Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author with Peter Eisner of “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Michael Cohen. Paul Manafort. David Pecker. Michael Flynn. President Donald Trump’s enablers are falling one by one, and his dream world is becoming a hellscape. Trump, a famous self-promoter who has bragged about his wealth, intelligence, physical prowess and winning ways, faces the prospect of humiliation on a scale that would be genuinely world class. And his story is becoming a modern parable about the dangers of hubris and limits of fakery.
The President’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen is the latest Trump associate to be sentenced to prison, after he pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, among other charges. According to prosecutors, Cohen admitted he “acted in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump when he made or helped arrange hush money payments to a Playboy model and an adult film actress in order to silence claims they each had affairs with Trump before he was President.
Trump, who has denied the affairs, appeared in a Fox News interview on Thursday to dismiss accusations of campaign finance violations, calling it a “civil matter” instead. He also went on to say, “I never directed [Cohen] to do anything wrong. Whatever he did, he did on his own.”
At his sentencing the day before, Cohen offered an apology and told the court he had ignored his own “inner voice” and “moral compass” in order to serve his boss. It’s hard to believe anyone with a working moral compass would have ever found himself in Cohen’s position in the first place. Yes, it’s possible a straight-shooter could have accepted an executive position in the Trump Organization, but anyone with an interest in honesty and fair-dealing would not have stuck around for as long as Cohen did. The lies Trump has told as President were foreshadowed by the manipulation he practiced as a private citizen.
David Pecker, CEO of American Media Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer, was one of the most important guardians of Trump’s media image. In the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections, AMI used the pages of its publications to gild the Trump image and attack his rivals, publishing one wild falsehood after another in an attempt to persuade readers that Hillary Clinton was either headed to jail or on the brink of death.
On Wednesday, federal prosecutors announced it had reached a nonprosecution deal with AMI. As part of the deal, AMI admitted it worked with Trump’s campaign to pay Karen McDougal $150,000 in order to “catch and kill” claims she had a sexual affair with Trump.
Pecker is also said to have reached an immunity deal. Given that he agreed to suppress damaging claims about Trump in August 2015, it’s possible there are other stories that have yet to see the light of day.
What would have motivated Pecker to buy the exclusive rights to stories about Trump, only to bury them? Perhaps he thought Trump would offer exclusive interviews in return, which might allow him to rake in more money through tabloid sales. But Pecker was already wealthy without Trump. He may have also appreciated Trump’s power and influence, or simply enjoyed the time he spent in Trump’s world.
Parties at Mar-a-Lago and Trump’s other properties could be glittering affairs. The guest list for Trump’s wedding to Melania Knauss, after all, included Bill and Hillary Clinton as well as Tony Bennett. The Trump image may have been built on false premises, but the tinsel was certainly real.
Others who became Trump allies may not have had better opportunities to gain the relevance they craved. The criminally convicted Paul Manafort, who flipped on the President only to be accused of lying to investigators, was a man without a candidate before he joined the Trump campaign in 2016 and steered it to the nomination. Having previously worked for Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Manafort must have seen that Trump was not fit for the role.
Although Manafort backtracked in his cooperation with prosecutors, he may have already given them a look behind the Trump façade. Certainly Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, is providing essential details on the truth about Trump.
The threats to the Trump image, and whatever substance lies behind his claim to extraordinary competence and vast wealth, go well beyond the information that may be provided by known cooperators. Trump’s longtime adviser Roger Stone has said he expects to be indicted, and several of his associates have been contacted for interviews or called to testify before a grand jury.
Letitia James, New York’s incoming attorney general, is also promising to investigate Trump’s businesses and his charitable activities. If she discovers wrongdoing under state law, Trump’s presidential pardon power will be useless because it applies only to federal offenses. To top it off, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives will be able to conduct hearings and produce testimony that is likely to contradict many of Trump’s claims about himself.
Altogether, the investigations, hearings and prosecutions are dissolving the shiny veneer that Trump created to make himself look bigger, better, richer and more talented. The price paid by those who willingly aided in the mythmaking is high, as these disgraced figures and their loved one would attest. But no one who entered Trump’s orbit and stayed there for a significant amount of time should have failed to see that Trump’s main product was illusion.
As the Trump edifice crumbles, the President is not the only one in danger. Everyone who joined his businesses and his campaign, including his own children and top political operatives, likely faced moments when they needed to consult a moral compass. One wonders how many followed Cohen into the hellscape.