Corruption defies stereotypes.
Michael Cohen once famously said that he would take a bullet for President Trump. At the time of his pronouncement I had my doubts, but no longer. For the past three weeks, his excretory system has been eliminating bullets upon bullets. If Mr. Cohen were a member of the same Native American bloodline that Elizabeth Warren boasts, by now he would be renamed Sitting Bullets as he faces multi-year incarceration.
There was a Seinfeld episode where Dr. Whatley, Jerry’s Catholic dentist, converts to Judaism and starts telling him one after another annoying “Jewish joke” amid a check-up. Jerry gets so annoyed that he goes to Dr. Whatley’s former parish priest to complain. As the priest asks Seinfeld whether the joke-telling offends him as a Jew, Jerry responds “No, it offends me as a comedian.” In similar manner, more than whether Michael Cohen offends me as a Jew, he offends me as an attorney. He is detestable and despicable.
1. On Stereotypes: Michael Cohen Is Detestable and Despicable.
Stereotypes are quite painful and unfair. Back in the 1970s, “Polish jokes” abounded casting Polish people as stupid. I have had many Polish-American friends, and they all are smart. At the time the jokes were circulating, the Catholic world was led by one of the most consequential and brilliant Popes in history, Karol Józef Wojtyła, Pope John Paul II. At the same time, seemingly the only truly intelligent person in the hapless Jimmy Carter administration was Zbigniew Brzezinski, his Warsaw-born national security advisor. (Mika Brzezinski might say he was Carter’s busboy. Did I get that word right? I am an Orthodox rabbi.) And the political leader of the Jewish world at that same time was Menachem Begin, a brilliant attorney and statesman who had been educated in Poland. Indeed, now that Charles Krauthammer has passed, Laura Ingraham, also of Polish descent, is the only political commentator for whom I will adjust my schedule. Some stereotype.
The racial stereotypes say about African Americans that they do not work as hard as others. That they are lazy. Go ahead and pick two hundred pounds of cotton in hot sun twelve hours a day every day for years as they did. I may despise the politics of these three despicable haters, but Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Louis Farrakhan are not lazy. Professional athletes of color who have been given the opportunity to succeed — lazy? No, that was the Caucasian guy, Johnny Manzel. Yes, the impact of Democrat Left “Big Government/Great Society” programs devastates any person’s work ethic, and the African American community have been singularly victimized by their tragic almost-monolithic adhesion to the Democrats, who have rewarded their Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons with huge pay days and cash transfers, while consigning the rank-and-file populations to the crime rates of Chicago, Baltimore, Memphis, and Ferguson and the other tragedies of the “Great Society” that left families disproportionately fatherless. That is not genetics; that is Democrat Left government. I even have published how my own work ethic was compromised during two years that I lived overseas in a socialist economy. Some stereotype.
Italian-Americans? We know the stereotype — and who has done more to proliferate it than Robert De Niro, an anti-Trump obscenity who never finished high school? Yet FBI data report that Italian-American organized-crime members and associates number approximately 3,000 among a population of approximately 18 million — that is one in 6,000. And the United States is replete with Italian-Americans who are among our society’s most aggressive defenders and enforcers of the law and the Constitution from prosecutors like Rudy Giuliani to Supreme Court Justices like Samuel Alito and former Justice Antonin Scalia.
And so it goes with the despicable Michael Cohen. Most non-Jews have no idea how severely Judaism treats breaches of business ethics. The Talmud teaches that, when a person dies and goes before G-d for judgment, the first question on which he is judged for eternity is whether he was honest in business. Talmud Tractate Shabbat 31a. The Code of Jewish Law is broken into four segments: laws of everyday life, laws of male-female relations (marriage, divorce, etc.), theological esoterica (laws for building a ritual bath, laws pertaining to kosher meat slaughter, etc.), and laws regarding business ethics. Contrary to the stereotype, that last volume not only is profoundly thick and heavy but also is the tip of an iceberg of tomes of volumes that expand on those laws. As one example, most American advertising practices are banned by Jewish law because they are deceptive. Michael Cohen is detestable and despicable.
