The Worst Mistake of Their Lives

Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, leaves the federal courthouse in Washington. 

When Michael Cohen first put Donald Trump in his sights, he obviously had a plan. Over a decade ago, Cohen owned a number of apartments in Trump-branded buildings when he intervened on Trump's side in a dispute on the condo board of Trump World Tower, in which some tenants wanted to remove Trump's name from the building. With Cohen's help the pro-Trump side prevailed, and The Donald was so impressed he brought Cohen into his inner circle.

You can imagine what Cohen thought at that point. Here I am, working for the famous Donald Trump! This is going to be great for me. Money, prestige, globetrotting excitement—anything is possible.

Cohen's association with Trump did indeed get him those things, at least for a while. But now that association is sending him to jail.

We're seeing something similar with many of Trump's associates. They looked at Trump, a larger-than-life figure with fame and money, and believed that attaching themselves to him could bring them something they wanted, or in some cases, sorely needed. For a while it seemed like it would, but in the end it came crashing down, and they wound up in far worse shape than when they started. Instead of rehabilitation or redemption, Trump gave them ignominy or even time behind bars.

Take Paul Manafort. To outward appearances, in 2016 he was a high-flying, wealthy, and influential political consultant, well known in Washington and with a long list of lucrative (if often disreputable) clients. But in fact, he was enmeshed in a web of crimes, deep in debt to a potentially dangerous Russian oligarch named Oleg Deripaska, and had not long before threatened to his family that he might commit suicide.

It might seem insanely reckless for someone on that kind of knife's edge to take a job running the campaign of a presidential nominee, in which he'd suddenly be subjected to attention and scrutiny. But Manafort was desperate, and working for Trump looked like it might give him the chance to set things right. It could lead to more clients in the future and perhaps provide the opportunity to get Deripaska—who had given Manafort $19 million to invest, money that disappeared somewhere along the way—off his back. Manafort was so desperate, in fact, that he offered to work for no pay. Days after joining the Trump campaign, Manafort wrote to his colleague Konstantin Kilimnik, a Ukrainian national who may have been a Russian intelligence asset and who acted as a liaison with Deripaska, pointing out the attention he was getting in the press. "How do we use to get whole?" Manafort asked.

He did not get whole. Instead, the crimes he had been committing for years were revealed to prosecutors and the world. Manafort will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.  

Or consider Michael Flynn. Flynn became nationally known in 2016, including a turn leading a "lock her up" chant at the Republican national convention, because at the time he was just about the only retired general willing to endorse Trump. But he too was looking for redemption. Fired by Barack Obama as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014, Flynn had gained a reputation for being a poor manager and someone with nutty ideas and conspiracy theories, which some around him at DIA referred to as "Flynn facts." As one staffer told The Washington Post, "We talked all the time among ourselves about what was going on in his head. Like, was it PTSD, or was this who he was all along and now he finally had the authority to say it?"

By 2016 Flynn was hustling money from foreign governments like Turkey and Russia, but Trump offered him not just a path back to respectability but something greater. As national security adviser, he could not only shape policy but enter the highest stratum of Washington's elite. Flynn was the one person whom Barack Obama urged Trump not to hire, but Trump did it anyway.

And what happened to Flynn? Instead of riding Trump to glory and a permanent supply of respect and income, he lost his job and had to cooperate with Robert Mueller's probe in order to avoid jail time.

There are others who thought Trump would be a ticket to the big time but who wound up on the wrong side of the law, like George Papadopoulos and Rick Gates. We could make an entirely separate list of those who have been revealed to be corrupt or worse because of their association with the president (Rob Porter, Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke) or had their reputations damaged or destroyed (Sean Spicer, H.R. McMaster).

Last week, James Fallows asked, "Who has been turned into something worse by Donald Trump? Who was that way all along?" There is no single answer, because there are some who fall into one or the other category, and some who were probably terrible to begin with and then were made worse. I suspect Cohen is in this last category; his career even before encountering Trump was full of shady situations and brushes with criminals. In fact, looking over that history it's remarkable that he never wound up in jail before now, even as many of his associates did. What finally did Michael Cohen in was Donald Trump.

To be sure, there are some in Trump's orbit who will be able to parlay their association with him into riches; I'm sure there are plenty of corporations who would pay top dollar to make use of Sarah Sanders' extraordinary shamelessness and moral flexibility, to take just one example. But no one will look better for having worked for him. And many will find that if they hoped Trump would offer them some kind of deliverance, they made the worst mistake of their lives.   

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