Views My Own

The Worst Conservative Defense of Cohen and Manafort

Pro-Trump figures argue that the two men's crimes are common among the rich and powerful. So why not send more of the rich and powerful to prison?
August 22, 2018, 8:20pm
Photo of Paul Manafort by Alexandria Sheriff's Office via Getty; photo of Michael Cohen by Yana Paskova/Getty

In the wake of two of Donald Trump's close associates being convicted of serious financial crimes on the same day, the president's habitual defenders did what they could to find the pro-Trump lining in the clouds lowering over the White House. One fallback position was that these crimes had nothing to do with Russia, the original target of Robert Mueller's investigation, but even to the casual listener that excuse ( The president's aides committed crimes but not the crimes that the Fake News Resistance Media said would be found!) seems weak. The second, and far more pernicious narrative, is that the sort of bad behavior Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen will likely serve prison time for happens all the time.

That was the line from Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law professor who has become a Trump apologist on cable news: "Candidates violate election laws all the time," he said on MSNBC. That was also the line from Fox News host and actual Trump confidant Sean Hannity, who argued on his show that Democrats committed similar crimes and that Mueller's targeting of Trump associates proves that there's a pattern of "political, selective, persecution and not prosecution." And at the pro-Trump Federalist, Mollie Hemingway made a more coherent version of this argument when she wrote, "It’s not that Cohen and Manafort aren’t shady people. They are. It’s that the American public can see that Washington D.C. is teeming with shady people and those with the right connections get off scot-free."

Assuming that the people making this point actually believe what they're saying, it represents a cynical, scathing indictment of American politics. But I doubt they believe themselves, because if they did they would be calling for Trump's head.

It's obvious to anyone with an internet connection that the rich and powerful are able to abuse their status without suffering consequences. In his opening monologue on Tuesday night, Hannity mentioned former banker Tim Geithner, whose failure to pay old taxes scuttled his nomination to Barack Obama's cabinet; former Congressman Charlie Rangel, who was found by an ethics investigation to have lied about his income among other lapses; and the Obama campaign itsself, which was fined $375,000 for not reporting donations in a timely manner. But the Fox host could have mentioned lots of other Democrats who have been accused of shady behavior. There's Sheldon Silver, the New York State power broker whose 2015 corruption conviction was overturned because the Supreme Court has made it extremely hard for prosecutors to get political corruption charges to stick. Or there's Bob Menendez, the New Jersey senator who was accused of taking bribes but whose trial ended with a deadlocked jury. (Earlier this year, the Department of Justice decided not to retry Menendez.)

On the other side of the aisle there's Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, who just got indicted for allegedly spending campaign money on video games and golf trips; former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who traded stocks of companies that would be affected by legislation he was writing; and Congressman Chris Collins, who was charged with insider trading this week. Beyond those individual cases, white collar and corruption prosecutions have become more and more rare, budget cuts to the IRS have limited its ability to go after tax cheats, and 1 percenters routinely hide their wealth in shell companies.


If the problem as Hannity and other conservatives see it is that corruption in Washington is rampant, their solution shouldn't be to condemn the Mueller investigation but to call for a thousand Muellers to bloom. After all, their boy Trump rode to power on a promise of draining the swamp of exactly the type of corruption Mueller's investigation is uncovering. They should encourage more such investigations aimed at bringing down the scum who make a living trading favors and lie about their income to dodge taxes. But that would require breaking from the Trump administration, which is obviously unwilling to police Wall Street in any meaningful way and whose officials are casually corrupt in ways both large and small.

If campaigns commit election law violations they should be prosecuted, regardless of party. So too should tax cheats, and embezzlers, and anyone who uses a public office to privately cash in. If that means a bunch of DC and Wall Street operators get sent to prison, well, so what? Those should be simple, uncontroversial demands—and they're demands Trump himself instinctively understood, as evidenced by his swamp-draining refrain.

But Trump isn't following through, and Trumpists are now crying "witch hunt" because Robert Mueller is actually going after corruption. It's hypocrisy, but it's also laziness. Manafort and Cohen may actually not be all that exceptional in terms of greed and disregard for the law, but that only makes a real anti-corruption crusade all the more important. If I can suggest a place to start: Let's take a look at Trump's tax returns.

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