In October 2016, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 for agreeing not to discuss her alleged affair with Trump. Initially this effort was a success, as we spent the final days of the 2016 campaign talking about Hillary Clinton’s emails, not the role an issue of Forbes featuring Trump and his children played in the candidate’s sex life.
However, since we learned about the nondisclosure agreement in January, Trump and Cohen have been sinking in legal quicksand. Cohen went through the trouble of setting up a limited liability company to make the payment, and using pseudonyms for both parties — but put his real name on the documents and used his Trump Organization email to set up a wire transfer. A government watchdog group filed complaints alleging that the payment constituted a campaign-finance violation. In response, Cohen announced the $130,000 came out of his own pocket, though that doesn’t mean it wasn’t illegal. Daniels (real name Stephanie Clifford) then sued Trump, alleging that the entire nondisclosure agreement is invalid because Trump never signed it — or because Cohen violated the terms by discussing it publicly. Clifford also accused Cohen of using “intimidation and coercive tactics” to force her to sign a false statement denying the affair.
This isn’t the worst scandal Trump is facing right now, but there could be serious consequences — particularly for Cohen. If these claims are proven true, he could be disbarred. It all raises the question: Why doesn’t Trump, a billionaire, have a better lawyer?
Of course, Cohen isn’t the only Trump hire that casts doubt on the president’s assertion that he surrounds himself with the “best people,” but that’s only part of the story. While there’s little evidence that Cohen was kept on the payroll for his sharp legal mind, he’d demonstrated again and again that he possesses the unshakable loyalty that Trump values so highly.
Cohen grew up on Long Island, and says that in his youth he read Trump’s 1987 book The Art of the Deal twice. “I’ve been admiring Donald Trump since I was in high school,” he told ABC News. Before crossing paths with the mogul in real life, Cohen worked as a personal-injury lawyer, and earned a sizable fortune in the taxi-medallion business in New York and Chicago, and in the Ukrainian ethanol business (he and his brother both married Ukrainian women). As Trump was launching his reality-TV career in the 2000s, Cohen and his family had moved on to real estate, buying up units in various Trump properties.
“Michael Cohen has a great insight into the real-estate market,” Trump told the New York Post in 2007. “He has invested in my buildings because he likes to make money — and he does.”
Cohen said he caught Trump’s attention when he was treasurer of the board for Trump World Tower. After consulting with the president on several legal matters, he offered him a job. Cohen became Trump’s special counsel, and executive vice-president of the Trump Organization, moving into Ivanka Trump’s old office.
In a recent book proposal obtained by the Daily Beast, Cohen said that as executive VP he “oversaw business dealings globally.” He described his role as “special counsel” as “family fix-it guy,” but others have used more aggressive nicknames, calling him Trump’s “pit bull,” “Ray Donovan,” or “Tom,” as in Tom Hagen, Vito Corleone’s consigliere in the Godfather films.
“It means that if somebody does something Mr. Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr. Trump’s benefit,” Cohen said in 2011. “If you do something wrong, I’m going to come at you, grab you by the neck and I’m not going to let you go until I’m finished.”
There are numerous examples of Cohen in action. When New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a fraud suit against Trump’s for-profit college in 2013, the attorney told The New Yorker that he would suffer “very significant” damage, “so significant that he will possibly have to resign.”
When the Daily Beast reported on Ivana Trump’s claim in her divorce deposition that Trump once raped her (which she later recanted), Cohen initially claimed, falsely, that marital rape is legal. Then he threatened to destroy the reporter:
“I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we’re in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know,” Cohen said. “So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?”
“You write a story that has Mr. Trump’s name in it, with the word ‘rape,’ and I’m going to mess your life up … for as long as you’re on this frickin’ planet … you’re going to have judgments against you, so much money, you’ll never know how to get out from underneath it,” he added.
Cohen also bragged to the reporter about how he had ruined a former Miss Pennsylvania who claimed the Miss USA pageant was rigged. In accordance with the contract Sheena Monnin had signed, the matter was argued at arbitration, and she wound up with a $5 million defamation penalty. A malpractice claim against her attorney reportedly let her negotiate the amount down to $1 million.
Her father, Philip Monnin, said that during phone conversations with Cohen, “there were threats and innuendo about what he would do to ruin her financially. For the rest of her life, he said she wouldn’t be able to buy a car or have a credit card.”
Legal threats weren’t Cohen’s only tool. The New York Times reported that Stormy Daniels isn’t the only woman who’s accused Cohen of putting out a false statement denying she had a sexual encounter with Trump, without her consent. The paper also reported that during the 2016 campaign, Cohen had a hand in coordinating with the tabloid publisher American Media Inc. to “catch and kill” unflattering stories about Trump, such as a photo of Trump with a bare-breasted woman and former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s affair allegations.
Cohen was instrumental in laying the groundwork for Trump’s political career, launching a website (ShouldTrumpRun.com) in an effort to spark interest in drafting him into the 2012 GOP race, and flying to Iowa on Trump’s private jet to meet GOP operatives there. (That led to the first accusation that Cohen had violated campaign finance laws, but he was cleared by the Federal Election Commission, since Trump wasn’t an official candidate.)
When Trump finally did launch a campaign in 2015, Cohen was one of his top cheerleaders on TV. In his most famous appearance, he challenged the fact that most polls showed Trump trailing Clinton, repeatedly asking, “Says who?”
A source told the Daily Beast that Cohen was disappointed when he wasn’t offered a spot in Trump’s White House.“He wasn’t expecting attorney general, but he was holding out for a senior job that would have also allowed him to continue being an attack dog for the president,” the source said.
Still, Cohen’s commitment to Trump did not waver. Cohen quit his job with the Trump Organization in January 2017 to serve as the president’s “personal attorney.” As the Daily Beast explained, he did not relocate to D.C., and Trump has hired other attorneys to handle the legal aspects of extracurricular threats to his presidency:
His title — personal attorney to the president — is misleading. He is not acting as an attorney in the way most people think of the job. He is not representing Trump in court against any of the women who accused the president of sexual assault; that’s Marc Kasowitz’s job. And he is not helping Trump with any crises or fallout extending from the Russia investigations; the president already has a team for that.
The exact nature of Cohen’s current duties is unclear. During Trump’s first year in office, he mainly came up in discussions of potential Russia collusion, and when underscoring his undying devotion to Trump in comments to reporters (for instance: “I’m the guy who would take a bullet for the president”).
“I feel guilty that he’s in there right now almost alone …” Cohen told Vanity Fair in September. “There are guys who are very loyal to him that would have gone in, but there was a concerted effort by high-ranking individuals to keep out loyalists.”
Considering how Cohen is handling the Stormy Daniels affair, that might have been one of Trump’s smarter staffing moves.