The blurry line between ‘fixer’ and ‘blackmailer’

The blurry line between ‘fixer’ and ‘blackmailer’ April 19, 2018

“Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.” — Luke 12:3

We’ve sometimes had to hire people to fix things. That I understand.

Like our friend Dave, who’s an electrician my wife has known since they were elementary school classmates. He’s really good, and he’s affordable. So if somebody else needs an electrician, we’re always like “You should call Dave.” And then our friends, later, will be, like, “Thanks for putting us in touch with Dave. He was great.” I get how that works.

But I’m not sure how it works if you need to hire a “fixer” in the sense that Michael Cohen has apparently worked, for years, for Donald Trump. If you have a scandalous secret that you’re intent on keeping a secret, then you can’t just ask around. For one thing, you’re not going to want anyone to know that you’re in the market for such services. Nor are others going to be happily recommending the guy they called. It’s not like anyone is going to be telling you, “My guy was great! He totally kept the lid on my ugly breakup with my Penthouse Pet mistress and nobody in the congregation or our board of deacons ever caught the slightest whiff!”

For another thing, you wouldn’t be able to know who to ask about finding a good one. I mean, if you’ve heard any rumor that someone else has relied on such a “fixer’s” services in the past, then, by definition, you also know that said fixer can’t have been as good at it as they ought to be. The only people you could be sure would be able to recommend a really top-tier, ultra-discreet fixer would be people who you had no idea had ever used one.

Think of Denny Hastert. That man spent 20 years in Congress and was the longest-serving Republican Speaker of the House in history. He was third in line to the presidency, got his name slapped on a lovely building at Wheaton College, and all the while, it turns out, he was paying hush money to the then-teenage victims he had molested when he was a high school wrestling coach.

The ceremony removing his name from the Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government, and Public Policy at Wheaton College involved smaller crowds, no speakers, and far less patriotic bunting.

Back when all of Hastert’s ugly secrets were still secret and it seemed he must have one of the very best fixers in the biz, no one could have known to say “Get me Hastert’s Guy.” And later, after Hastert’s vile secrets became public and he headed to prison, nobody would any longer want to hire Hastert’s Guy.*

Point being there’s no Angie’s List for fixers. There couldn’t be.

This is why I’m confused when I hear reports that Cohen or his associate Keith Davidson share a “reputation” as go-to guys for the role of “fixer” for the ultra-wealthy. It seems that any such reputation disproves itself.

The fact that we all know who Cohen and Davidson are, and what they are, and also who they work for, seems to indicate that they’re not very good at this.

Especially on that last point. One of my favorite recurring characters on the TV show Person of Interest was Zoe Morgan, the fictional “fixer” and secret-keeper played by Paige Turco. A big part of Zoe’s professional code as such was that she never, ever revealed who she was working for. Even the show’s super-genius-with-a-super-computer hero had a hard time tracing the identity of her clients, let alone the reasons they required her services.

Michael Cohen doesn’t seem to follow this rule. Hence the huge embarrassment this week for Fox News personality Sean Hannity when he was revealed to be a client of Cohen’s. Hannity wound up tripping over himself in his rush to distance himself from the implications the public was likely to draw from that association. Everybody knew what services Cohen had provided to his other clients — covering up (or, it turns out, failing to cover up) their extramarital affairs with adult film stars and Playboy models, and Hannity was so desperate to reassure his audience that he hadn’t hired Cohen to do that that he likely destroyed whatever attorney-client confidentiality he might have kept for whatever it was he did hire Cohen to do. (He says it was just “real estate” stuff — which might sound innocent if it weren’t for Cohen’s other apparent business connections.)

This seems to be a professional hazard for professional fixers. If you’re a lawyer in “the secrets business” — the term used by Davidson — then it’s difficult to also be a lawyer in any other kind of business. No matter what other services you might be able to provide for a client, their association with you is going to make everyone else assume that they’ve hired you as a fixer. And the more that’s perceived to be true, the fewer people will want to hire you to do anything else. And the fewer people who hire you to do anything else, the more that will be perceived as true. Keith Davidson, as far as I know, might be perfectly capable as an attorney in some other matter, but so are countless other attorneys you could hire without everyone in town being given cause to suspect that you probably have a former Hustler Honey stashed in a love nest somewhere.

