I am neither the first nor the only person to compare the Trump administration to a soap opera. The resemblance screams at you practically each day. The soap opera elements would be enjoyable as sheer entertainment if the other aspects did not have such serious consequences. But this week comes another comedic turn when a relatively minor character suddenly becomes a major player.
I have not been following too closely the sage involving Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s lawyer. What little I saw of him during the election campaign and after suggested someone who was not very bright who was tasked with carrying out relatively unimportant tasks and being a secondary spokesperson, the latter job being something he did not do very well. But he suddenly became prominent when it was revealed that he had paid $130,000 to Stephanie Clifford (whose professional name in the adult film industry is Stormy Daniels) to keep her sexual relationship with Trump a secret. He claimed, somewhat implausibly, that he had paid the money out of his own funds as an act of friendship for Trump who knew nothing about it, and that this was common practice with lawyers who had close relationships with wealthy clients.
Things took a dramatic turn when Cohen’s offices were raided by FBI agents last week and his documents and electronic records seized. This was done under a warrant issued by a judge at the request of a US Attorney in New York City after receiving a referral from Robert Mueller’s team that is investigating Donald Trump. Such referrals to another prosecutor are done when the original prosecutor, in the course of an investigation, comes across information that is possibly criminal but is not directly related to the case at hand.
What all this means and what it all implies is anybody’s guess and I am not even going to try to speculate, leaving that to others. But in typical soap opera style, there were two surprise plot twists yesterday during legal hearings over the seized Cohen material. The first was that Cohen has apparently only three clients. One we know is Trump. Another was revealed this week to be Elliot Broidy, a wealthy venture capitalist who was deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee, who used Cohen to pay his mistress $1.6 million to buy her silence after she got pregnant and got an abortion. He has since resigned his position from the RNC because being anti-abortion is one of the strongest pillars of the Republican agenda.
Cohen’s lawyers said that they wanted to keep the third client a secret but the judge said they had to reveal it and it turns out to be – wait for it – Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity, who has been a vociferous supporter of Trump and critic of Mueller. What Cohen did for Hannity has not been revealed but it is only a matter of time before that also comes out into the open.
Hannity said that he never retained Cohen as a lawyer and just chatted with him from time to time to pick his brains on legal questions. He never received an invoice from Cohen and never paid him anything (though he says he might have given him ‘ten bucks’ on occasion, a strange comment in itself, suggesting that he treated Cohen like a doorman at a fancy apartment building) and whatever they talked about did not involve any ‘third party’, i.e., he did not pay anyone any hush money like Cohen’s other two clients. But Hannity had also apparently insisted that his conversations with Cohen were covered by attorney-client privilege, which is odd if you are having general abstract discussions about legal matters. I have discussions with lawyer friends of mine all the time about general legal matters and it never occurs to me to think that they are covered by attorney-client privilege or to request that it be kept so.
Hannity had also expressly asked Cohen’s lawyer not to reveal his name as Cohen’s client and that Cohen’s lawyer should appeal the ruling if the judge demanded that he do so, a level of determination that is odd if the conversations were as innocuous as he described. Apparently there were gasps of surprise and laughter in the courtroom at the revelation of Hannity’s name, with some reporters rushing out to spread the news.
But my biggest surprise was that Cohen has only three clients. They must each be paying him a helluva lot since his Wikipedia page says that Cohen has a lavish lifestyle. But one of them (Hannity) says he did not pay him at all. Trump is notoriously cheap and known for stiffing or underpaying those who work for him. So does that mean that pretty much Cohen’s entire income, which is apparently considerable, came from Broidy? That seems unlikely. What is more likely is that it is the sources of that income that aroused the interest of the Mueller prosecutorial team and that it may not have anything to do directly with the Trump-Clifford circus.
Cohen’s main talent seems to not lie in lawyering but his willingness to be a fixer, someone who is willing to undertake tasks of doubtful legality on behalf of powerful clients that more cautious lawyers might be unwilling to carry out. If that is the case, he might well be doing other acts for other people that so far have not been revealed publicly but that the investigators have found in his records.
Needless to say, the late night talk show hosts who have been at odds with Hannity are reveling in the news of his involvement. Here is Stephen Colbert.
Here is Jimmy Kimmel, who has had a acrimonious relationship with Hannity, on the story.
Stay tuned for the next plot twist in this long-running soap opera.