Four Trump-circle rogues in the news this week have shed light on a perplexing mystery of our time. Why in the world do educated American men, with families, do moronic, dangerous and treacherous things like, apparently, colluding with the Kremlin to install a puppet in the White House?
The particular rogues I’m thinking of are President Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort; Trump’s former lawyer-fixer Michael Cohen; conspiracy theorist and Trump cheerleader Jerome Corsi; and Trump Organization advisor Felix Sater.
Each man has at varying times had ample means and opportunity to connect President Trump with Russian authorities and agents. For this and ancillary reasons, they are all now squarely in the hot seat of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Means and opportunity. But what were their motives?
Manafort is 69. Corsi, 72. Sater, 52. Cohen is also 52. This is worth noting because these men were all born during the Cold War, back when Russia stood for oppressive dictatorship and America for liberal democracy. Sater’s family even fled religious persecution in the Soviet Union. Helping the Kremlin do anything, let alone helping it elect a U.S. president, would have been unthinkable in their young adulthoods. Would the words even parse?
Means and opportunity. But what were their motives?
What’s more, all of these men were brought up in earnest religious traditions. Manafort and Corsi were raised as Catholics. Sater and Cohen are members of Chabad, the Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement. They are all college educated, with Georgetown and and Harvard on two of the resumes. They must have, long ago, shown promise as intelligent, accomplished, even principled young men.
But those days are far off. Manafort is in prison. Cohen has been indicted, and Corsi is expecting an indictment. Manafort and Cohen signed plea deals with Mueller, though Manafort breached his, as we learned this week. Sater already served time in prison for assault, and avoided jail time as a criminal informant after pleading guilty to a $40-million stock scheme. He has met more than once with the Mueller team and, according to reports, facilitated contacts between the Kremlin, Trump’s business and his campaign.
Why, why, why did these men do who knows what-all to aid Trump? It appears they all had different motives.
Manafort’s demon is self-evident: greed. The peacocking man of Tabriz rugs and jungle-cat lawn statues seems to have joined the Trump campaign in hopes of peddling influence. He was deep in the red and couldn’t get a loan to save his ostrich-skin hide. He presumably also feared his Kremlin-aligned creditors, who are not known for forbearance. Manafort was in it for the money.
Of course, Cohen also wanted money — who doesn’t? — but he never lived as ostentatiously as Manafort. Manafort liked to play the big shot — establishing, according to his associate Rick Gates, “a whole separate shadow government structure [in Ukraine]” — but Cohen was nowhere near as shrewd or ambitious.
Instead of greed, Cohen’s Achilles’ heel was his craven, Smithers-like need for head-pats from Trump. He has said he’d take a bullet for the sleazeball tycoon, and once he excoriated Sater: “Not you or anyone you know will embarrass me in front of Mr. T.”
When Cohen admitted lying to Congress, was anyone surprised? He tried mightily to engage the Kremlin in a Trump-branded tower in Moscow, during the presidential campaign, because he wanted to “score points with Mr. Trump.” What man of 50-plus calls his longtime boss “Mr.”?
Sater’s devil-may-care motives are at least vaguely endearing. He was in it, he told Andrew Rice in New York magazine, for the adventure.
Known to prosecutors as “the key to open a hundred different doors,” Sater liked the lark of trading jokes with the FBI, mobsters, high-placed politicians, billionaires and good-time Charlies and Sergeys. I once met Sater and, man, does he like to party. A surprisingly literary bon vivant, Sater told me he should have been an academic historian or a person of letters like Gary Shteyngart (he’s a fan), but that in his line of work — crime and anti-crime — he gets to meet intellectuals and fly around the world, and that’s enough for him.
Corsi’s motives are the most pathological. When Ari Melber, on MSNBC, asked him if he understood why people don’t believe him, he told a disturbingly pointless childhood story that’s too weird even to summarize here. He also gibbered to Melber about Obama’s birth certificate and Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle.
“I’ve had this problem all my life,” he admitted, without a clear referent. Asked if he lied to Congress about who tipped him off to what Kremlin-linked WikiLeaks was about to publish in July 2016 (Democratic Party emails), Corsi said, “British Petroleum becomes BP and now they’re Beyond Petroleum. Is that a lie? It’s a repositioning.”
Mmmkay. Eventually, Corsi conceded, with a note of despair: “I don’t think the way other people do.”
This time Corsi hit the nail squarely on the head, and he’s speaking for all the president’s men. They have outsized compulsions, as well as profound moral and cognitive failings. But the self-aware Corsi hypothesis is the best answer to the question why. These men, including Donald Trump, sold out our country because ... they don’t think the way other people do.
11 a.m.: This article was updated to correct the wording of Michael Cohen’s statement to Felix Sater.