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 		 [ What the Michael Cohen story tells us about Trumpian corruption]
[https://portside.org/] 

 THE SWAMP THICKENS  
[https://portside.org/2018-05-15/swamp-thickens] 

 

 Chris Lehmann 
 May 14, 2018
The Baffler
[https://thebaffler.com/blessed-and-brightest/the-swamp-thickens-lehmann]


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 _ What the Michael Cohen story tells us about Trumpian corruption _ 

 President Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen leaves the U.S.
Courthouse in New York on April 26., Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images 

 

One image of our debauched age that probably deserves the overused
descriptor “iconic” is the now-ubiquitous photo of Donald
Trump’s disgraced-and-subpoenaed personal attorney Michael Cohen,
evidently caught in the midst of some high-stakes cellphone consult,
staring into the camera with a deer-in-the-headlights gaze. If the
photo had gone out on the wires with an interpretive thought balloon
attached, it would have read simply “Ohhhhhhh shit.”

In Resistance circles, the Cohen photo is taken to be prophetic, a
sign of the great reckoning to come when special counsel Robert
Mueller submits an airtight array of collusion and criminal conspiracy
charges arising from his probe into Russian meddling in the 2016
presidential election. The clear expectation is that every Trump
loyalist and White House lackey, from Cohen and George Papadopoulos on
up to Jeff Sessions, Mike Pence, and the Dealmaker-in-Chief himself,
will be sporting his own variant of the Cohen thousand-yard-stare as
they’re picturing themselves in prison stripes.

However, Michael Cohen isn’t exactly the zeitgeist on horseback, and
history in any event rarely supplies such clean resolutions to global
scandals and federal legal proceedings. No, what Cohen is more likely
experiencing in that revealingly candid moment is less the abrupt
self-awareness of a guilty perp caught red-handed than the infinitely
more desperate and shabby hyperventilations of a cornered David Mamet
grifter, suddenly face-to-face with the realization that his pet
hustle has been exposed and his kickbacks and bonus fees are drying
up.

Indeed, since the Cohen phase of the Mueller probe has kicked in,
we’ve gotten a bracing crash course in the petty, venal,
rent-seeking model of Trumpian enterprise. Yes, it turned out, once
Cohen’s financial data leaked to the press, that the nimble legal
fixer who arranged the now-infamous $130,000 hush-money payout to
Stormy Daniels had shady ties to at least one Russian oligarch. But
the bulk of the backsheesh collected by his laughably named
influence-peddling firm, Essential Consultants, came from giant
American corporations courting favor and face time with our great lord
of backsheesh in the Oval Office.

Which is to say that Michael Cohen, now a designated Saturday Night
Live punchline, is squarely in the mainstream of American capitalism,
as practiced in all its unabashed oligarchic glory in our brave new
millennium. Essential Consultants bilked pharmaceutical giant Novartis
for a cool $100,000 per month on the wifty promise that Cohen would
furnish critical intel about the drift of health care policy in the
Trump White House. And even when such intel would self-evidently
amount to “it’s all going to be gradually re-privatized,”
Novartis executives nevertheless concluded that there would be nothing
of value to be gleaned in the Cohen deal—but since they signed the
stupid contract and couldn’t afford to be seen as alienating the
president’s inner circle of cronies (or, as a company statement put
it, the one-year contract “could not be terminated at will”), they
paid the full $1.2 million fee anyway.

Meanwhile, blue-chip telecom AT&T shelled out $600,000 to have Cohen
coo agreeable things about the firm’s pending merger with Time
Warner into the ear of any Justice Department official he came
across—er, excuse me, make that “to provide insights” and
“advise on policy matters.” AT&T CEO Randall L. Stephenson has
nonetheless pronounced the Cohen contract as a “big mistake” while
also announcing the impeccably well-timed retirement of the
company’s longtime head of lobbying
[https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/11/technology/att-cohen-trump-time-warner.html?emc=edit_na_20180511&nl=breaking-news&nlid=59619384ing-news&ref=cta].

But here’s the thing: these deals appear toxic only because of
Cohen’s ties to the Daniels case and a kindred $1.6 million payout
he arranged to the reported mistress of GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy
(and it should never be forgotten, as the Cohen sleaze deepens
majestically before our eyes, that both Broidy and the president’s
favorite bagman were also serving together on the Republican National
Committee’s finance committee). In point of fact, the systemic
shaking down of big-money corporate clients for dubious services
rendered is the preeminent business model for Washington’s entire
gilded lobbying class—all the more so since the Supreme Court’s
disastrous 2010 ruling in _Citizens United v. Federal Election
Commission_ turned K Street, the Capitol, and virtually every
political action committee in business into a veritable wind tunnel of
kickback cash.