But we haven’t yet gotten to the biggest problem with hiring a fixer. That would be this: The skill-set and activities of a good “fixer” are almost identical to the skill-set and activities of a good blackmailer. The business model isn’t even all that far apart. Anyone with the professional and ethical capacity for the one will also possess the professional and ethical capacity for the other. Whoever you hired to work for you in the former capacity might just as easily wind up working against you in the latter — possibly without you ever being sure of when or how or if that transition had occurred.

Was Michael Cohen working as a “fixer” for RNC Deputy Finance Chairman Elliott Broidy, arranging to keep secrets secret for the venture capitalist multi-millionaire Republican mega-donor? Or was the multi-millionaire (and felon) actually working for his blackmailer, Michael Cohen, in exchange for Cohen’s arranging to keep his secrets secret? We can’t be sure which. Neither can Broidy. Heck, not even Cohen can be sure which, really, because the line between the two is so fuzzy.

The same is true, of course, for Cohen’s other famous clients, including the president.

That means that the worst-case explanation for the relationship between Trump and Cohen is very bad and that even the best-case explanation for it isn’t much better. And that the line between those explanations is so fuzzy as to be almost imperceptible. It may be that Donald Trump, the president of the United States, employs as his personal attorney and “fixer” a man who also seems connected — in dozens of ways — with organized crime. Or it may be that organized crime, through Cohen, has its claws deep in the president — controlling his secrets and therefore also potentially controlling his actions and agenda.

I suspect that the way we’ll find out which is which is when we find out whether or not Cohen chooses to cut a deal. If Donald Trump is his real boss, then he’ll likely flip — betraying the man he’s been working for, cooperating with the special counsel’s investigation, and revealing the secrets he was hired to keep hidden. But if Cohen’s real boss is someone else — an actual “boss” — then such a deal wouldn’t be a safe option for him or for those he cares about.

Neither option looks good for Trump. If his fixer is really his, then he very well may wind up watching as his secret-keeper turns state’s evidence against him. But if Cohen doesn’t flip, then it will appear to mean that his fixer wasn’t really his at all — that Cohen wasn’t working for him, but rather that he has been in some way working for Cohen, and for whoever Cohen has been working for.

That would explain several things — several patterns — that are otherwise very difficult to explain.

It’s possible, of course, that all of the organized crime connections and associations and allegations surrounding Cohen don’t amount to anything substantial. Maybe all those guys really are just old friends from the old neighborhood. Maybe all those dubious cash transactions were just pettily criminal and not connected to any of the likelier, larger possibilities. Maybe his “real estate” advice to Hannity was just some shady tax-evasion scheme rather than entry into the world of global organized crime and money laundering that seems to be one step away from Cohen in every direction.

Maybe it’s even true that the hush-money pay-offs for Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal and Broidy’s mistress are the only ones we’ve heard about so far because they’re the only ones Cohen ever arranged — making him 0-for-3 lifetime as a fixer.

Maybe. But that’s a lot of maybes.

In any case, my advice for hiring a fixer is not to. Finding a person you can trust absolutely to be absolutely untrustworthy to everyone else is just too difficult a balancing act. If you’re hiring a fixer, you’re essentially agreeing to hire your own blackmailer. Better to face the pain and let the secrets be revealed.

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* Dennis Hastert actually doesn’t seem to have had a guy. Instead of relying on a “fixer,” he apparently handled his hush-money payments personally. Hastert did so without utlizing any of the convoluted pseudonymous NDCs or Delaware LLC shadow-companies that Cohen relies on. Maybe that’s why Hastert eventually got caught. Or maybe that’s why he managed to keep his secrets hidden far longer than Cohen has ever done for his clients.

Then again, it’s also possible that the Very Bad Things we’ve learned about Dennis Hastert’s secret life are not the only Very Bad Things he was keeping secret, and that he’s now out on parole thinking to himself “I wish the public had never learned about the hush-money payments to teenage wrestlers, but at least they never learned about that Other Thing. … Hail Hydra.”

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