all the bad stuff. It was so much easier to believe.

At one point or another haven't many of us done that? Didn't Americans do that when they turned to Donald Trump in the presidential campaign of 2016? "I followed a bad path," Cohen told George Stephanopoulos in an interview on ABC News's Good Morning America on Friday. Stephanopoulos asked him what the Cohen of today would say to the Cohen who was under Trump's command and spell. Cohen's answer: "What were you thinking? You knew better. You know better."

I've been fascinated by Cohen for a while, but until this past week that fascination sprang from what a shady character he was and how perfectly he mirrored Trump's ethical rot. No president in my lifetime has been surrounded by such a populous crowd of scammers, grifters and shameless opportunists, and Cohen was exhibit A, doling out hush money, threatening disobedient reporters, and bellowing and swaggering through a world lit by neon and shimmering with gilt.

Cohen told the judge that he had lost his moral compass. The many Republicans who continue to stand by Trump have lost their moral compasses, too

But over recent days I have begun to see Cohen, who spent more than a decade as Trump's lawyer, fixer and mess cleaner, differently. He's a lesson for us all. A cautionary tale. He's American credulousness in extremis, its ugly bargains writ large. Trump's hold on him was that of "a famous real estate mogul whose business acumen I truly admired", he said in court last Wednesday, as he was sentenced to three years in prison for campaign-finance violations and tax and bank fraud. That was a big part of Trump's hold on many voters. Cohen told the judge that he had lost his moral compass. The many Republicans who continue to stand by Trump have lost their moral compasses, too.


There should be parameters for tribalism and a limit to loyalty, as Cohen says he now understands. Trump is on the far side of that limit. Only a small minority of people would do quite what he did and break laws for the boss or benefactor to whom they’d hitched themselves. Cohen’s compass was unusually faulty from the get-go, and the short cut that he sought to the glamorous life – or at least what the glamorous life looks like to someone with a style and sensibility like Trump’s – wasn’t one that most people would travel.

But what Trump represented to the United States was what he offered Cohen: a comet ride, with all the blinding light and burning heat that go along with that. And what he required of the US was what he required of Cohen. We had to bury values that should never be buried.

In our case that meant condoning Trump’s racism, indulging his corrosive conspiracy theories and self-preserving lies, permitting his demonisation of institutions and people and whole countries, interpreting cruelty as candour and provocation as strength. Too many of us assented. In front of the judge on Wednesday, Cohen said, “I was weak for not having the strength to question and to refuse his demands.” He wondered aloud what had happened to his “own inner voice”, which, he said, “should have warned me”.

One of his comments to Stephanopoulos perhaps explains that. “There was a lot of fun going on at the Trump Organisation,” he said. Sleek skyscrapers. Ornate casinos. Private jets. The Miss Universe pageant. How it glittered, distracted and lulled, so that a henchman could forget the terms and price of it.

Cohen said that in retrospect it was its own kind of incarceration, because it removed him from more important things: his family, his conscience, the respect that he owed his country. Maybe his words are simply strategic – a bid for sympathy, lenience and redemption – and maybe he has swapped one set of self-aggrandising delusions for another. He told Stephanopoulos that by accepting blame for his wrongdoing, and co-operating with prosecutors, he hoped that he would be “remembered in history as helping to bring this country back together”. We’ll need a lot more than Cohen’s penitence for that.

For every leader there are at least 10 followers ready to trade the burden and bedlam of independent thought for a playbook that tells them exactly what to do. Some of them find it in religion, others in business, still others in politics. And con men like Trump can spot them a mile away. Trump looked at Cohen and correctly saw someone who wasn’t going to be in the fast lane unless hitched to him, and he sensed Cohen knew it.

Every American wades through Trump's wreckage of norms, is unsteadied by his assault on truth, and braces for whatever happens next

Trump looked at the United States and correctly saw an anxious, uncertain populace that was ripe for facile answers, scapegoats and a narrative of unjust victimisation. So he pounced. And here we are, in an even more uncertain place, with a sentence yet to be handed down.

In the Atlantic in early August, Peter Beinart, discussing Cohen, noted, "It's not just the president's longtime lawyer who's stuck cleaning up his messes anymore." "Trump, by becoming president, turned a great many federal employees into the functional equivalent of Michael Cohen," Beinart wrote, explaining that they were hostage to Trump's "reckless, selfish, sordid, irresponsible" actions and on the hook for minimising the damage. "Sometimes," he added, "Trump's messes are so large that vast numbers of federal employees are drafted into the Cohen role."

He meant the workers at the US department of agriculture after Trump went tariff-mad and the workers at the US department of health and human services after the “zero tolerance” policy that separated undocumented immigrant children from their parents. I’d go further. Americans well beyond those unfortunate enough to work in the Trump administration are also being drafted. Every one of us wades through his wreckage of norms, is unsteadied by his assault on truth, braces for whatever happens next and knows that it may have much greater and longer consequence for us than it does for Trump.

And the drafting began before he became president. It was years in the making. Americans erred in laying ourselves open to Trump, and I’m not talking about conservative versus liberal policies, about tax cuts, about regulations – although all of those matter. I’m talking about the green light that we’ve given to indecency, dishonesty, cheating and, according to a growing body of evidence, outright criminality. The bill came due for Cohen. It will come due for the country, too. – New York Times