Have you heard enough confusing statements from Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump, and Sarah Sanders about the Stormy Daniels payoff?
Oh, you want more? Well, here’s Jimmy Kimmel’s wrap-up of last week’s events:
These multiple versions of reality begin to feel like slow torture. But the insanity doesn’t end there. Here’s a paragraph from Rudy Giulani’s walkback statement of May 4:
My references to timing were not describing my understanding of the President’s knowledge, but instead, my understanding of these matters.
Now, if I didn’t know better I’d swear these guys are taking a page from the old Monty Python Confuse-A-Cat playbook, making an organized effort to produce inane results. (“I hope to God it works!”)
I’m also reminded of Schrödinger’s cat. It’s like in one version of reality, you open the box and Stormy Daniels is dead, traces of catnip trailing down her blouse; in another version of reality you open the box and she’s live and well, strutting her stuff.
In one version of reality, Donald Trump doesn’t know anything about a payment to Stormy Daniels; in another version of reality he and Michael Cohen have gamed it all out as early as February 2016, with Cohen taking out loans against his property to start a reptile fund that couldn’t be traced back to Trump, and Trump later reimbursing him via structured payments disguised as a “retainer.” Welcome to the Reptile of the Month Club! Only one in fifty reptiles makes it through our exclusive screening process…
As consumers of information, we are like readers of Philip K. Dick’s novel Martian Time-Slip, in which a character experiences a schizophrenic break with reality, and keeps reliving the same event multiple times — each time with a different outcome. (An aside: Someone uploaded the audiobook of Martian Time-Slip to a media site, and end users complained that there seemed to be something wrong with the audio — some parts repeat. They didn’t get it that the character is reliving the same event over and over again…)
In political dictatorships — whether left-wing or right-wing — reality is determined arbitrarily by the dictator.
In the spiritual realm, if we voluntarily seek the counsel of a teacher who embodies truth, then it can be very beneficial to see the truth through his or her eyes.
But in the realm of politics, when we are saddled with an uncouth and ignorant leader who keeps changing reality under our feet day after day, this is meant to wear us down and break our spirit as a people. It’s similar to interrogation techniques where a captive is subjected to psychological manipulation such that he must parrot the views of the interrogator (even knowing they are wrong), or else face torture. Take this Orwellian tableau:
O’Brien stands beside the bed, and Winston feels that O’Brien, who is the torturer, is also somehow a friend. The aim of O’Brien is to teach Winston the technique of doublethink, and he does this by inflicting pain of ever-increasing intensity. He reminds Winston that he wrote the sentence: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four.” O’Brien holds up four fingers of his left hand, and he asks Winston how many there are. Winston answers four a couple of times, and each time the pain increases (this is not done to make Winston lie, but to make him really see five fingers instead of four). At the end of the session, under heavy influence of drugs and agony, Winston really sees five fingers. Now Winston is ready to enter the second stage of his integration…
— from “Work: Summaries & Interpretations: Nineteen Eighty-Four”
This concept was borrowed for a very disturbing two-part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Chain of Command.” There, Captain Picard is tortured by his Cardassian captor in order to get him to say he sees five lights when there are only four. At this stage, the purpose is not to extract any particular information, but simply to enforce a relationship in which the interrogator controls the reality experienced by the target.
In a similar vein, Trump’s tweets and Sarah Sanders’s press briefings are meant to drive home the message that Reality is whatever we say it is. Facts don’t matter. What we said yesterday doesn’t matter. If we say the opposite today, that’s not changing our story.
It’s also like the Donovan song that toys with Zen Buddhism: “First there is a payment, then there is no payment, then there is.”
The president spoke to the NRA on Friday, and I saw no indication that he would keep his promises to families affected by the rash of school shootings:
(See also Trump’s America: Teachers With Guns.) So, we know that Trump doesn’t just lie about personal matters, but about substantive policy matters as well. We’re used to politicians lying, but sometimes a difference in degree amounts to a difference in kind.
This brings me back to a point I made in Trump’s Mental Fitness: An Expert Opinion. Impeachment is a political process. A political leader who lies constantly, who saps the strength of the nation, who cheapens truth, and who uses the mammoth megaphone of the presidency to say, in effect, that I alone determine the nature of reality, is not a fit leader. Whether or not he’s been found guilty of a crime is beside the point. In a democratic nation which values truth, he must be removed from office by constitutional means, because truth matters.
Sidebar: A Chinese mystery
In a post about Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant and other views of the immigrant experience, I mentioned Wayne Wang’s outstanding film Chan Is Missing. There, the main protagonist laments: “This mystery is appropriately Chinese. What’s not there seems to have just as much meaning as what is there.”
The same is true of Trump’s infamous Air Force One comments of April 5 to AP reporter Catherine Lucey. The video is usually truncated, omitting Lucey’s final question and what Trump does not say in response. Transcript:
Catherine Lucey: Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?
President Trump: No. No. What else?
Catherine Lucey: Then why did Michael Cohen make it if there was no truth to her allegations?
President Trump: Well, you’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney. And you’ll have to ask Michael Cohen.
Catherine Lucey: Do you know where he got the money to make that payment?
President Trump: No, I don’t know. No.
Catherine Lucey: Did you ever set up a fund of money that he could draw from?
President Trump: [Silence — no response — ignores the question]
Trump seems extremely eager to issue vocal denials about the Stormy Daniels payoff; but when Lucey asks a question designed to get at whether there was a slush fund Cohen could have used to make the payment, Trump suddenly falls silent. We now know why.
While the details are still emerging (and the spinners are still spinning), today’s version of reality is that circa February 2016 (just after Trump had significant primary wins and began to look like a serious candidate), Michael D. Cohen may have begun setting up a campaign-related slush fund. He may have used personal funds from home-equity lines of credit as discussed in this Wall Street Journal article.
Later, as stated by Trump’s new personal attorney Rudolf Giuliani, President Trump reimbursed Cohen by means of monthly payments of $35,000, which Giuliani alleges were a “retainer” for Cohen’s services, even though (according to Giuliani) Cohen did “no work” for Trump during this later period in which the “retainer” (or repayment) was being serviced.
The possible implication is that in February 2016, Cohen (and/or Trump) recognized that one or more people would need to be paid off to get Trump through the election, and that the funds should not be directly traceable to Trump. Cohen therefore set up a slush fund using his personal finances, expecting to be reimbursed covertly by Trump later on, which appears to have been done.
While both Trump and Giuliani claim that the so-called “retainer” was legitimate and represented common practice, investigators might view it as a “structured payment” intended to hide financial irregularities, or even crimes.
Common sense suggests that the payoff to Daniels a few days before the election was campaign-related, and is therefore subject to campaign finance laws. Such laws often treat innocent oversights with no more than a fine; but where there appears to be a willful conspiracy involving multiple persons, multiple payments, intentional concealment, and possible bank fraud, criminal prosecution does not seem so farfetched, at least to this non-lawyer.
What tomorrow’s version of reality will bring, who can say? One hopes, the truth — but with this administration, one learns to expect the lie du Jour.
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
Trump Is Said to Have Known of Payment to Stormy Daniels Months Before He Denied It (The New York Times)
Trump and His Aides Have No Idea What They’re Talking About (The Atlantic)
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