How Trump Will Try to Derail Impeachment
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How Trump Will Try to Derail Impeachment

Following the ‘Roy Cohn Playbook,’ He Will Delay, Lie, Destroy Evidence, Attack Patriots … Anything to Save Himself

David Cay Johnston

The damning Oct. 29 testimony by a decorated Army officer who revealed misleading White House edits to the infamous rough transcript of Donald Trump’s “perfect” Ukraine call fits perfectly Trump’s lifelong abuse of records.

Altering, destroying, fabricating and hiding records is Trumpian behavior going back decades that the late Wayne Barrett and others including me have thoroughly documented, but that rarely makes the mainstream news.

Trump has said repeatedly and falsely that the memorandum of the July Ukraine call is a “word for word, comma for comma” perfect transcript. Yet on its first page, the document warns it “is not a verbatim transcript.” Trump acolytes, especially Fox News viewers, can hardly be blamed for believing the president since the “fair and balanced” cable channel has become TrumpTV, a Moscow-like propaganda outlet that distorts nightly the verifiable record.

In fighting impeachment and conviction Trump will rely on the Roy Cohn playbook.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Russo-Ukraine expert on the White House national security staff, told House investigators the transcript was misleadingly edited to protect Trump from proof of wrongdoing. He said Trump clearly sought Ukraine’s interference in domestic American politics. Vindman said he tried twice—unsuccessfully—to make the record accurate by filling in words replaced with ellipses.

Vindman’s testimony only increases the reasons Americans should see the accurate and full records of a call between Trump and Chinese President Jinping Xi in which a similar request to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son was discussed.

The concerns flowing from Vindman’s testimony, since confirmed by other witnesses, go far beyond Trump soliciting foreign intervention in American electoral politics, which is a serious crime. They raise questions about Trump’s disloyalty, threats to our national security and the integrity of official records on which future administrations must rely.

Attacking Officer

Trump and his supporters, including John Yoo, a former deputy attorney general, have attacked the patriotism and loyalty of Vindman, a Soviet Jewish émigré who came to America as a toddler.

Vindman is a decorated combat officer while Trump was a draft dodger. Vindman is also one of only 1,200 or so elite military foreign area officers, a specialist in the politics of the former Soviet empire who holds a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard.

Attacks on Vindman reek of trying to discredit a loyal officer, who has combat shrapnel, and of Trump’s anti-Semitism, itself part of a larger animus against non-white people while he claims to be Christian.

Writer Julia Ioffe, like Vindman a Soviet Jew émigré, detailed this in a smart article this week:

“While Trump has a history of attacking anyone who questions his power, there is a particularly insidious history to questioning the loyalty of Jewish émigrés.”

Rich, but little known, public records establish that throughout Trump’s career as a white-collar criminal posing as a businessman, he has profited and avoided prosecution by misleading law enforcement investigators, deceiving auditors and tricking investors. His Taj Mahal casino was also fined $10 million for money laundering, the kind of crime he is suspected of performing for Russian criminals for decades.

Trump knows how to use the criminal justice system to subtly inform those who pose a danger to him to keep their mouths shut if they want a future reward. He now has the almost unlimited power to pardon, a power he claims he can even apply to himself, though it is of no value in impeachment, which is a non-criminal matter.

Roy Cohn’s Advice

Roy Cohn and Trump

In fighting impeachment and conviction Trump will rely on the Roy Cohn playbook.

The notorious lawyer, whom Trump has said he regarded as a second father, taught that when law enforcement and other government officials suggest anything is amiss, you turn the tables and attack their integrity and legitimacy.

What we could call “Roy Cohn’s Lying Without Consequences Playbook” includes: Throw up every obstacle you can use or fabricate. Toss legal brickbats with novel and bizarre legal claims. Be nasty. Be accusatory. Challenge the legitimacy of government. Attack the integrity of individual officials. Make claims of government action that bear no relationship to the actual issue. Insist that records are confidential. Claim records no longer exist because some random, low-level employee accidentally erased them or tossed them out. Claim that a broken water pipe flooded the accounting file room. Blame an act of God. And always delay, delay, delay in the hope that the salaried government officials will grow weary and move on to easier tasks.

Trump tore up his desk calendar at month’s end, a classic Roy Cohn technique. In legal disputes, a consistent practice weighs less against you than destroying records only when it is convenient.

Another Cohn trick: Make dirty payments in cash. Checks, like credit cards, leave a trail that the federal Financial Crimes Enforcement Network or FinCen can track anywhere in the world, given enough time and analysts. But cash, even million-dollar payoffs, is much harder to trace. Trump has been suspected of laundering money for Russian-speaking criminals, based on deals that seemingly make no economic sense.

Helped Trafficker

When Trump was caught doing extraordinary favors for a mobbed-up career criminal named Joseph Weichselbaum, he denied it. He also denied writing a letter praising the drug trafficker, and manager of Trump’s personal helicopter, a credit to the community. Only when casino detectives showed him the letter did he acknowledge his signature, but nothing more. Trump should have lost his casino license under New Jersey law, but protecting casino owners by never asking hard questions that would force such actions was an unstated but de facto mission of the New Jersey Attorney General’s offices, as my book Temples of Chance detailed at length in 1992.

Trump wrote a letter, ostensibly to a judge but in reality signaling the mobster that if he kept his mouth shut he would be taken care of. The third time felony loser did as Trump asked, got an extremely light sentence after his case passed through the courtroom of Trump’s sister, federal Judge Maryanne Trump Barry, and Trump escaped further scrutiny.

