Sheila Markin is a former Assistant US Attorney. She helps people to understand in plain English what is going on in US politics today. Subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss a post!
Have you read Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure? It’s a fascinating book. You might want to read it to learn about the tactics employed by reality TV shows because some of these tactics are being used on us politically these days. We have a reality TV president. He understands the power and the dynamics of shaping the truth and he is hard at work to shape ours. Trump and Cohen are in a pitched PR battle on mainstream media and other outlets to create the reality they want us to believe in. Some of the tactics they are using to influence us are straight out of the reality TV playbook.
Producers for reality TV shows like The Bachelor, for example, have ideas about what they are planning to portray in these so-called reality TV series. First, they pick people to be in the show, looking for certain types of people who “fit the part”. Those people sign away their rights to object to being depicted in ways that are not true or accurate. Why? Because if you want to be on the show, you must agree to their rules.
The filming for the series starts with raw footage, film, “B roll”, but after that phase, the editors take the footage and alter it, shape it, and change it to tell the story they want to sell to you. In Bachelor Nation, you get to learn about some of the shady tactics that include manipulating contestant’s emotions. The producers are not above getting contestants to cry by talking with them about their mother’s recent death or some other trauma to get them tearful for the scene they want to create. Once the person is crying, they might suddenly change the topic to talk about their relationship with the bachelor. That’s how they get the contestant to look tearful for the storyline they need. Producers and editors also cut and paste what contestants are saying using editing tools that erase words, seamlessly, so the footage looks unaltered. A contestant who says “I don’t love him” in the raw footage can be altered to say “I love him” in the edited version using techniques that fool the viewer. Reality show producers manufacture the reality they want to portray to advance their overarching story.
Trump and Cohen are doing this to us too. They are both trying to shape the reality we are seeing and hearing to tell the story they want us to believe.
We have just learned that Michael Cohen is willing to talk with Mueller to tell what he knows about the Trump Tower meeting with Russians connected to Putin who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. Cohen is ready to say that Trump knew of the meeting and approved of the meeting. If true, (and, spoiler alert, it is true), that puts Trump squarely in the middle of the Russian Wikileaks, cyber-attack and social media campaign conspiracy to defraud us of a fair election. In other words, Trump had the knowledge and intent to work with Russia. Once we have this piece of the puzzle, we understand why Trump has worked so hard to dissemble, cover up and obstruct justice. Something Trump has been claiming is a witch hunt changes into a crime that many would call treason. He worked with a foreign adversary to weaponize information streams to become president. How many times has he squawked out “No Collusion! No Collusion!” Now that tweet becomes part of the obstruction of justice evidence against him.
If Cohen is to be believed, he holds the card that will demolish Trump’s central claim of innocence and ignorance. This is a bombshell. Unless Cohen is a big fat liar. What is the truth about Cohen? Is he a liar or is he telling the truth? The battle for the high ground between two known liars- Trump and Cohen- is being played out in the media right now.
Trump has a bunch of “producers” on his team that include Rudy Guiliani and Fox News, Sean Hannity and others who are essentially working on the B roll to reshape reality to fit their storyline. I think it is likely that Trump’s team leaked the information about Cohen’s bombshell. Why? For two strategic reasons.
First, they wanted to get the bombshell news out there in the public space so that they could work on the message, break down Cohen’s credibility and shape our view of Cohen as an inveterate liar. If it is Cohen alone saying this about Trump, then Cohen’s credibility matters a lot. If Cohen’s statements cannot be corroborated with strong factual supportive evidence (such as other people in the room who heard and saw the same thing and already testified before the Grand Jury or spoke with FBI agents), tearing down Cohen’s credibility is probably an effective tactic. However, Cohen has said there were other people in the room. These incidental people might be Trump’s secretary or Hope Hicks, for example. Their testimony could corroborate what Cohen said he heard and knew. If that is so, Cohen’s credibility will be supported. If not, he will be subject to attack based on his record of lying in the past to help his client, Donald Trump, get what he wanted in the seedy world of real estate, Russian money laundering and paying off porn stars.
Second, Trump is a vindictive man. Trump wants to hurt Cohen to get even with him. Trump really likes hurting other people who are not loyal to him. If a defendant wants to get a good plea deal, they have to offer the prosecution useful, helpful, truthful evidence. By coming out now with Cohen’s bombshell, Trump stole one of Cohen’s valuable cards that Cohen could have played to get a good plea deal from Mueller. This bombshell information that Cohen had was like a good hand in poker. I think Trump showed Cohen’s hand to the world first to punish him. “You think you’re going to beat me with this piece of reality? I will beat you up first.”
Cohen has hired his own “reality show producer”, Lonny Davis. He has also been having meetings with people like the Reverend Al Sharpton and Donnie Deutsch and others who then appear on MSNBC to tell us that Cohen has turned the corner and had a “Come to Jesus” experience, so to speak. He is coming clean with the American people. He is on the side of truth, justice and the American way. He will be our Superman. And he may be. But he is also in the fight of his life to get a decent plea deal from Mueller so that he does not have to rot in jail for the rest of his days. He needs to have his evidentiary aces in the hole to do that. To do better in his coming trial, he wants us to believe he is credible. Meanwhile, Cohen and Davis and those surrogates supporting him will be trying to convince us that Cohen is a changed man and he is to be believed. And Trump will probably want to keep hurting Cohen. He will likely reveal more of Cohen’s cards to the world, taking away his power to get a good deal with Mueller. That’s Trump’s way of saying, “Rot in hell, you dirty rat. You weren’t loyal to me.”
You might wonder how is it that Trump can do this to Cohen. Trump’s legal team (which includes Trump’s PR arm – Guiliani et al) has access to the evidence that was discovered in the raids on Cohen’s places of work and his home. Even if the evidence is protected by attorney-client privilege and therefore not allowed to come into evidence in a court of law, (Cohen was Trump’s lawyer/fixer), Trump can waive that privilege because Trump was the client in that relationship. By now Trump’s team has copies of all the Cohen tapes, for example. They are entitled to get all of this because of the rules of evidence in criminal trials. One of my concerns is whether Trump’s team will try to alter the tapes and then claim theirs are the ones that are accurate. The real tapes they will allege were altered by the “deep state” FBI and DOJ who are out to get him. That would be consistent with Trump’s reality TV mindset and his criminality.
President Trump is no ordinary criminal defendant, however. He may never be charged with a crime although we might learn of his involvement if he is named as an unindicted co-conspirator. (The DOJ has a rule that a sitting president cannot be indicted.) Trump can, however, be impeached. This alternate reality PR gambit we see playing out is about getting Americans to believe his version of reality in case of impeachment. I am certain that he is not above doctoring tapes or other evidence to create a better reality for himself and try to avoid being removed from office.
In addition, Trump is not your ordinary criminal defendant because a president has a lot of power that most defendants could only dream of. He has the bully pulpit and his own TV channel, Fox News, (Sinclair also), and a team of people working for him paid for by the American people no less. He has a lot of resources to help him shape reality. However, he needs to try hard to alter reality because he has also been proven to be the biggest fattest liar of them all clocking in at about 6 big lies a day and over 2,000 significant lies to date in his presidency. (Trump’s lies are being tracked by Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star as well as other journalists and fact checking groups.)
We see Trump’s willingness to lie, dissemble and change reality with the altered reality incident that came out of the Helsinki news conference with Putin and Trump. Remember that news conference that was held after the 2 ½ hour Trump- Putin love fest they had behind closed doors? The two of them emerged and took questions from reporters.
A reporter asked Putin the following two-part question: “President Putin, did you want President Trump to win the election? And did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?” Putin’s reply was “Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the US Russia relationship back to normal.”
What happened next was covered by Rachel Maddow and other reliable media sources. The video and the transcript were mysteriously altered. They were altered to make it look as if Putin had not endorsed Trump. Parts of the video were omitted in the White House version to cover up the endorsement by Putin. The transcript was also altered to be consistent with the altered video. Errors can happen in transcriptions and even in video content, but in this case many cameras were rolling at that press conference, and many news organizations had the raw footage which was clearly different from the official White House version. Putin had definitely said that he wanted Trump to win and directed officials to help him do it. It was only after intense pressure that the White House finally corrected the record. It took a week to make that correction where it would normally have happened in a day with past administrations because of a need for an accurate record for historians. Trump and company were trying to alter reality but this time they were forced to tell the truth because of media scrutiny and the resulting outrage.
But make no mistake about it, Trump is a fighter and PR is his weapon. He wants to alter our reality. The message we are getting from Trump’s team about Cohen is “Cohen is a big fat liar. Can’t believe a word he says.” This is going to get redundant. We will hear that over and over again. Trump has also flatly denied (again) that he knew about the Trump Tower meeting. We will hear that over and over again as well. Repetition helps to shape reality. If you are a Fox News viewer you are buying the Trump version of this reality show.
As for the rest of us, the majority of Americans, we know that Trump is a liar and Fox is his friend. We know we are being fed a steady diet of lies and misinformation by our government to get us to believe things that are not really the case. It is demoralizing. That is the goal. To demoralize us. We need to rely on news that is generally trustworthy and sources that are reliable such as MSNBC and CNN as well as the Washington Post, NY Times and others. Although there are some glitches here and there, these have proven to be reliable news sources with trustworthy journalists.
How will we get out of this world of propaganda and gaslighting? I remain hopeful that when the court cases that are building up against Trump bring out the truth and factually supported evidence, everyone except Fox News and the dwindling group of Trump cult followers, will believe the truth. Even now, with every indictment from Mueller, facts wipe out fantasy.
But we are not there yet. The legal cases are still building. There are quite a few of them coming. The emoluments case, the Maria Butina/ NRA Russian spy case, the Cohen case, the Mueller investigation, Stormy Daniels and the other NDA cases brought to you by Michael Avenatti. The list is long. Right now we have a relatively blank slate where the truth should be. And on that slate, Trump, Guiliani, Fox News as well as Cohen, Lonny Davis and others are working overtime trying to shape our reality.
At a rally in Kansas City, Missouri, Trump recently made this remarkably revealing statement from the podium:
“Just remember what you are seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
What a perfect statement from this reality TV president!