David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” once described his show as one in which all of the characters lied, all the time. “Everything that everybody says is untrue,” Chase told me. “Complete falsehoods, self-justifications, rationalizations, outright lies, fantasies.”
In today’s long-running mob drama, “The Trump Syndicate,” lying is also the chief principle of discourse. The whoppers President Trump routinely tells — 11 per day, by one count — are not exceptional. Without them, there’d be no dialogue.
On Thursday night, BuzzFeed News reporters Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold returned to the story about Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, and his admission that he had lied to Congress, under oath, about Trump family business dealings in Moscow.
Ho hum, but, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter, there was something special about this particular lie to Congress: Trump persuaded him to tell it. According to BuzzFeed, the president didn’t coerce Cohen into lying. He asked Cohen to lie, and Cohen obliged.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III 's office has disputed elements of BuzzFeed's report, and the president has denied everything. But if it is proved true, it’s what legal types call subornation of perjury. And subornation of perjury — rather than conspiracy or treason — might be the crime that brings Trump to his knees. After the Leopold and Cormier story broke, the price of black-market impeachment futures shot up by 35%.
But what does it mean to suborn perjury? Simply encouraging someone to rob a 7-Eleven is not the same as robbing a 7-Eleven ; the encourager isn’t even an accessory in that case. Can asking someone to lie be somehow worse than actually lying — or working for a hostile foreign power, for heaven’s sake?
Well, maybe not worse (although surely a “high crime” when the president does it). Subornation of perjury is its own category of offense. It’s a violation generally committed by lawyers who coach witnesses and clients, not clients like Trump who coach their lawyers.
Subornation of perjury gets lawyers disbarred, and can get anyone caught doing it up to five years in prison.
Pushing someone to lie to law enforcement is on the books as a crime in the U.S., Scotland and some other English-speaking countries. In the 19th century, perjury subornation was part of a practice known as “horse-shedding,” named for certain obstructors of justice who hung around taverns where juries stayed, posing as horse groomers. They subtly pressured the jurors to return false verdicts.
According to the California State Bar Code, when a lawyer suborns perjury, it’s an instance of “moral turpitude,” a wonderfully archaic term that the state bar says denotes "an act or behavior that gravely violates the sentiment or accepted standard of the community.”
If “moral turpitude” seems more churchy than lawyerly, that’s because it is. Outside of the state bar code, it’s defined in tones of even more righteous indignation: an "act of baseness, vileness or depravity in the private and social duties which a man owes to his fellow men, or to society in general, contrary to the accepted and customary rule of right and duty between man and man."
I’m all for applying this to Trump. His legendary “violations of norms” deserve a less flattering name; after all, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. also “violated norms.” So now we have a term that accurately describes the man in the White House. We can refer to Trump’s ceaseless assault on decency and American values as moral turpitude. Baseness, vileness and depravity.
From racist speech to sexual entendres aimed at his daughter to the ritual humiliation of his wife, Trump’s actions fit those nouns. His behavior, to use another legal term, is malum in se — evil in itself — regardless of whether an official statute exists that prohibits them.
Of course, this concept of turpitude, and acts that are malum in se, is vulnerable to abuse. Moral turpitude was initially an element in immigration law. You can extrapolate from there, but essentially, it allowed officialdom to sanction foreigners for violations of the customs and courtesies of the xenophobic ruling classes.
So now the president of the United States, the self-styled spokesman for the xenophobic ruling class, is himself accused of being morally vile. Tables have turned rather spectacularly.
Where immigrants to the United States are now among the most law-abiding and dutiful of our residents and citizens — despite what the president says — the commander-in-chief is vile by the standards of any culture, in any nation, at any time. Compulsive lying is laudable in no moral code on Earth.
In spite of the voice of a loud, white-supremacist minority, there’s growing consensus that Trump’s abuses of power are evil in se, where the speaking of Spanish or Korean in public places, for instance, is a self-evident right of the American people.
Not that Trump gets it. A man who’s lived out his life in the lie-rich worlds of reality TV, real estate puffery, public relations, locker room talk, lobbying, sales, political rallies, talk radio, tabloids and Fox News thinks lying is all there is.
Until now, there’s been no redress for exhausted Americans who are regularly insulted by this cruel joke of a president. But the invocation of subornation of perjury and moral turpitude puts Trump’s habit of deceit and, at long last, his character up for formal judgment.
Not a moment too soon. Trump’s actions are simply wrong. And not to get too Sunday school about it, but, one way or another, his moral turpitude will bring him down.