There’s a reason why President Donald Trump increasingly sounds like the mob boss in a cliche-ridden gangster film: That’s basically what he is — and he must know how such movies usually end.
On Wednesday morning — a day after his former campaign chairman was convicted of felonies in one federal courthouse and his longtime lawyer pleaded guilty to felonies in another -- Trump issued this statement on Twitter:
“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. ‘Justice’ took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to ‘break’ — make up stories in order to get a ‘deal.’ Such respect for a brave man!”
A few days earlier, Trump had referred to John Dean, the White House counsel whose truth-telling was instrumental in Richard Nixon’s downfall, as a “RAT.” And in a Fox News interview broadcast Thursday, he complained at length about defendants who “flip” and inform on higher-ups in exchange for leniency at sentencing: “This whole thing about flipping, they call it, I know all about flipping. For 30, 40 years I have been watching flippers. Everything’s wonderful and then they get 10 years in jail and they flip on whoever the next highest one is or as high as you can go. It almost ought to be outlawed.”
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Those are not the words of some two-bit hoodlum who feels the law closing in. They are the words of the president of the United States — who apparently feels the law closing in.
Trump speaks as if the Trump Organization, the Trump campaign and the Trump administration were one long continuing criminal enterprise. The man charged with faithfully executing the nation’s laws paints his own Justice Department as a villain and celebrates criminals who stoically go to prison rather than inform on higher-ups. Nixon talked that way in private, among friends and co-conspirators; Trump just blurts it out. He makes no bones about valuing loyalty over respect for the law.
Manafort, who might have much to tell about contacts between the campaign and the Russians, has been silent thus far. But he was convicted in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, on eight counts of bank and tax fraud, and could receive what amounts to a life sentence for a 69-year-old man. Now he faces another trial, this time in federal court in Washington, on conspiracy and other charges stemming from the influence-peddling work he did for Russia-backed politicians in Ukraine.
The second trial could produce even more jail time — and definitely will generate another crushing pile of legal bills for a man whose finances were shown to be in tatters. After Tuesday’s verdict was read in Alexandria, a statement from Manafort’s defense team said nothing about possible appeals or the looming court proceedings. Instead, it said Manafort was examining his options.
Perhaps that is why Trump is going so far out of his way to praise Manafort’s virtue — and why, when asked if he will grant Manafort a pardon, the president never says a discouraging word.
Cohen, on the other hand, used the occasion of his guilty plea in federal court in Manhattan to directly implicate Trump in two felony crimes. He said Trump directed him to arrange six-figure payments, in the days leading up to the election, to guarantee the silence of Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels — two women who say they had extramarital liaisons with Trump.
Cohen has offered full cooperation to authorities, including special counsel Robert Mueller, and Cohen’s attorney has strongly suggested his client might have evidence bearing on the question of collusion. Perhaps that is why Trump was up at 1 a.m. Thursday, angrily tweeting: “NO COLLUSION -- RIGGED WITCH HUNT!”
Look at the people Trump surrounds himself with. So far, four men with high-level roles in his campaign and one with a more junior role have pleaded or been found guilty of federal crimes.
Look at the people who are drawn to him. The first sitting member of Congress to endorse his candidacy, Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., was indicted earlier this month on charges of insider trading. The second sitting member to endorse Trump, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., was indicted Tuesday on charges of illegally using more than $250,000 in campaign funds to underwrite his lavish personal lifestyle.
Responding to criticism from Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared Thursday that the Justice Department “will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.” He must understand by now that Trump doesn’t care about justice. The president wants only protection.
Reach Eugene Robinson at email@example.com.