We can judge Trump by the company he keeps
The Bible said it. Aesop said it. Every one of my elementary school teachers said it: You will be judged by the company you keep. In Donald Trump's case, that company not only includes Michael Cohen and the others who have been indicted or convicted for breaking the occasional law, but even bigger fish: Vladimir Putin of Russia, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia (MBS) and Kim Jong Un of North Korea. This is Trump's own Axis of Evil.
The original Axis of Evil, an idiotic formulation propounded by George W. Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address, consisted of Iraq and Iran -- who had recently tried to annihilate each other -- and North Korea. Iran's membership remains in good standing, but a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq no longer qualifies. And North Korea's cuddly tyrant has now been embraced by the president as "my friend." Trump found him wholly innocent for the death of the American college student Otto Warmbier, who was returned to the U.S. in a vegetative state.
Kim assured Trump he had nothing to do with Warmbier's death, and the president, as he has done with MBS and Putin in similar circumstance, bought it. Kim "tells me that he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word," Trump said while in Hanoi for his sit-down last week with the North Korean dictator. It should be pointed out that Kim had his dear uncle executed, maintains a Gulag system similar to Stalin's of old and is his country's absolute ruler. It's hard to believe that an American was imprisoned without Kim getting the memo.
For Trump, there is precedent here. He shrugged off the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives in that nation's Istanbul diplomatic consulate. Repeatedly, Trump insisted that he had given MBS the third degree and that the crown prince, whose close associates the CIA strongly suggested had murdered Khashoggi, was wonderfully alibied. At the moment, there are reports that Saudi-American dual citizen, Walid Fitaihi, was tortured while detained in November 2017. I can save Trump the phone call: MBS knows nothing about this.
Finally, we come to Putin. His regime is accused of numerous human rights violations and the murder of dissidents, both at home and abroad. And yet Trump has nary a word of criticism for the Russian leader. On the contrary, he has slobbered him with praise, not even holding him responsible for interfering in the 2016 elections. Instead, Trump has been harsher on his own intelligence officials, all of whom dusted the elections and found Putin's fingerprints all over it.
"I believe that President Putin really feels, and he feels strongly, that he did not meddle in our election," Trump has said. Case closed.
If you collected the despots Trump has singled out for praise, you would have an international version of the storied Apalachin meeting, the 1957 mobster fest in a once-obscure New York State hamlet. That meeting established without question the existence of the Mafia, which -- pre-Godfather movies -- was doubted by, among others, J. Edgar Hoover. A Trump meeting with his associates would establish his stunning moral and political corruption.
If, on the other hand, you assembled the world leaders he has insulted, you would have an entirely different kind of meeting: Justin Trudeau of Canada, whom he called "very dishonest and weak"; Theresa May of Great Britain, whom he said is mishandling Brexit and had the effrontery not to follow his advice; and, above all, Angela Merkel of Germany, for whom he has shown unbridled contempt. He criticized her immigration policy and later, in an act of sheer schoolroom disrespect, tossed a handful of Starburst candy at her at a G-7 meeting. "Don't say I never give you anything," he said.
As others have pointed out, Michael Cohen described a Mafia-like organization, built around protecting one man. Cohen alleged lying. He alleged payoff. Cohen alleged a code in which denial meant assent, assent meant denial and the truth was uttered only if some stranger got off the elevator at Trump Tower on the wrong floor.
But while Trump's personal corruption was never in doubt -- ask any New York real estate developer if they would take Trump's check -- his moral complicity in human rights atrocities gives him a breadth and stench that remain both puzzling (what does Putin have on him?) and sickening. I am tempted to say he keeps the wrong company, but Aesop, the Bible and school teachers everywhere know better. He's precisely where he belongs.
Richard Cohen's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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