Did President Trump’s lawyer Michael D. Cohen use some form of slush fund to pay off Stormy Daniels? Tying together themes from Stormygate, Watergate, and Smiley’s People.
From emerging investigations, we know that “Drain the Swamp” was a political slogan devised by the Trump campaign which tested well and could be used to manipulate voter sentiment, even though it had nothing to do with Donald Trump’s policies, agenda, or history as a real estate developer, beauty contest impresario, and legendary gropemeister.
The recent slew of corruption scandals involving members of the Trump administration (including Scott Pruitt), suggests a polar opposite slogan: “Pad the Reptile Fund!”
What exactly is a reptile fund? The term has been attributed to Otto von Bismarck in the late nineteenth century, but seems to have fallen into disuse. It was majorly revived by British spy novelist John le Carré in his series of cold war thrillers adapted for film and TV. These include:
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
In that context, a reptile fund is a fund maintained for the explicit purpose of paying off lowlifes like scalphunters, blackmailers, or women hired to take part in “honey traps” like those referenced in the Channel Four undercover exposé of Cambridge Analytica. This was the political consulting firm used by the Trump campaign for their digital operations in 2016 — a firm in which Trump ally Steve Bannon played a major role between 2013 and 2016.
In the undercover video captured by Channel Four, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix (now suspended) is seen telling a man posing as a prospective client that one way they can damage a political opponent is to bring over some Ukrainian girls to Sri Lanka and have them go to the candidate’s house. The fruit of that operation can then be put up on the Internet without anyone knowing where the video came from.
I would venture to guess that while Trump and associates have never had much to do with draining swamps, padding the reptile fund is quite their style! This issue heated up on April 5 when, aboard Air Force One, President Trump was asked a series of probing questions about the Stormy Daniels matter by AP reporter Catherine Lucey. At first, Trump seemed willing to answer; but when Lucey asked if Trump had ever set up a fund of money that his attorney could draw from, Trump suddenly became tongue-tied.
The notion of a slush fund is popular among some people trying to make sense of the scanty facts available in the Daniels matter. Maybe Trump’s attorney Cohen — who is known as a 24/7 “fixer” for Trump — had standing orders to pay off any women who might make trouble just before the 2016 election, with the understanding that Cohen would be reimbursed later — perhaps when Trump was no longer in office, and perhaps through some byzantine series of LLCs covertly funded by billionaires, either in the U.S. or much farther East. (One hopes the Special Counsel is looking into such possibilities.)
The “standing orders” theory would explain how Cohen could be doing what Trump wanted done without Trump knowing the specifics. It’s an arrangement which would give Trump plausible deniability, while also to some extent shielding Cohen from the charge that he was acting without consulting his client. If Cohen’s client Trump had issued standing orders to pay hush money to blackmailers or potential writers of “true confession” stories, this might shield both men from some (but not all) potential charges.
Under the standing orders theory, Cohen’s agreed-upon role would be to be the fixer and take the hit for anything that might be deemed unlawful. For example, if the money paid to Stormy Daniels is eventually construed to be an illegal campaign contribution, then Cohen would be the one to take the rap (if any). But Cohen would expect that Trump would eventually see him right. After all, Cohen supposedly knows where “all the bodies are buried” in the metaphorical Trump haunted house. Trump may stiff people right and left, but Cohen probably assumes that Trump wouldn’t permanently stiff him.
The “standing orders” plus “plausible deniability” theory manages to explain something which other theories don’t: Namely, how could Donald Trump possibly not know about the Stormy Daniels payoff? Under this theory, it’s Michael Cohen’s job to handle it himself and make sure Trump has no specific knowledge of it, keep it away from him, shield him from it.
Cohen might have access to an official, unofficial, or even improvised reptile fund to pay off women like Daniels. He might even use funds from his own home equity line to make the $130,000 payment (if that claim made to CNN is true), fully expecting to be made whole by Trump in the distant future.
A New York Times article describes Cohen as Trump’s “aggressive spokesman and lieutenant who would take on the real estate mogul’s antagonists,” likening Cohen’s role to that played by Roy Cohn for Trump decades earlier.
Cohen’s role as fixer and cutout man is not a traditional lawyer-client relationship to be sure; but it is a relationship that might be worked out between two longtime business partners who are veterans of many shady deals or operations where things need fixing, and who both understand the role which each man needs to play, and the type of public denials which each man needs to issue. Imagine a brief, hypothetical conversation between Cohen and Trump which goes something like this:
Cohen: Someone came to the candy store.
Trump: Really? Did you give them candy?
Cohen: I had to. It was a Stormy night.
Trump: Thanks, I owe you one.
Slush funds and cutout men are hardly unknown in the world of Washington politics. During the Nixon administration, Nixon’s personal lawyer Herbert W. Kalmbach recruited private detective Tony Ulasewicz to be the “bagman” who delivered cash to Watergate burglars in order to buy their silence.
In our topsy-turvy world, those who have studied the law or worked in law enforcement are sometimes used to find creative ways to skirt the law. Bagman Ulasewicz was a retired NYC police detective. According to the above-linked Times article, “The [Watergate] hearings turned more sober when Mr. Ulasewicz acknowledged that his bagman role was part of a criminal enterprise.”
