14 December 2018

Biting the bullet

Dom/sub relationships have strong patterns that are worth noting

By Agnes Foy

Prior to his congressional testimony, Michael Cohen, personal lawyer to Donald Trump, wanted the world to know that his loyalty to the president was deep and unwavering - and then some. His stance was unambiguous: “I’d never walk away.” Cohen has often been described as the sixth Trump child. Both men have strong track records of prioritising loyalty. This value system certainly doesn’t make them unique.

The King Lear farce aptly demonstrates how we're cued to expect that expressions of deep loyalty will perennially evoke strong emotions - in all superiors. Obsequious declarations by subordinates of their willingness to take a bullet for the boss consistently evoke strong emotions too - in vying subordinates. The final scene in the film Casablanca also conveys the same human craving for loyalty - Louis and Rick are Hollywood fog framed in a glowing state of loyalty euphoria. "Et tu, Brute?" is a catchphrase that has the power to generate covert terror in the hearts of all men. 

Cohen/Trump dynamics

There is nothing unusual about the Cohen/Trump dynamics. A lawyer is always client subordinate; not least because the client is paying and it is seldom difficult for the client to secure an alternative legal services provider. Demarcation lines for immorality are always hazy too, not least because ‘dishonesty’ is always a subjective premise. Complex layers of values-laden biases invariably pollute the mix. Cohen was the key intermediary between the Trump family and its partners around the world. He was chief consigliere and dealmaker throughout the Trump business empire period of expansion into global partnerships.  This job description is routine for a role that multitudes of lawyers across the globe perform for their client/boss.

Lawyer subordinates

The role of a lawyer subordinate largely amounts to striving assiduously to add value to the boss/client. On 12 December 2018 Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison for adding value. Cohen had told the court that he “felt it was my duty to cover up [Trump’s] dirty deeds.” A US federal court judge opted to advocate a different interpretation of ‘duty’. Judge William H. Pauley III decided that “[e]ach of the crimes involved deception and each appears to have been motivated by personal greed and ambition.” According to Judge William H. Pauley III, “As a lawyer, Mr Cohen should have known better.”  President Trump has tweeted that he had never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He says Cohen “was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law. It is called “advice of counsel,” and a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made. That is why they get paid.”  Few lawyers would outright refute the substance of this presidential tweet. But most lawyers daily - and voluntarily -  professionally quibble with relentless zeal about the nature and extent of liability risks. 


Ever since Mr Cohen first came under investigation, Trump has mocked him as a “weak person” who was giving information to prosecutors in an effort to obtain sentence leniency.  But Cohen didn’t sign a formal cooperation agreement with the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan or with Mr Mueller. In addition to the campaign-finance violations, Cohen pleaded guilty to charges of tax evasion, making false statements to a bank and lying to Congress. He took a calculated gamble in pleading guilty to this litany of federal crimes without first entering into a cooperation agreement with the government. He offered to help prosecutors, but only on his terms. There were some subjects he declined to discuss. 

Cohen's application of the loyalty rule in the male honour code is self-evident. Psychically, the President and Cohen occupy the same bunker. In business relationship terms this bunkered liaison does not make them particularly unusual, fraternally. On the basis that loyalty has premium value, it may not ultimately matter that Trump and Cohen are currently on direct communication hiatus. Which might also explain why Rudolph W. Giuliani, another of Mr Trump’s personal lawyers, called Mr Cohen’s assertion he had acted out of loyalty to Mr Trump “a complete lie.” But Giuliani merely amounts to ‘hired help’ too. It is the president, after all, who holds the ultimate trump card - the ability to pardon. Loyalty tends to have very warped 'honourable knight' aspects, in all Lord of the Flies worlds. 

Superior/subordinate relationships

Godfather Corleone/Tom Hayden parallels have been drawn as to the Trump/Cohen relationship of client and lawyer. According to Vito Corleone, "A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns."  Most lawyers instinctively distance themselves from this depiction of the profession. Michael Cohen may be heading to a penitentiary. But ‘honour code’ loyalty incentives to ‘bite the bullet’ remain at liberty and will likely continue to thrive. That a subordinate is expected to bite the bullet is not an exception. It is the cued and anticipated hierarchal norm. Is this market practise likely to ever change substantially? For most lawyers the answer to this question will probably be a resounding 'NO'.  

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