Part of Trump’s strategy in that matter was to claim he didn’t recall writing the letter. That’s odd since candidate Trump told voters he enjoys “one of the world’s greatest memories,” something he now says he doesn’t remember saying. Transcripts of testimony show Trump used this trick many times.

Candidate Trump declared he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a vote. That hubris has grown. On Oct. 23 Trump’s lawyers asserted in court that even if Trump actually shot someone no federal or state law enforcement agency could investigate.

As we can see daily from his attacks on Vindman and his claims of a witch hunt and hoax, Trump has no scruples. And he will say or do anything to protect his delusional self-image as the world’s smartest, most expert, most deserving leader who is so perfect that as a claimed Christian he doesn’t even need to ever ask God for forgiveness.

Kremlin Blackmail

Federal law requires Trump to preserve all presidential records, but he thumbs his nose at that law.

Trump illegally deletes Tweets in violation of the 1978 Presidential Records Act, which makes the tweets public property.

The National Archives assigned an employee to go through Trump’s Oval Office wastebasket to reconstruct shredded papers.

Trump snapped at his then-national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, for taking notes in an Oval Office meeting. Without notes, disputes devolve into “he said, she said” squabbles, while courts generally treat notes and memos written at the time a conversation takes place as solid evidence. That’s why Trump hates note-taking.

Trump seized and destroyed the notes of American government translator Marina Gross after they met in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin. No other Americans attended. Normally such meetings involve a half dozen or more American officials with deep expertise to safeguard American national security and look for clues into the behavior of Putin or any leader of a foreign power, friendly or hostile.

Later Trump held a second and unannounced meeting with Putin that relied solely on the Kremlin’s translator, leaving no American record of what was discussed, what promises may have been made.

This conduct means Trump made himself vulnerable to blackmail by the Kremlin, which has the only record of what was said. Trump’s actual words and promises, or a Russian fabrication, could be used to force Trump to play ball on Kremlin initiatives and poses a danger to American national security. Whether such blackmail has already been used is unknown, but given some Trump’s bizarre pro-Kremlin behavior concern is reasonable.

Hiding Records

When New York City auditors sought records after Trump slashed his annual rent payments on the Grand Hyatt hotel from about $3 million to $60,000, Trump did his best to evade scrutiny.

The first response was to say the time limit for audits had passed, a fabrication. Next was a claim that the city had no right to see the books even though the contract between Trump and the city explicitly granted that authority. Then auditors were told that a broken water pipe in the new building destroyed the books.

When auditors learned of an electronic copy in Chicago, they were told someone had accidentally erased the files the night before auditors were to inspect the records. Finally, in a New Jersey warehouse, auditors found enough of the records to show Trump had cheated the city out of close to $3 million.

Vindman and others told House members in both parties that the records of the Ukraine and China calls, and presumably others, are stored in a super-safe White House computer. That lets Trump hide the records far more effectively than the games he tried to play with the New York City auditors. What we should hope is that others kept their own records of these calls and give them to Congress.

Forgetting Eyeglasses

Trump is notorious for cheating small business vendors and workers and then lying under oath to escape responsibility for his misdeeds.

After a long trial U.S. District Court Judge Charles E. Stewart Jr., ruled in a lengthy opinion that Trump engaged in a conspiracy to cheat the workers, as I recount in The Making of Donald Trump.

Trump didn’t fully pay about 200 illegal immigrants from Poland who for $4 an hour (about $11 today) literally tore down by hand the landmark 12-story Bonwit Teller Department Store, where Trump Tower now stands. At trial, Trump denied knowing the workers were illegally in America and failing to fully pay them.

Judge Stewart, in a lengthy opinion, found that Trump’s testimony lacked credibility. He noted that Trump visited the site and had an office with a view from across the street.

In stealing the wages, Trump violated his duty of loyalty, also known as fiduciary duty, to the workers and to a union. This “breach involved fraud and the Trump defendants knowingly participated in this breach,” Stewart ruled.

At times Trump relies on cheap tricks to avoid answering questions, which may be asked of him in a Senate trial.

Just three years ago, in a videotaped deposition involving the hotel that Trump illegally operates a short walk from the White House, he used an old trick to avoid answering questions about a document he was shown.

“I am at a disadvantage because I didn’t bring my glasses,” he testified, a problem of his own creation that benefitted only Trump.

As events unfold in the weeks and months ahead keep all of this in mind. And beware it is just a sampling of the voluminous record showing how Trump will lie, fabricate, destroy, conceal and accuse without regard for fact or even, as we see in the baseless attacks on the patriotism of Lt. Col Vindman, basic human decency.

Think about what life will be like for you if we abandon more than two centuries of the rule of law and choose to enable a dictatorship under a man whose only operative principle is self-preservation.

And what if you adore Trump, what if you think it would be good to have him just takeover? Think about what he wrote in his book Think Big and said in numerous public talks. Trump declared that his life’s philosophy boiled down to a single word: revenge.

His specific story in the book is about deriving increasing pleasure in the miseries of a Trump Organization executive he held in high esteem until she declined to make a phone call that would have been unethical and possibly illegal.

Never forget that all it would take for Trump to turn on on you and use the powers of our government against you is just a modest slight.

Featured image: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman accompanied by U.S. Capitol Police (AP)

November 1, 2019