Claims that Trump “threw Cohen under the bus” in his Air Force One comments to Catherine Lucey are not consistent with the theory propounded here. Rather, it would be Cohen’s role in this kabuki drama to accept the blame for paying off Daniels, thus shielding Trump — willingly participating in Trump’s implied defense that Cohen had gone rogue.
MSNBC’s Katy Tur reports that Cohen told her he would “take a bullet” for Donald Trump, while The New York Times claims Cohen has been known to carry a licensed pistol in an ankle holster. Washington Post reporter Ashley Parker describes Cohen as Trump’s “consigliere” and “enforcer” — someone who “makes stuff go away.”
These characterizations suggest that what investigators armed with a boatload of evidence are finding is not just isolated acts of wrongdoing, but a pattern of organized corruption — corruption which would be undesirable in the world of real estate, casinos, and beauty pageants; but is wholly unacceptable in and around the White House.
More about Smiley’s People
In the larger context of current events, Smiley’s People turns out to be incredibly relevant. In 1982 it was made into a six-part miniseries by the BBC. An early plot point involves an ex-Soviet general who defected to the West being shot dead in Hampstead Heath by Russian agents. Now, over 35 years later, we immediately think of the Sergei Skripal poisoning incident in Salisbury.
George Smiley, who was a senior official in “The Circus” (Carré’s thinly disguised version of MI6) is called out of retirement to pick up the pieces — or sweep them under the rug. The general’s assassination is viewed by most bureaucrats as a scandal to be hushed up, except by Smiley (played by the late Sir Alec Guinness), who’s determined to get to the bottom of it.
Smiley placates the bureaucrats, aping the role of cutout man and fixer assigned to him, but secretly persevering — looking up his old hunting buddies from The Circus, many of whom (like Smiley) are now somewhat disaffected. “Welcome to Siberia!” exclaims Connie Sachs, the deposed former head of research, who now runs an animal boarding establishment, and is nearly defunct through old age and alcoholism. Sachs is played by Beryl Reid, a veteran of The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) and No Sex Please, We’re British (1973). For her role in Smiley’s People, she won a BAFTA TV Award for Best Actress.
SPOILERS In the course of his investigation, Smiley learns that General Vladimir was using his “lieutenant” Otto Leipzig to blackmail Russian agent Oleg Kirov, whom he had caught in a honey trap. The trail leads back to Karla, a cover name for a man who (as KGB head) “controls the whole of Russia.” Karla is Smiley’s old nemesis from past deep-frozen battles, his “black Grail.”
Like General Vladimir, Otto Leipzig is killed by Russian agents, but never divulges the location where the kompromat material is stashed. Smiley finds that it includes a video of Kirov cavorting with prostitutes. Smiley eventually puts together all the puzzle pieces, and is able to wage a successful counter-campaign against Karla.
It turns out the tough-as-nails Karla has a daughter named Tatiana whom he loves, but who suffers from schizophrenia. Karla has embezzled public monies to covertly install her in a private clinic in Switzerland. He’s also gone to great lengths to provide a “legend” (or cover story) for her, falsely claiming that she is Alexandra Ostrakova, the daughter of a Russian emigre now living in Paris, not the daughter of the KGB’s Übermensch.
This was the trail General Vladimir and Otto Leipzig were barking down when they were killed. Once Smiley firms up the details, he’s able to effectively checkmate Karla and force him to defect to the West, in order to safeguard his daughter’s future and his own.
As in the Stormy Daniels saga, aliases abound in Smiley’s People. George Smiley himself is also known as Max, the Vicar, Mr. Sampson, Mr. Standfast, Mr. Barraclough, and Alan Angel (but never David Dennison).
Among fans of Carré’s so-called Karla Trilogy, Smiley is a beloved anti-hero: no dashing James Bond figure, but gray, elderly, deliberate, and having the sort of persistent intelligence which can see through a brick wall in time. (And with that observation, I’m through trying to tie Smiley’s People to the Mueller probe.)
The direct televisual predecessor of Smiley’s People is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, in which Karla has succeeded in planting a Russian mole inside The Circus, very near the top. And while no one has suggested that Donald Trump is a Russian mole, people have suggested that he’s been compromised by Russian influence, Russian money, and possible kompromat material, so that by and large he’s not an honest broker on Russia-related issues, and can’t always be trusted to stand up to Russia where Russia is clearly in the wrong or a bad actor.
Trump’s own autocratic tendencies and seeming love of dictators do little to soften this impression.
Sidebar 1: Duty of Counsel
Much is being made of the duty of Michael D. Cohen to keep his client Donald Trump apprised of developments, and get his informed consent for any legal settlements reached. As a non-attorney, my understanding is that these things must be done to the satisfaction of the client. In the real world, the State Bar is not likely to go after Michael Cohen unless his client Donald Trump complains that he’s unhappy with Cohen’s performance. But under the “standing orders” plus “plausible deniability” theory, Trump would be perfectly happy with Cohen’s performance, and would have no reason to complain to the Bar.