Which transitions to the stereotype of attorneys. Think of encounters with auto mechanics, plumbers, kitchen-and-bath renovators, automobile salespeople, house painters. Who regulates these fields? What are the career penalties for cheating? By contrast, the legal field brutally self-regulates. Attorneys are put through an initial character assessment in order to be admitted to practice law, and violators are suspended from practice or even disbarred for life. Yes, the stereotype of the dishonest attorney is intensified because law by its nature is complex and esoteric; therefore, many laity do not know what is going on as an attorney lays out a byzantine but effective course of action or later sends a bill delineating hours worked. If legal work were covered as is health care, with insurance paying 80 percent and clients paying 20 percent, much resentment would be mitigated. But few have reason to pay annual premiums for litigation insurance. As someone who went to law school, clerked for one of the nation’s leading federal appellate judges, has practiced law and also been a law professor for fifteen years, I know first-hand how brutally honest most attorneys are. I do not like all of them. I even have despised some of them, including the occasional anti-Semite or boorish and sadistic emotional abuser at law firms where I have worked, even as I often have respected and later befriended quality attorneys who opposed me in litigation matters. The vast majority fight zealously but honorably. Legal ethics is a mandatory course in law school. It is tested by the state bars. I incorporate heavy doses of it in my courses, which all are advanced electives. And, yes, Michael Cohen is detestable and despicable.
2. The Rich Client Who Needs Tax Advice.
A wealthy person desires to shelter income and pay as little tax as possible, in the way that Omaha billionaire Warren Buffett manages to pay less in taxes than does his secretary. The gazillionaire in business specializes in making money, not in sheltering it. So he or she retains an attorney specializing in tax law. The best tax attorneys know all the tricks in the book: how to manipulate and leverage all the fine print in the tax code to avoid or reduce paying the taxes that the rest of us working stiffs pay. They understand the nuances of corporations, LLCs, LLPs, pass-throughs, shell corporations, off-shore investments. These attorneys cost a bunch, but they save their clients so much more. They know how to structure wills, estates, trusts. That is one reason that billionaires like Donald Trump are under perpetual tax review and audit — because the attorneys protecting those assets construct webs and mechanisms so complex that it can take months or even years for auditing regulators to unwind what they have spun.
If an audit reveals ultimately that an attorney’s tax strategy proves to be legally flawed, the IRS will go after the taxpayer for the money due. However, as the facts emerge, the taxpayer will not be deemed criminally at fault. Any fair-minded jury will grasp, as will any judge, that the mistakes were those of the lawyers and are their malpractice. No system of justice ultimately will hold a befuddled gazillionaire liable for tax structures, mechanisms, and the like that are so complex that only a tax lawyer could have constructed them.
3. Paying a Lawyer to Handle Hush Money Transactions.
As elaborated more fully here, Hush Money is sordid. Congress has had a $17 million Hush Money account. NBC has paid hush money to protect Chris Matthews and Charlie Sheen. Fox to protect Bill O’Reilly. CBS to protect Sixty Minutes producer Don Hewitt. The idea of paying someone to shut up after having been played is morally vile.
People who pay Hush Money should not be Popes or Cardinals of the Catholic church, heads of the Southern Baptist Convention, or Chief Rabbis. However, we Americans long ago decided that our Presidents are held to a rolling, floating morality standard that derives partly from the morality of the era, partly from how well we are doing financially, and partly from whether we just like the guy. Bill Clinton forever will be associated with Gennifer Flowers, Paula Corbin Jones (unzip in Arkansas hotel room, with procurement assistance from state troopers), Juanita Broaddrick (rape), Kathleen Willey (pawing, grabbing, assaulting, battering), and Monica Lewinsky (stain, cigar). Yet, although he never got 50 percent of a Presidential vote, Clinton was lionized by Democrats including Kirsten Gillibrand until Hillary lost in 2016, leaving the Clintons no longer useful unless discounted on Groupon.
John F. Kennedy had a wife who appeared to be lovely and classy, but his Presidential aspirations extended not only to Marilyn Monroe but also to Judith Exner, to intern Mimi Alford, and to who-knows-what-else. President Warren Harding was involved in at least two extramarital affairs, but people liked him. Grover Cleveland had fathered a child with a woman he never married; his campaign opponents taunted him with that scandal. But the voters elected him anyway. As his opponents sarcastically ran a slogan “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” the Cleveland campaign retorted after his election: “Gone to the White House — Ha, Ha, Ha!”
We may never know the full extent of Donald J. Trump’s familiarity with the pole dancer who took $130,000 from him, via Michael Cohen, to shut up. We know that the very wealthy pay hush money to such types all too often, whether to protect their marriages from collapsing, to spare their spouses from public humiliation and mockery, to deter sordid headlines from being read by their children, or the like. None of this has anything to do with campaigning for office. The 2016 voters who elected Trump knew of his 2005 Access Hollywood trailer conversation with NBC’s Billy Bush about women. They knew of Trump’s history of dalliances. They just decided that they cared more about border security, the festering Obama economy, repealing and replacing Obamacare, treating ISIS as more than a Junior Varsity team, China’s abusive trade practices, other disastrous trade agreements that leave America on the short end, rescinding the disastrously myopic Iran Deal, standing up to the UN, making Europe pay its fair share of NATO — and, no matter whom the Republicans were proffering, not having any more Hillary anymore.
