Michael Cohen and the phony-tough

Forty-five years ago, in the wake of Watergate, Stewart Alsop wrote a brilliant column in which he distinguished between the crazy-brave and the phony-tough. Alsop was addressing the question of how reasonably intelligent people in Nixon’s circle could have approved, or failed to scotch, wild schemes including but not limited to the Watergate break in.

Alsop’s thesis was that the crazy-brave Gordon Liddy intimidated phony tough guys like John Mitchell, Chuck Colson, and John Ehrlichman. He explained:

[T]he crazy-brave have a hex on the phony-tough [because] the crazy-brave challenge the phony-tough to translate tough talk into dangerous action. . . .

It is clear from the testimony [at the Watergate hearings] and other evidence that the Nixonian phony-toughs were scared sick of the crazy-brave Liddy, and kept trying to get rid of him. He kept getting tossed around like a hot potato from the Treasury Department to the White House to the Committee for the Reelection of the President to the Finance Committee, but no one had the guts to fire him.

No one — according to my theory — had quite the guts, either, to tell him to his face to forget his wild schemes for doing in the Democrats.

Michael Cohen fits Alsop’s description of phony-tough. Indeed, his famous comment that he would “take a bullet for Donald Trump” is an exaggerated version of Chuck Colson’s claim that he would “walk over my grandmother” to re-elect Nixon.

Cohen proved unwilling to take a bullet for Trump. He took a plea deal for himself and became a fount of information about Trump for the prosecution. (How much of his information is truthful remains to be seen.) Today he was sentenced to three years in jail.

I don’t blame Cohen for taking a deal and cooperating with the prosecution. I blame him for the phony tough talk and, above all, for whatever crimes he actually committed (which does not necessarily include all of the ones he pleaded guilty to).

Today, during his sentencing proceeding, Cohen attributed his criminality to the original sin (as he would now have it) of working for Donald Trump. I can see how being Trump’s personal lawyer might land one in parlous situations.

But Cohen’s account doesn’t quite ring true. As I understand it, Cohen’s own crooked real estate deals are at least part of what landed him in trouble with the prosecutors. They leveraged his culpability for deeds unrelated to Trump, as well perhaps as some that are Trump-related, to squeeze him into pleading guilty and providing information about Trump.

Cohen cannot blame Trump for his own corrupt real estate deals.

Is Donald Trump phony-tough or crazy-brave? He’s no Gordon Liddy, thank God, but I think he’s plenty brave and plenty tough.

He sure picked a phony-tough lawyer, though. Maybe, in a reversal of Stewart Alsop’s theory, phony tough guys like Michael Cohen have a hex on him.

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