One of the challenging things about covering the Trump presidency is that it’s not always easy to dismiss gossip as unworthy of coverage.
Every time Donald Trump opens his mouth in public, he either lies or says something so egregious that he accidentally lends credence to rumors that would otherwise seem too outlandish to be true. In fact, one struggles to think of a single piece of uncorroborated gossip about the Trump administration that is definitively more preposterous than the things the President says, on record, every single day.
For example, I cannot point to any excerpt from Bob Woodward’s bombshell book Fear or really, anything from Michael Wolff’s Fire And Fury, that is decisively more insane than Trump’s recent tweets and public comments about the migrant caravan making its way through Mexico to the U.S. border.
The point is, Trump effectively validates even the most sensational gossip by saying things, out loud, to people with working ears, that are easily as unhinged as the uncorroborated, behind-the-scenes accounts leaked by anonymous administration officials.
Of course some gossip simply isn’t worth spending time on. I don’t care, for instance, one way or another about what did or didn’t happen in the bedroom between Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels, and neither should you. The same thing goes for all of his other alleged affairs. If there’s a campaign finance violation in there somewhere, well then that’s worth writing about, but if Trump likes getting spanked by a porn star with a rolled up copy of Forbes while watching Shark Week, well then that’s his prerogative and it’s really none of my business (or yours).
Other gossip, though, is relevant. For instance, it’s relevant if the Secretary of State calls the President a “moron” in the context of nuclear weapons, because that might mean the guy with the launch codes is dangerous. Similarly, it’s relevant if the National Security Advisor thinks the President has the “intelligence of a kindergartner“, because again, that could be dangerous.
It’s also relevant if the President is a racist. Let me just say (again) that I have my doubts about whether Trump is a racist in the sense that a lot of folks seem to think. Trump is too selfish to be the kind of racist that spends his spare time pondering “white power” as a movement or as an ideology. Trump probably can’t even define the term “ideology”. His nationalism is a strange hybrid of tacky glitz and truck stop, bumper sticker jingoism. This is a man who spends his evenings gorging himself on well-done NY strips doused in Ketchup while watching Fox News. It’s not like he’s holed up in his study penning genocidal political manifestos by candle light.
That said, Trump has a long history of demonstrating a kind of dumb racism (all racism is inherently “dumb”, but here I use that term to describe the kind of racism that makes one think, for instance, that every African American in a Walmart is going to steal something or that every Mexican is a drug dealer) when it’s convenient or when he thinks he might be able to garner some publicity. Over the course of his presidency, Trump’s racism has become more dangerous to the extent he’s stumbled into adopting overtly nefarious narratives, the most glaring example of which is the anti-Semitic “globalist” conspiracy meme.
I am not at all convinced that Trump actually believes everything racist that comes out of his mouth, but the obvious problem is that because he’s the President of the United States, people who do spend their evenings thinking about genocide and race wars feel like they have the presidential stamp of approval. Unfortunately, those people are allowed to vote, and Trump needs those votes, so he plays the game. In the final act, Trump watches replays of himself at rallies and gets caught up in his own reality distortion loop. That makes him vulnerable to falling hook, line and sinker for his own rhetoric. That, in turn, compels him to parrot himself at the next rally, further emboldening the base and before you know it, you’ve got a self-feeding hate loop that precipitates violence.
So that’s the context for some fresh gossip out of Vanity Fair, whose Emily Jane Fox on Friday released a rather disconcerting piece that finds Michael Cohen documenting some of Trump’s comments about African Americans.
Fox frames Cohen’s comments as an effort on his part to give voters a window into the “real” Donald Trump and she also goes to great lengths to suggest that Cohen – the son of a Holocaust survivor – was motivated to come forward ahead of his sentencing next month, by the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. That may well be true. That is, Cohen, like anyone who has the ability to feel empathy, was aghast at the prospect of 11 innocent people being gunned down in their place of worship.
That said, Michael Cohen is Michael Cohen: Bumbling accomplice turned moron with an axe to grind. Thankfully, Fox readily acknowledges the myriad elephants in the room. “Certainly, Cohen is aggrieved, and his credibility has been questioned by the president, his lawyers, and others”, she writes, adding that “his allegations could inflame the very divisions that he’s said he wants to diffuse.”
So why quote him? Well, here’s what Cohen apparently conveyed to Vanity Fair:
Through the president’s public attacks against him, he stayed silent, as his lawyers advised, and he’s taken a risk in sharing these recollections on the record. When I asked him why he was coming forward now with such uncomfortable claims, Cohen was clear: he knew that the president’s private comments were worse than his public rhetoric, and he wanted to offer potential voters what he believed was evidence of Trump’s character in advance of the midterm elections.
Again, I do not believe that Trump’s private comments are worse than his public rhetoric and Vanity Fair’s article does nothing at all to alter my assessment. That doesn’t mean Cohen’s comments aren’t worth documenting, but just this week, Trump suggested he would instruct the U.S. military to shoot unarmed Central American migrants trying to enter the United States. In September 2017, he told the U.N. General Assembly that he would “totally destroy” (i.e., nuke) North Korea. And on and on. So it’s hard for me to see how anything Cohen might have to offer could be worse. You can judge for yourself.
Here’s what Cohen told Vanity Fair about a discussion he claims he had with Trump after a campaign rally in 2016:
During our conversation, Cohen recalled a discussion at Trump Tower, following the then-candidate’s return from a campaign rally during the 2016 election cycle. Cohen had watched the rally on TV and noticed that the crowd was largely Caucasian. He offered this observation to his boss. “I told Trump that the rally looked vanilla on television. Trump responded, ‘That’s because black people are too stupid to vote for me.’”
Cohen went on to say that was par for the course for Trump. Apparently, Trump once asked Cohen to “Name one country run by a black person that’s not a sh*thole”, following Nelson Mandela’s death.
Cohen also said that sometime in the “late 2000s”, when the two men were driving through a rough neighborhood in Chicago on the way to a hotel from the airport, Trump looked at their surroundings and remarked that “only the blacks could live like this”. Cohen goes on to claim that Trump once used skin color as an excuse not to let an African American win The Apprentice. “There’s no way I can let this black f-g win'”, Cohen recalls Trump saying.
There is nothing surprising about any of this. And, as alluded to here at the outset, Trump has said so many shocking things in public over the past three years (and really, over the past three days), that Cohen’s revelations hardly bear mentioning.
Additionally, the sad fact of the matter is that the majority of Americans would make the exact same comment (if only in their heads) while driving through a predominately African American community. That’s something I’ve mentioned in these pages before. One of the reasons Trump has been so successful politically is that he plays on fears and prejudices that many Americans harbor, even if they don’t openly express it and/or admit as much to themselves.