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The Trump hush-money trial reveals a seamy world shot through with moral rot | Robert Reich



There is something important about Trump’s criminal trial in New York that’s not being openly talked about. I don’t mean we’re not getting the facts about what’s happening in Manhattan superior court. But something very big is being left out.

The trial has introduced us to a world of moral and ethical loathsomeness in which people use and abuse one another routinely. It’s Trump world.

Consider Stormy Daniels. Adult film stars are entitled to do as they wish to make money. But when they extort people who are running for public office – demanding huge payments in order to stay quiet about an affair – they’re contributing to a society in which every interaction has a potential price.

Last week we heard Daniels’s story, even more detailed and lascivious than expected. But perhaps the most troubling aspect of her behavior is that the moment the former president ran for office, she saw a chance to extort money from him. She then “shopped” her account of their sexual liaison before finally accepting $130,000 to be silenced in the 2016 election’s final, critical days.

Or consider Michael Cohen. Powerful people often need “fixers” – assistants that carry out their wishes and protect them from legal or political trouble. But when those fixers arrange payments to keep stories out of the media, they’re treading on morally thin ice.

Cohen didn’t just fix. He boasted of burying Trump’s secrets and spreading Trump’s lies. In his work for Trump, he repeatedly acted illegally and found ways to cover up his actions. After he paid Daniels to keep silent and Trump was elected president, Cohen concocted with Trump a means of being reimbursed that involved falsifying records that disguised the repayment as ordinary legal expenses, according to his testimony.

And then there’s David Pecker, publisher of the National Enquirer. Tabloids are part of a long tradition of US journalism. But when tabloid publishers buy stories to bury them on behalf of powerful people, thereby establishing a kind of bankable account of chits that can be cashed in with the powerful, it violates public morality because it corrupts our democracy.

Two weeks ago, Pecker testified about “catching and killing” stories – buying the exclusive rights to stories, or “catching them”, for the specific goal of ensuring the information never becomes public. That’s the “killing” part. According to people who have worked for him, Pecker mastered this technique – ethics be damned.

Which brings us to Trump himself. I don’t care that he had extramarital affairs. But when a presidential candidate tells his fixer to buy off someone – “just take care of it” – so the public doesn’t get information about a candidate before an election that they might find relevant to evaluating him, it undermines democracy.

This cast of characters – and there are many, many others like them in Trump world – are loathsome not only because they may have violated the law, but because they have contributed to a harsh society in which everyone is potentially bought or sold.

It’s a sell-or-tell society, a catch-and-kill society, a just-take-care-of-it society. A society where money and power are the only considerations. Where honor and integrity count for nothing.

I am not naive about how the world works. I’ve spent years in Washington, many of them around powerful people. I have seen the seamy side of US politics and business.

But the people who inhabit Trump world live in a more extreme place, where there are no norms, no standards of decency, no common good. There are only opportunities to make money and the dangers of being ripped off. It’s a place where there are no relationships, only transactions.

I sometimes worry that the daily dismal drone of Trump world – the continuous lies and vindictiveness that issue from Trump and his campaign, the dismissive and derogatory ways he deals with and talks about others, the people who testify at his criminal trial about what they have done for him and what he has done for or to them – has a subtly corrosive effect on our own world.

I think it is important to remind ourselves that most of the people we know are not like this. That honor and integrity do count. That standards of decency guide most behavior. That relationships matter.

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