Power of low expectations
It’s a symptom of our time that a tape of the future president of the United States discussing machinations related to an alleged affair with a former Playboy Playmate isn’t truly a blockbuster.
The brief snippet of conversation between Donald Trump and his lawyer Michael Cohen about buying the story of former Playmate Karen McDougal, who says she had a 10-month-long affair with Trump beginning in 2006, is certainly of interest.
How often do you hear a future president speaking so frankly, if cryptically, about such a salacious matter? And the tape is part of the storyline of Cohen flipping against Trump that will be an ongoing media obsession.
But what would be a potential torpedo to the bow of any other presidency is a relative trifle, because tawdry scandals have been built into the Trump baseline.
Past presidents have needed fixers (John F. Kennedy had his at the top of the Justice Department, his brother Bobby) and have had shady associates (Richard Nixon and Bebe Rebozo; Bill Clinton and almost everyone he knew from Little Rock, it seemed).
Still, Trump’s relationship with Cohen, a lawyer so disreputable that no one else would want his representation, is off the charts. Q: What kind of lawyer tapes his client (as Trump has asked in recent days)? A: Cohen, whose lack of standards is what made him so useful in the first place.
The tape’s political effect is muted because everyone is dug in. Trump’s foes have already concluded that he’s unfit for office and needs to be removed forthwith; Trump’s supporters (most of them) acknowledge his serious shortcomings but think it’s more important to focus on his agenda and accomplishments.
It’s difficult to find a further personal peccadillo that can budge anyone from these trench lines, since there’s no real contest over his character to begin with.
The irony is that Trump’s detractors hate him so much that they have created, perhaps, an impossibly high standard for his misconduct.
It’s not damning enough for them that the Russians interfered in our election and Trump is dismissive of it; Trump has to be a quasi-Russian agent who actively colluded with the Kremlin, perhaps going back decades. It’s not damning enough that Trump had affairs with a porn star and Playmate; he has to have committed some serious criminal offense in the course of covering his tracks.
For their part, Trump’s allies rarely make a personal defense of him, i.e., this man would never do such a thing. Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani tried a version of this tack regarding Stormy Daniels a few weeks ago, but the crux of his argument was that she was supposedly not sophisticated enough for Trump.
When Giuliani says that the Cohen tape is exculpatory, he doesn’t mean that it proves there was nothing to the McDougal story and where does his client go to get his reputation back? He means that Trump was upfront and transparent about buying her story — he wanted to do it by check.
And that defense is enough. With Trump having delivered on important priorities for the right and enjoying a hysterical opposition that pushes Republicans toward him, the Fifth Avenue principle applies now more than ever.
To update it for current circumstances, Trump could pay off Karen McDougal with a black satchel full of cash in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters.
That Trump has denied the Daniels and McDougal stories is a normal tactic in an abnormal time. You wonder why he bothered, though, except that allegations from women were piling up in the weeks before the 2016 election and there are always poor Melania’s feelings to consider.
Perhaps there will be some inescapable legal dilemma for Trump that emerges out of the Cohen imbroglio. But the president has a very wide margin for error.
The lesson of these controversies so far is that there’s nothing low expectations won’t do.
Editor’s note: Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.