The guilty have a head start, and retribution is always slow of foot, but it catches up.
—Horace, Odes, Book III, Ode 2
In what was already the worst week of his presidency, Donald Trump suffered another setback that could make a real difference to his future. On Friday, we learned that Trump’s long-time accountant and personal trustee, Allen Weisselberg, was granted immunity from prosecution in return for his testimony in the investigation of the Trump organization’s involvement in payoffs to Karen McDougall and Stormy Daniels to acquire their silence just prior to the 2016 election.
A Very Bad Week Indeed
From any rational perspective, the other events in Trump’s week were already devastating:
- Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was convicted on eight felonies related to various financial frauds.
- On the same day, Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to to eight felonies, including two crimes involving election-fraud payoffs.
- Cohen stated under oath that the payments were “for the principal purpose of influencing the election” and were “made under the direction of Donald Trump.” Trump was thus implicated as an apparent unindicted co-conspirator in two admitted crimes.
- Trump said in an interview that the expenditures didn’t come from his campaign, thereby inadvertently admitting his involvement in the crimes.
- Trump said he only learned of the payments “later” when there is a already a publicly available recording of him discussing with Cohen one of the payments prior to the election.
- Trump in an interview questioned the rule of law by suggesting that prosecution should not be allowed to grant immunity or lesser sentences to those who testify against their boss.
- It emerged that immunity has also been granted to David Pecker, the head of A.M.I, the publisher of the tabloid National Enquirer, who in mid-2016 worked with Trump and Cohen to kill the story by Karen McDougal.
- Congressman Duncan Hunter, a Republican, was indicted with his wife Tuesday on charges of using $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses.
Setbacks For Trump Generate More Support
While Democratic commentators were in a state of elation and reaching for impeachment, the events were shrugged off by Trump’s base as irrelevant. Trump’s base have invested heavily in the fiction of Trump as the heroic leader who is fighting for their interests and who is being wrongly attacked by his enemies. The more Trump suffers setbacks or critiques, the more the base feel they need to support him. The resoluteness of the base’s support for Trump makes Ronald Reagan’s Teflon look like stickum.
The base think of Trump as “their guy.” If Trump goes down, so do they. So Trump can say whatever he wants, whenever he wants, wherever he wants and seemingly get away with it.
- Manafort, whom he has known for over a decade, was his campaign manager ‘for only a brief time” and he is “a good man.”
- Cohen, whom Trump trusted as his lawyer and fixer for a decade, is “an admitted liar and not to be trusted.”
- The crimes Cohen confessed to “aren’t really crimes.”
- It’s “ought to be unlawful” that prosecutors can reduce the sentence of anyone snitching on their boss.
- “What you see is not what is happening.”
- “The truth is not the truth.”
In his cause, Trump is aided and abetted by Fox News, which gave more airtime to a single homicide in Iowa than any of Trump’s stumbles. The victim, Mollie Tibbetts, was a white Christian. Her alleged killer is a Mexican illegal immigrant. The thing speaks for itself. “Support Trump!” “Build the wall!”
Trump even welcomes talk of his own impeachment as a tool to rally his base. Democrats can see that even if the House were to impeach him, the Senate is unlikely to convict Trump, unless the political climate is radically different from today. They also know that a failed attempt by Republicans to remove President Bill Clinton from office in 1998 resulted in enhancing his popularity.
As novelist and former spy, John Le Carré, pointed out last year to Terry Gross on NPR, even if the alleged Golden Shower video were to be made public, it would have no effect. “I think it’s perfectly possible that Trump was taken into what I call a honey trap – that he had ladies found for him, and he misbehaved in Russia…. if that film was shown tomorrow worldwide, Trump would get away with it. People would say, well, boys will be boys. Or they would say the different parts of the body in the video don’t add up; this is all fake stuff. And 35 experts would testify to that – so [they] wouldn’t get any distance on that.”
Trump’s Achilles Heel: Money
But money is more stubborn. As Paula Duncan, one of the Trump-supporting jurors in the Manafort case explained after that trial, “I did not want Paul Manafort to be guilty, but he was; the evidence was overwhelming and no one’s above the law. So it was our obligation to look through all the evidence.”
Compared to complicated conspiracy theories and arcane election fraud, it’s hard to argue with plain financial facts. The difference between money coming in and money going out is income; income is money on which tax has to be paid. Even die-hard Trump fans can understand that.
To date, it’s been difficult to uncover the financial facts about Trump. His companies are not public and they file no public financial data. Trump has refused to release his tax returns and requires non-disclosure agreements from anyone who works for him, including employees in the White House.
Yet, as Le Carré explains, there is “an extraordinary number of Russians or Eastern Europeans with criminal records who frequent Trump’s company… That’s a deep and persistent theme in Trump’s business affairs. It’s gone on for a long, long time. It relates, also, to a great extent to property held in the United States…. And it relates, also, to Mr. Trump’s family.”
“So I think the kompromat, if it’s taken place, has taken place very largely through Trump’s own endeavors to raise money in all sorts of dark places. And together, all those efforts amount to a self-compromising activity, which the Russians have embraced. I think they have him by the short hairs.”
Weisselberg Is The Biggest Fish Of All
The grant of immunity to Weisselberg offers the prospect—for the first time—of shedding light on Trump’s money. For decades, Weisselberg as CFO has tracked the money that came into the Trump organization and the money that went out of it. He knows who paid or lent money to Trump, and he knows to whom Trump was giving money. When Trump became President, he placed his business interests in a revocable trust overseen by his son Donald Trump, Jr., and Weisselberg.
The grant of immunity to Weisselberg offers an entry point for prosecutors to investigate the Trump organization’s general business practices and his personal finances. “The Wall Street Journal story and other news coverage” writes Adam Davidson in The New Yorker, “suggest that Weisselberg has narrow immunity, related, solely, to the payments that Michael Cohen made to silence two women with whom Trump had affairs. With evidence of that crime in hand, prosecutors can subpoena other records from the company. If they have a reasonable basis to believe another crime has been committed, they can ask Weisselberg about it. Weisselberg, fearing jail time himself, could broaden his coöperation.”
“In the end,” says Le Carré, “some of this has got to come home to roost. And I think there might be a point … when somebody goes to Trump and says, ‘Your family is so deeply involved in this that you have a choice—you either fade away or we disrupt the house of Trump in ways that would be very painful to you.’”
What will be the outcome? Le Carré refers to the odes of Horace, the ancient Roman lyric poet: “The guilty have a head start, and retribution is always slow of foot, but it catches up.”
Disclosure: The author is registered as an independent.
And read also: