Following the conviction of two of his top lieutenants, Donald Trump has adopted the gangster parlance of another New Yorker famously terrorized by Robert Mueller: John Gotti. “I know all about flipping, for 30, 40 years, I’ve been watching flippers,” Trump explained in an interview with Fox News that aired Thursday, referring to the deal his former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, cut with federal prosecutors this week. “If you can say something bad about Donald Trump and you will go down to two years or three years, which is the deal he made, in all fairness to him, most people are going to do that,” he told Fox host Ainsley Earhardt, who appeared to be trying her best to maneuver the president toward more advantageous talking points. Instead, Trump lashed out again and again at those he has described as “rats” for speaking with federal law-enforcement officers about the conduct they witnessed in the course of his 2016 campaign.
If the White House was at all concerned about the president of the United States emulating La Cosa Nostra, they did nothing to stop Trump from happily publicizing his remarks on Twitter, where he shared multiple clips from the interview. In perhaps the most revealing moment, he suggested that cooperating with prosecutors should itself be made a crime—and that anything his former associates are telling Mueller about him are lies to save their own skin. “I have seen it many times,” he continued, leaning in toward Earhardt. “I have had many friends involved in this stuff. It’s called flipping, and it almost ought to be illegal.”
Trump’s casual admission that he has had “many friends” involved in flipping, or being flipped on themselves, is the sort of thing that would, in another era, shock Republicans and generate weeks of controversy. Instead, party leaders are largely excusing the president’s criminal idiom as just more locker-room talk. “Eight years ago to 10 years ago, Trump was not what I consider to be a pillar of virtue,” Orrin Hatch, the second-highest-ranking official of the U.S. Senate, told The New York Times on Wednesday, after Cohen testified that Trump had directed him to break the law by facilitating hush-money payments to two women who allege they had affairs with the future president. “I think most people in this country realize that Donald Trump comes from a different world. He comes from New York City, he comes from a slam-bang, difficult world.” Trump’s prolonged campaign to tar the Justice Department (often with sarcastic quotation marks around the word “Justice”) has itself been tacitly adopted by all but a few outspoken G.O.P. leaders.
On the campaign trail, Trump’s rough reputation as a brash Manhattan real-estate magnate was part of his appeal. More recently, however, the seedier side of his playboy lifestyle has overwhelmed the gilded facade: associations with criminals and con men, payoffs to women, out-of-court settlements, non-disclosure agreements. Trump’s hard-core fan base appears to be giving him a pass—the interview with Earhardt itself epitomized the casual indifference with which Fox News has treated the majority of the president’s scandals. Trump’s allies in Congress, however, sound increasingly worried that the appearance of criminality surrounding the president’s inner circle—and his tacit support of their behavior—will hurt the party’s chances of holding onto the House in November. The Times reports that “Publicly and privately, Republicans conceded that the guilty pleas did not look good and were not optimal heading into the midterm election—especially as the party struggles to keep its hold on the House.”
Still, as the Times notes, Republican lawmakers aren’t doing much about the convictions, or Trump’s Goodfellas-inspired response, other than to distance themselves from his most overt indulgence of white-collar crime. (On Wednesday, Trump called Manafort “brave” for refusing to “break” under pressure.) “It is bad news for the country, bad news for these people involved who either pled or were found guilty,” Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama told the Times, but said he didn’t want to get too involved while he focused on appropriation bills: “I don’t know other than what I read and see.” Senator Lindsey Graham described his “No. 1 goal right now” as to “keep doing my day job” and let Mueller do his.
For now, Republicans are pinning their hopes on the ability of the Trump-media industrial complex, namely Fox News, to keep the heat off Trump while helping to discredit Mueller’s investigation into the president. Trump himself seems to be betting on the booming economy as a firewall in November. “I don’t know how you can impeach somebody who’s done a great job,” Trump told Earhardt. If he were impeached, he argued, “Everybody would be very poor.” But the president’s habit of talking like a mafioso isn’t doing the party any favors. When asked Thursday whether he agreed with Trump that flipping should be illegal, Texas Senator John Cornyn—a former state Supreme Court justice and attorney general—perfectly encapsulated how the G.O.P. has found itself boxed in by the president’s “slam-bang” understanding of law and order. “Uh, I have to think about that a little more,” Cornyn told reporters on Capitol Hill. “That’s uh—I’ve never heard that argument before.
Thanks to Tina Nguyen.
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