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How a conspiracy theory explains the Michael Cohen secret tape

Less than 12 hours after being caught in a lie about his knowledge of a payoff to former Playboy model Karen McDougal...

Posted: Jul 25, 2018 4:21 PM
Updated: Jul 25, 2018 4:21 PM

Less than 12 hours after being caught in a lie about his knowledge of a payoff to former Playboy model Karen McDougal, President Donald Trump turned to an old friend for solace: The conspiracy theory.

In a tweet responding to the release of audio of a secretly recorded conversation between Trump and his one-time personal attorney Michael Cohen, Trump floated the idea that the tape was either incomplete or edited to make him look bad.

"Why was the tape so abruptly terminated (cut) while I was presumably saying positive things," Trump asks mid-tweet.

Which, of course, doesn't make much rational sense.

The tape's quality -- and length -- is almost certainly the result of the fact that Cohen was secretly taping the conversation. This was not an NPR podcast. This was a surreptitious attempt to capture a conversation.

As for Trump's contentions that he was "presumably saying positive things" in the portion that was cut out, it's not immediately clear to me why that's relevant. So, in a conversation about a potential payoff to a former Playboy model, Trump could, maybe, have gone on to say "positive things?" About McDougal? About Cohen? About, you know, stuff in general?

And, regardless, what difference does it make? Does saying positive things about, uh, someone, change the fact that this conversation about a potential payoff to McDougal took place two months before Trump's campaign denied any knowledge of the payoff and said that the allegations were entirely false?

What Trump is doing with this tweet is not, in truth, very hard to puzzle out.

In honor of "Shark Week," let me borrow a comparison from our friends in the deep. When shark scientists -- or those who study sharks -- want to bring the animal close to them, they throw chum into the water. The cut-up fish and blood draws the sharks.

Trump is essentially chumming the waters for his supporters with some vague talk of conspiracy. He knows that by throwing out the idea that the tape has been edited to make him look bad will give his most loyal supporters something to latch onto amid what is undoubtedly a bad story for him. He's giving his allies -- on conservative talk radio and conservative cable news -- an argument to make; "If this tape is even real, then why does it cut off so quickly? The real story is what Cohen or his lawyer cut from the tape!"

This isn't the first time that Trump has turned to a conspiracy theory to explain the unexplainable to his backers. Remember that Trump has floated the idea that it isn't actually his voice on the "Access Hollywood" tape in which he is caught speaking in crude terms about women.

This, from The New York Times, in the midst of Roy Moore's campaign for the Alabama Senate last fall, is startling:

"[Trump] sees the calls for Mr. Moore to step aside as a version of the response to the now-famous 'Access Hollywood' tape, in which he boasted about grabbing women's genitalia, and the flood of groping accusations against him that followed soon after. He suggested to a senator earlier this year that it was not authentic, and repeated that claim to an adviser more recently. (In the hours after it was revealed in October 2016, Mr. Trump acknowledged that the voice was his, and he apologized.)"

That logical contradiction -- Trump admitted his error and apologized for it but then said the voice may not be his at all -- is secondary to his belief that by throwing any sort of uncertainty into the mix, he benefits. Sort of like during the 2016 campaign when Trump suggested that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's father might have been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Or when he suggested that then-President Barack Obama approved surveillance of his phone lines at Trump Tower in 2016. Or when he said that 3 to 5 million illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election. Or when he said that Obama wasn't born in the United States. And on and on and on.

Fomenting conspiracy theories is an easy out for Trump. The lack of specifics of, you know, proof is actually evidence for some people that the conspiracy theory is real. And any attempt to point out a lack of facts or simply note how threadbare the "theory" actually is can be explained away easily: "So you're in on it too!" or something like that.

Make no mistake: What Trump is doing with the Cohen tape is a tried and true deflection method for him. Expect him to lean more heavily into the conspiracy theory idea in the coming hours and days for one simple reason: He doesn't have any good answer for what the tape reveals.

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