Whatever transpired between Trump and the pole dancer, it now appears that he consulted one of his attorneys, Michael Cohen, to arrange for the transfer of $130,000 to the woman in return for her shutting up. Trump could have gone to a bagman. Instead, he went to a lawyer. The reason a person goes to a lawyer in a situation like that is that he wants to do something that is not elegant — in this situation, sordid and morally vile — and he wants to make sure that, at least, it is done legally. Just as complex tax structures are conceived by specialists in tax law to protect their clients’ wealth while such clients fully trust with confidence that their attorneys are skilled and knowledgeable in the area, so it is when a Hush Money payment is made through a lawyer. The client essentially says:
“I am a gazillionaire. I know business. That is my expertise. You are a lawyer. You know the laws. That is your expertise. I have this big-mouth pole dancer who wants to say these terrible things that will embarrass my wife and kids, and I want her just to shut up. How much will she cost? How much will you cost to arrange this? Can you guarantee that, once she is paid, you will be able to draft a contractual agreement that is so air-tight that she definitely will shut up? And can you assure me that this all is legal?”
This is what goes on in parts of America populated by the Rich and Squamous. Chief Sitting Bullets seems to have assured his hotel-and-casino tycoon client that it all was legal. A business tycoon is not legally at fault when he seeks legal assistance from an attorney who holds himself out as expert in an area of the law, and that attorney assures him “Leave it to me. I can handle all of this legally. Just pay my bill timely. [Oh, and can you please speak a bit more loudly into that stapler?]”
4. Cohen Had a Choice — I Know… Because I Did.
I initially practiced as a congregational rabbi for ten years. For financial reasons and matters pertaining to accommodating certain players who impacted my first marriage, I thereafter studied law and became an attorney. For several years I practiced serially at two of the nation’s most highly regarded firms, Jones Day and Akin Gump. I arrived with an excellent résumé, including the federal appellate clerkship and my having been Chief Articles Editor at Law Review. My years at those two firms honed my litigation skills to a remarkable degree and also addressed certain personal financial concerns. When that 25-year first marriage ended anyway, I immediately mapped a personal plan to return to my passion, rabbinic work, and I was determined that anyone I marry would share those dreams. G-d blessed me with the love of my life, my wife of these past 18¾ years. (I hope I got that number right.)
As I transitioned back to rabbinics, I also continued practicing some complex business litigation in order to soften the financial impact of returning to a more modestly compensated career. Towards that end, I began teaching as a law professor and continued practicing law as a consultant and as private personal counsel to a select few high-net-worth clients. One of them retained me among three such personal attorneys. I am not at liberty to disclose that which was confidential, but I was asked to do something very similar to what Michael Cohen apparently was asked to do. When that happened, I went home and had a talk with my wife, asking her blessings because I had decided to drop my single highest-paying client promptly. She (i) gave me her blessings, (ii) knew I would drop the client even without her assent, (iii) had married me because she had wanted the kind of husband who would drop such a client regardless of ensuing financial impact, and (iv) I had married her because I had wanted to be with someone whose values and priorities mirrored my own.
I practice law and offer sensitively focused legal counsel. I teach Torah and provide pastoral care. Clarence Darrow once said that he does not like shredded wheat and does not like people who like shredded wheat. I feel that way about structuring hush-money payments and about those who agree to structure them. When I needed to accommodate my first marriage, I did not leave the rabbinate and go to law school, do Law Review, and clerk in the federal appellate court so that one day I could pay cash to pole dancers to shut up. Michael Cohen had the same simple choice I had. But he is corrupt.
Michael Cohen now has figured out the Avenatti hook: that there is fame and fortune in denigrating President Trump (as long as you don’t punch a woman in the face). But if he is looking to pin his corruption and decadence on someone else, he will not find the source of that evil in his payoffs to the pole dancer. Rather, the corruption lies within himself, dating well before he even started with Mr. Trump. He surreptitiously has audio-recorded clients. He has evaded taxes. He has made false statements to a bank to get a loan. He cashed a $350,000 check made out to him by a Russian hockey player with the cash to be passed along to the girlfriend of a Russian mobster. He has gotten himself into a morass with New York City taxi medallions to the degree that the Taxi and Limousine Commission demanded he sell all the medallions he owned within two weeks or have them revoked. Such a person cannot be trusted. Not a word. If his forthcoming three-year incarceration is to do him any good, he had best address his own inner demons and desist from pandering to a Left Media that seek out a new Avenatti, a new Omarosa every week, only to spit them out when the next flavor arrives.