Michael Cohen does not typically treat those who threaten Donald Trump with tact or courtesy. The president’s longtime lawyer, fixer, and “personal pitbull” once boasted, “If somebody does something Mr. Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr. Trump’s benefit. 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.”
On Monday, the FBI did something that “Mr. Trump” did not like. On orders from the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, federal law enforcement raided Cohen’s home, hotel room, and office, seizing business records, emails, and other documents related to the attorney’s ostensibly illegal payment to Stormy Daniels (and possibly to other matters). The president called this measure “disgraceful,” a violation of “attorney-client privilege,” and an “attack on our country in a true sense.”
And yet, Cohen did not grab any FBI agents by the neck, figuratively or otherwise. Instead, he went on Donald Trump’s least-favorite news network, and said that “members of the FBI that conducted the search and seizure were all extremely professional, courteous, and respectful. And I thanked them at the conclusion.”
Asked if he was fearful, Cohen replied, “I would be lying to you if I told that I am not. Do I need this in my life? No. Do I want to be involved in this? No.”
Around the same time that Cohen made this confession, the Associated Press reported that Cohen has “confided in associates that he is fearful of being a fall guy.”
These developments — combined with Robert Mueller’s demonstrated talent for turning legally embattled Trump aides into snitches — has sparked speculation that Cohen just might sell his boss up the river. Judging by the intensity of Trump’s reaction to Monday’s raid, that prospect seems to have occurred to the president, too.
There are likely few people on Earth who know more about Donald Trump’s shady business practices, relations with Russian oligarchs — and how each might have interacted with his 2016 campaign — than Michael Cohen. And Cohen may soon find himself with a strong incentive to sing.
The Feds (almost certainly) have a rock-solid case against Cohen for campaign-finance violations (and, quite possibly, for much more than that).
In order to raid the office of an attorney (let alone, the president’s attorney), law enforcement must convince a judge that there is probable cause for believing said attorney possesses evidence of a crime, and that the attorney cannot be trusted to turn over that evidence voluntarily.
In order to seize communications between an attorney and his or her client (let alone, a presidential client), law enforcement must present evidence that said client used his or her laywer’s services for the purpose of committing a crime or fraud.
On Monday, Michael Cohen’s lawyer said that the FBI had collected communications between his client and Donald Trump. So, even before the office of federal law enforcement ransacked Cohen’s properties, it already possessed substantial evidence that he was involved in a crime — and, if Cohen’s lawyer is to be believed, that the president was, too.
The former fact is barely news. We’ve known for weeks now that Cohen paid adult-film actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 shortly before the 2016 election, in exchange for keeping the details of her affair with the Republican nominee to herself. Under federal campaign-finance laws, this would ostensibly qualify as an “in-kind” contribution to Donald Trump’s campaign — one far larger than any individual is allowed to give to a single candidate. This alone could put Cohen behind bars.
And reports suggest that the FBI also obtained a warrant to seize evidence of bank fraud. Which would make sense: As defense attorney Ken White notes in the New York Times, “routing a payment [to Stormy Daniels] through a shell company to hide the fact that the money came from the Trump campaign — if that is what happened — would probably violate federal money-laundering laws.”
It’s also quite plausible that the FBI possessed evidence of crimes unrelated to Stormy Daniels before the raid on Cohen’s home — and even more plausible that they possessed such information afterward. For the past decade, Cohen has been intimately involved in Donald Trump’s (often shady) financial affairs. Many people suspect that not all of the president’s dealings with foreign creditors were aboveboard — including, by all appearances, the president himself. Trump has repeatedly warned the special counsel not to look too closely at his company’s books, and reportedly considered firing Mueller last December, after hearing that the FBI was trying to obtain “information about his business dealings with Deutsche Bank” — a bank that happens to have recently paid a $10 billion fine for helping wealthy Russians launder their ill-gotten money.
Maybe Trump doesn’t want federal law enforcement to look at his dealings with Deutsche Bank for perfectly innocent (and/or irrational) reasons. And maybe he doesn’t want the public look at his tax returns on similarly innocuous grounds.
But it’s also possible that a billionaire developer who’s notorious for profiting off of wage theft and fraud might have occasionally indulged in a bit of white-collar crime. And if that is the case, there’s every reason to believe Michael Cohen has a story to tell about it. What’s more, if there’s anything to the most serious allegations of “collusion” between Russia and the Trump campaign, Cohen can almost certainly shed some light on the matter. After all, it was Cohen who spent the early months of Trump’s presidential run trying to get the Kremlin to give its blessing to a Trump Tower development in Moscow.
The case for thinking Cohen won’t snitch.
“I’m the guy who protects the president and the family,” Cohen said last year. “I’m the guy who would take a bullet for the president.” On Tuesday night, veteran New York political strategist Hank Sheinkopf echoed this sentiment, telling the Times, “Michael Cohen would lay his life down for Donald Trump. He is the ultimate Trump loyalist.”
And Cohen has comported himself as the mogul’s loyal henchman ever since he betrayed his fellow condo owners at Trump World Tower by taking the Donald’s side in a dispute between him and the building’s board. In 2007, shortly after that condo matter was settled, Trump offered Cohen a job as executive vice-president and legal counsel for the Trump Organization.
Cohen may have been rich when he met Trump — but he’s grown much richer under Trump’s wing. And the lawyer has routinely demonstrated gratitude for the opportunities his boss provided him. Lest we forget: This whole Stormy Daniels mess began when Cohen took $130,000 from his home equity line so as to prevent one of Trump’s old paramours from leaking his sexual secrets to the press.
Furthermore, Cohen doesn’t actually need to choose between showing loyalty to his longtime patron and keeping himself out of a prison cell.
As Cohen is surely aware, Trump floated pardon promises to Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. And, by letting Joe Arpaio off the hook, Trump has already signaled his readiness to abuse his pardon powers. So, Cohen can have his illustrious position in Trumpland and his “get out of jail free” card too.
The case for thinking Cohen will “fold like a cheap deck of cards.”
There’s no honor among thieves, let alone among New York real-estate investors. It’s not like Cohen and Trump are childhood chums; they’re two unscrupulous worshippers of Mammon who collaborated on business ventures for a few years. Cohen made grandiose public statements about the depths of his loyalty to Donald Trump because that’s what he was paid to do. If his self-interest now requires him to make radically different public statements about the mogul, he will surely flip the script.
And all signs suggest that it is in his public interest to give federal law enforcement what they want. Sure, Trump could pardon Cohen. But the president has no power to spare Cohen from the consequences of state-level offenses — and in New York, money-laundering is such a crime. This fact, combined with Donald Trump’s inherent untrustworthiness, makes striking a deal with prosecutors Cohen’s surest means of ensuring that he spends the next few years living the life of a multimillionaire, instead of that of a prisoner.
All of which is to say: At this point, it’s impossible to know exactly what prosecutors have on Cohen, or precisely how he’d react if they had enough to put him behind bars. But from what we do know, it isn’t hard to see how and why Cohen might turn state’s witness — and Trump’s apoplectic reaction to Monday’s events suggests he can envision that development all too clearly.