the national circus

Following the Money in Trumpland Leads Ugly Places

Michael Avenatti is doing what Woodward and Bernstein did: exposing the money trail.

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the meaning of Michael Avenatti’s disclosures, Trump’s decision to kill the Iran deal, and Rudy Giuliani’s media tour.

With Michael Avenatti’s revelation that the shell company Michael Cohen used for the Stormy Daniels payoff also received money tied to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg (as well as payments from other companies with government business), it looks like the two main threads of Donald Trump’s legal troubles may be part of the same story. Has Avenatti found the “collusion” that Trump has spent so much energy denying?

Avenatti, whose revelations have since been verified by the Times and others, is doing exactly what Woodward and Bernstein did in Watergate — following the money. By doing so he has unveiled an example of collusion so flagrant that it made Trump and Rudy Giuliani suddenly go mute: a Putin crony’s cash turns out to be an essential component of the racketeering scheme used to silence Stormy Daniels and thus clear Trump’s path to the White House in the final stretch of the 2016 election. Like the Nixon campaign slush fund that Woodward and Bernstein uncovered, this money trail also implicates corporate players hoping to curry favor with a corrupt president. Back then it was the telecommunications giant ITT, then fending off antitrust suits from the government, that got caught red-handed; this time it’s AT&T. Both the Nixon and Trump slush funds were initially set up to illegally manipulate an American presidential election, hush money included. But the Watergate burglars’ dirty tricks, criminal as they were, were homegrown. Even Nixon would have drawn the line at colluding with Russians — or, in those days, the Soviets — to sabotage the Democrats.

I know some accuse Avenatti of being a media whore, but he’s the one media whore I can’t get enough of. He knows what he’s doing, he has the goods, and he is playing high-stakes poker, shrewdly, with what appears to be a winning hand. It is also entertaining to imagine how crazy he is driving Trump. In personality and presence he’s exactly the kind of take-no-prisoners television defender that Trump would want appearing with Sean Hannity in his defense. That was the point of the Mooch. That is the point of Rudy. Apparently that was even once the point of Michael Cohen. If Avenatti, as others have noted, is Billy Flynn from the musical Chicago, then Trump is left with Larry, Curly, and Moe.

Donald Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. from the Iran deal has drawn condemnation from European alliesBarack Obama, and scores of other experts. Will Trump face any political penalty for his choice?

Honestly, I doubt Trump will still be in office when the full fallout of this blunder is felt. The blunder, one should add, is not only to pull out of a deal that was working but also to have no “better deal” (or policy at all) to take its place. But the interesting political piece about both this decision and the onrushing summit with Kim Jong-un is that Trump has persuaded himself that big bold foreign policy moves, however harmful to America and its allies, will rescue him from the rampaging scandal at home. This, again, has a Watergate echo: As the revelations of White House horrors piled up during the midterm election season of 1974, Nixon decided to travel to Moscow, ostensibly a diplomatic mission in the cause of détente. This stunt didn’t stave off the wolves closing in on him in Washington, and the current regurgitation of this tactic won’t save Trump either.

At least Nixon had foreign-policy expertise. He wouldn’t have given away the store to the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. By contrast, there’s every reason to fear that Trump’s ignorant foray into Korea will make Neville Chamberlain’s performance at Munich look Churchillian. Kim is not an idiot; he will keep playing the American president for all he can, knowing that Trump needs a “win” abroad to counterbalance all his losses at home. And Trump’s desperation to make a “deal” with North Korea for his own personal political salvation gets visibly greater with every Michael Avenatti television appearance. Witness the president’s decision to turn up at Andrews Air Force Base at 2 a.m. tomorrow to personally greet the three American detainees that North Korea released today. That Trump thinks this photo op will be effective counterprogramming to Stormy Daniels suggests he’s now lost one talent he unassailably did possess, an intuitive knack for show business.

Even in non-corrupt modern presidencies, there’s little evidence that foreign-policy achievements sway voters. (Foreign-policy debacles — wars that devolve into quagmires, for instance — do move voters, but not in a good way.) In Trump’s case, his America First base could not care less if he wins one of those suspect foreign Nobel Prizes as meaningless as the one awarded Obama. The majority of Americans who are not in Trump’s base won’t care either. Meanwhile, nuclear proliferation and possibly war hang in the balance.

After subjecting the country to a week of the Rudy Giuliani media tour, Donald Trump is now considering sidelining the lawyer. Has Giuliani done more damage to his own reputation or to Trump’s defense?

Both Trump’s legal strategy (if there is one) and Rudy’s reputation were in tatters well before this frequently hilarious and wholly unhinged media tour. It’s an indicator of how much the Trump defense is in disarray that the White House thought it was a good idea to send Giuliani to last weekend’s Sunday shows even after nearly a full week of screwups. And the debacle just keeps rolling along: Just hours before Avenatti posted his bombshell yesterday, Rudy was firmly declaring that Michael Cohen “possesses no incriminating information about the president.”

There’s clearly not just a screw loose in Giuliani but a missing link in his story with Trump. Rudy was a fierce Trump defender during the campaign and lobbied vociferously for a Cabinet position during the transition. Twice he was considered for both secretary of State and secretary of Homeland Security, and twice he was rejected. What does that say about him when you consider that those who did make the cut to top Trump administration jobs included Michael Flynn, Ben Carson, Tom Price, Scott Pruitt, Betsy DeVos, and Ryan Zinke? What does Giuliani have for — or on — Trump that brought him into the fold now? Inquiring minds would like to know.

In any case, Trumpism has bequeathed America not merely a post-fact but post-rule-of-law culture. Rudy, like his boss, claims nonexistent extralegal privileges for presidents, dismisses FBI agents as “stormtroopers,” and endorses “rumor” as a legal strategy. I’d say his record for mad-dog lunacy is perfect were it not for the moment when he told Hannity that Jared Kushner is “disposable” — a judgment that no doubt reflects the view of Kushner’s father-in-law and is surely correct. That is our national Godfather replay at its best.

Following the Money in Trumpland Leads Ugly Places