And in plying his own tabloid-friendly brand of this rent-seeking
shakedown, Cohen is only following in the footsteps of his
client-idol. After surviving six bankruptcies
[https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2016/live-updates/general-election/real-time-fact-checking-and-analysis-of-the-first-presidential-debate/fact-check-has-trump-declared-bankruptcy-four-or-six-times/?utm_term=.6ac30fcc292c]
via the good grace of government subventions, the Trump business
empire principally monetizes itself these days as a brand—like
Essential Consultants, it sells a whiff of the putative charisma of
the Trump success model for a handsome fee. This was clearly the
entire M.O. of the fraudulent Trump University grift, as well as the
fee-seeking model for the luxe Trump hospitality and real estate
operations. To get an edifying close-up view of how the Trump
Organization’s branding combine steamrolls the basic civic norms of
its global host countries—while creating gigantic conflicts of
interest and ethical morasses for the Trump presidency—see Anjali
Kamat’s eye-opening _New Republic_ report
[https://newrepublic.com/article/147351/political-corruption-art-deal]
on the Trump real-estate entanglements in India.

Nor are the alleged high-minded and stubbornly monogamous reaches of
the Trump White House any different. The_ Daily Beast_’s Lachlan
Markay reports, in his Pay Dirt newsletter
[http://elink.thedailybeast.com/view/4e5562f5e018bee76c34c1607u9yj.66t/23ad8994],
that Mike Pence’s former congressional and gubernatorial chief of
staff Bill Smith clambered aboard the lobbying gravy train in 2014, by
founding a boutique influence-peddling shop called Sextons Creek. This
high-fee concern hoovered up a cozy $250,000 from Pence’s
gubernatorial campaign from 2014 to 2016, and when its spiritual
paterfamilias ascended to the vice presidency, the big money started
rolling in with a vengeance: on a single day in January 2017, Markay
reports, Sextons Creek signed on five major corporate clients:
“Verizon, AT&T, Microsoft, AFLAC, and General Dynamics (for the
latter four, Sextons Creek was brought on in partnership with another
firm, Fidelis Government Relations)”—which also, as it happens,
has Bill Smith listed on its lobbying team
[https://littlesis.org/org/19548/Fidelis_Government_Relations]; small
world, huh?

The Sextons Creek shop has achieved a unique sort of Beltway
efficiency in its niche market: charging clients almost exclusively
for access to Pence. In other words, this is a more respectably
Midwestern version of the shakedown schemes assembled under Cohen’s
Essential Consultants shingle—mainly distinguished by the absence of
payoffs to porn stars and Playboy models:

The firm now lobbies on behalf of 14 companies on issues ranging from
energy policy to immigration to tax reform to international human
rights. Despite that wide breadth of policy work, for all but one of
its clients, Sextons Creek has lobbied just one office in the federal
government: that of the vice president. In addition to its principal,
the firm employs Pence’s former top health-policy aide, the former
Pence-nominated chair of the Indiana GOP, and a host of former Indiana
legislators and state government officials.

The firm’s entire lobbying practice revolves around its access to
and ability to influence the vice president. For its lobbying work
since Trump took office—which, again, has consisted almost entirely
of advocacy aimed at the VP’s office—Sextons Creek has brought in
about $1.2 million.

Indeed, one might reasonably expect the lobbyists there to follow the
feudal logic of D.C.’s rent-seeking sector to its logical extreme
and don flouncy livery in Hoosier state colors, tendering payoffs on
cushions as they bow their heads reverently before their lord. The
gruesome ironies here extend well beyond the Trump campaign’s
transparently insincere pledge to “drain the swamp” in D.C. of
unseemly backroom favor-trading and graft. What’s truly mind-bending
about the entire Trumpian gospel of the shakedown as it’s now
settled into the greater Washington rentier hustle
[https://thebaffler.com/salvos/dilemmas-of-the-rentier-class] is how
defiantly it parodies Trump’s many promises to bring the good old
manufacturing order into the center of American enterprise. Because
none of these gilded scams produce anything at all—other than payoff
after payoff from their unfortunate contract partners. 

Compared to the Sextons Creeks and Essential Consultant shops that
make up the real conservative Dark Web of Recursive Grifting, Michael
Cohen’s second-most infamous client, multimillionaire slumlord Sean
Hannity, is a strictly two-bit hustler
[https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/at-hannitys-properties-in-low-income-areas-an-aggressive-approach-to-rent-collection/2018/05/10/964be4a2-4eea-11e8-84a0-458a1aa9ac0a_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.589f34d0c8ca],
shaking down his working-class tenants for three-figure late-payment
penalties, and attempting to evict them for failing to pay for their
own bedbug extermination contracts. Fortunately, though, the Trump
White House’s unofficial chief of staff
[https://thebaffler.com/latest/the-unofficial-chief-of-staff] can
still enviably position himself to scale up and cash in—a couple of
quick checks to Essential Consultants or Sextons Creek, and he could
be headed for Mumbai, baby! Or better yet, why not eliminate the
middleman and set up his own K Street LLC? It’s not like Sean
Hannity, of all people, needs to pay for access to the Trump White
House. (What’s more, it’s not as though the man’s an actual
journalist
[https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2018/04/19/sean-hannity-cannot-tweet-his-way-out-of-journalistic-corruption/?utm_term=.93b9ec18fb11].)
Fair and Balanced Consulting at your patriotic service, grateful
Americans!

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of _The Baffler_ and author of _Rich
People Things_ [http://shop.harvard.com/book/9781608461523]. His
latest book, _The Money Cult_
[http://www.mhpbooks.com/books/the-money-cult/], is out now from
Melville House.

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