Under this theory, Donald Trump basically says to Michael Cohen: “I give you standing authorization to handle any bimbo eruptions, make payments, and reach settlements on my behalf without further instructions, and without troubling me about the details.” If that’s what Cohen indeed did, and was acting in keeping with Trump’s broad instructions, it’s unclear that Cohen would be in any danger of disbarment.
Of course, if the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels is later ruled an illegal campaign contribution, that could be more problematic for Cohen, but would not necessarily result in criminal charges leading to disbarment. According to one Huffington Post article, when contributions exceeding legal limits are unearthed, this sometimes results in refunds rather than indictments.
The way the Stormy Daniels matter is currently shaking out, the NDA may be invalidated, Daniels may refund the $130,000 she took to remain silent, and sell her story to the tabloids for lots more money. One pictures a heavily ghosted book on the horizon, a lifetime invite to The View — maybe even her impression in concrete at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, next to Uggie the terrier, who also has a book deal. (“Standing on stage at the Golden Globes, I knew I was a star. Never had I imagined there was anything better than a piece of sausage, but the applause! The acclaim!”)
If Daniels returns the money to Cohen, and Cohen claims he only paid her out of personal loyalty to Trump, or to spare Trump’s family (but not for political reasons), then Cohen might get off scot-free, at least with respect to the Daniels matter. But he could potentially face other charges stemming from Robert Mueller’s investigation into Cohen and Trump’s business dealings in Georgia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Russia. There are persistent rumors (unverified by this lowly blogger) that there’s a whole “rat’s nest” of financial wrongdoing in that neck of the woods. BREAKING NEWS: The Washington Post is now reporting that “Trump attorney Cohen is being investigated for possible bank fraud…”
Sidebar 2 – All The President’s Men (excerpt)
Woodward called the GAO investigator every day to learn how the audit was progressing.
“Hundreds of thousands of dollars in unaccounted cash,” the GAO man said one day. “A slush fund of cash,” he said the next. “A rat’s nest behind the surface efficiency of computerized financial reporting,” the third. With each day that Woodward did not write a story, the investigator felt freer to talk to him. Fitting these remarks together with another investigator’s, Woodward was becoming convinced that the cash “slush fund” was the same “convention security money” Bernstein had heard about early in July. The fund, which totaled at least $100,000, included the money from Barker’s bank account obtained from cashing Dahlberg’s check, according to the investigator.
Bernstein made one of his regular calls to the former administration official and was told: “There was a large fund over which Gordon Liddy had supervision. . . . Yeah, it’s the same one. The present plan is for Liddy to take the fall for everyone. The story that the re-election committee will put out has nothing to do with the truth. They’ll say they were deeply concerned for the security of their convention and that they had a big fund to be sure they were secure from interference. That’s the word that will trickle out. Mitchell said to get the story out. Too many guys knew about the fund.”
The reporters waited. Several days later, on August 16, Clark MacGregor met with a select group of White House reporters and made the first public attempt to shift the responsibility to Liddy. While serving as CRP’s finance counsel, MacGregor said, Liddy had spent campaign funds on his own initiative “for the purpose of determining what to do if the crazies made an attack on the President” at the Republican convention.
Later that afternoon on the telephone, MacGregor was angered by Woodward’s attempt to get a fuller explanation. “I have no idea why the departed Gordon Liddy wanted cash,” MacGregor shouted. “It’s impossible for me to tell. . . . I never met Liddy. . . . I don’t know what’s going on.” Woodward suggested that MacGregor was implying that he was out of touch with the campaign he was supposed to be running.
“If you print that, our relationship is terminated,” MacGregor said, and added: “I’m not threatening you. I’m just telling you what will happen.” MacGregor was one of the few Nixon administration officials who had a reputation for being friendly with the press.
• • •
On August 22, the second day of the Republican convention in Miami, the Post’s front page reported the preliminary findings of the GAO’s audit. Based primarily on Woodward’s conversations with the investigators, the story said the GAO had determined that CRP had mishandled more than $500,000 in campaign funds—including at least $100,000 maintained in an apparently illegal “security fund.”
Paul E. Barrick, Hugh Sloan’s successor as treasurer, responded on behalf of CRP: “Washington Post stories of allegations to the effect that the . . . committee has incorrectly reported or failed to report contributions and expenditures in accordance with law are entirely wrong.”
The rawest nerve touched by the GAO’s preliminary findings, however, was not that at least half a million dollars had been mishandled but the revelation of a “security fund” at the committee. For more than five weeks, Van Shumway, a former wire-service reporter who had come to the committee from the White House staff, had been insisting that no such fund existed. He had told Bernstein in July, “One thing I will never do is knowingly tell you something that is untrue.” Now Shumway said he had since learned that there was such a fund. “I’m afraid some people here aren’t telling me the truth,” he added.
— excerpt from All The President’s Men, Chapter 3, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster, 1974
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
BREAKING: “F.B.I. Raids Office of Trump’s Longtime Lawyer Michael Cohen” (The New York Times)
Links – Smiley’s People on YouTube
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