A $35,000 hush money check made out to Michael Cohen was not the only item awaiting President Trump's signature on Aug. 1, 2017.
Also on the president's desk that day was the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a rare piece of bipartisan legislation that had passed the Senate by 98-to-2 and the House by 419-to-3.
Trump signed what has now become the most famous check in America.
But he was not happy with the bill that broadened sanctions against Russia, North Korea, and Iran.
He held off signing that even though the near-unanimous approval by a Congress ired over Russian meddling in the 2016 election meant a veto would be futile. The bill would have automatically become law within 10 days of its arrival at the Oval Office.
“Has the President signed the Russia, North Korea, and Iran sanctions bill?” a reporter asked at that morning's press briefing.
“I’m sorry, has he signed it?” Sarah Huckabee Sanders asked.
“Yes,” the reporter said.
“He has not,” Sanders said. “He will. And we’ll let you know when the details and final plan…”
“What’s the delay?” the reporter asked. “ What’s the delay here? You guys have had this since Friday. What’s holding him back?”
“There’s nothing holding him back,” Sanders said. “There’s a review process, a legal process. They’re going through that, and he’ll sign the bill and we’ll let you guys know.”
No legal review process delayed the hush money check. It went out by FedEx so Cohen would get it right away. Never mind that in his pre-presidential days Trump had often used Cohen to avoid paying legitimate debts.
“One of my more common responsibilities was that Mr. Trump directed me to call business owners, many of whom were small businesses, that were owed money for their services and told them no payment or a reduced payment would be coming,” Cohen would later say in his opening statement to the House Oversight Committee.
Cohen would add, “When I advised Mr. Trump of my success, he actually reveled in it.”
The irony of President Trump subsequently speeding a six-figure payment to the same hired thug he delegated to stiff small businesses was redoubled as Sanders closed the press briefing by saying the big item on the day’s calendar was about to start.
“Thanks, guys,” she said. “We’ve got a small business event coming up shortly.”
Not an hour later, Trump addressed a gathering in the East Room of 100 small business owners at the White House—almost certainly not including any of the many more he had stiffed.
“America is on the verge of a golden age for small business,” he declared. “You are the dreamers and innovators who are powering us into the future —that’s exactly what you are—and my administration will be there with you every single step of the way.”
The following morning, just about when FedEx would have delivered the signed hush money check to Cohen in New York, Trump sat down in the Oval Office to affix his distinctive signature to the sanctions bill.
Unlike other major bill signings, the press was not invited. Sanders spoke of it at that day’s press briefing.
“Look, this morning, the President signed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” she said. “The President favors tough measures to punish and deter the bad behavior of the rogue regimes in Iran and North Korea. And he also sent a clear signal that we won’t tolerate interference in our democratic process by Russia.”
She went on, “The bill was improved, but Congress has encroached on the power of the presidency, and he signed it in the interest of national unity.”
In other words, Trump did not like it, but he had no choice.
As Trump likely expected and hoped to avoid, the Russians were manifestly displeased with the sections of the bill that pertained to them.
But Trump could not have anticipated that another section of the bill would combine with the check he signed on the previous day to give him what may be the single worst visit to Vietnam an American has experienced since the war ended.
A half century after a fugazi medical deferment enabled him to escape being drafted, Trump arrived in Hanoi as our commander-in-chief to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
The TV news coverage was split-screened between that and Michael Cohen’s appearance before the House Oversight Committee back in Washington. Cohen testified Trump had directed and encouraged him to commit some of the same crimes that had him scheduled for a three-year sentence in federal prison.
Cohen recounted that upon his first visit to the Oval Office, the same man who had reveled in stiffing small businesses assured him he would get his hush money checks as fast as possible, by FedEx. Cohen had been convicted of lying during a previous appearance before Congress. He backed up Wednesday’s testimony with a copy of one of the 11 installments, the now famous Aug. 1, 2017 check made out to Michael Cohen and signed by Donald Trump.
At the same time in Hanoi, Trump was reaching an impasse with the North Koreans, in part because of the sanctions bill he had signed only because he had no real choice.
“It was about the sanctions,” Mr. Trump said after the talks collapsed. “Basically they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, but we couldn’t do that.”
The North Koreans challenged Trump’s version, saying they only sought to have some of the sanctions lifted, and we came to a moment in our history when many of us were unsure whether to believe our president or a homicidal dictator.
Trump would report that he watched some of Cohen’s testimony from Hanoi. Maybe that included Cohen telling the committee that Trump had him handle press inquiries about his successful effort to evade the draft. Cohen recalled Trump saying, “You think I’m stupid? I’m not going to Vietnam.” Trump now said that the Democrats must hate him more than they love the country or they would not have held the hearing while he finally went there.
As Trump headed home, Cohen was testifying in a closed-door session of the House Intelligence Committee. Cohen is due back there on March 6, the day he was scheduled to surrender at Otisville Federal Correctional Institution. He wrangled a two-month delay so he could undergo physical therapy following a medical procedure and prepare for his congressional testimony.
Unless he can somehow testify himself out of actually doing time, the day will soon come when Cohen is in a prison cell for some of the same crimes he says were directed by the man who sits in the Oval Office.
Meanwhile, all those small businesses were never paid.