Michael Cohen: inside the strange world of Trump's fixer | US news
Just before he got his dream job as Donald Trump’s right-hand man, Michael Cohen was quoted in a 2007 tabloid news story hyping a Trump condo development in New Jersey.
“Trump properties are solid investments,” said Cohen, who by then had bought at least three.
Trump’s decision to hire Cohen has served the president well over the years, particularly for tasks requiring a mix of bluster and discretion – skills Cohen might have picked up in his days as a personal injury lawyer or in the taxi cab business.
But with prosecutors closing in on Cohen, his lifelong investment in Trump is beginning to look shaky. The question now is: will one of the president’s most devoted lieutenants decide, at some point, to cut his losses and cooperate with prosecutors investigating alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia?
On 9 April, FBI agents raided Cohen’s residence, hotel room, office, safety deposit box and electronic devices, seizing evidence of potential crimes described by the government as relating to Cohen’s “business dealings”. An indictment of Cohen is “likely”, a federal judge wrote in a separate case.
The raids were conducted after the special counsel heading up the Russia investigation, Robert Mueller, referred information to an independent team of federal prosecutors in the southern district of New York, effectively carving out the Cohen case and protecting it from any potential move by the president against Mueller.
If Cohen, 51, is charged with a crime, he may suddenly have the opportunity to prove his oft-avowed loyalty to Trump in a dramatic way – by going to prison, instead of agreeing to side with Mueller, as three other former Trump aides already have.
Former Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg, who has worked closely with Cohen and calls him a “teddy bear”, told the Guardian that he had urged Cohen not to take his loyalty to Trump too far.
“If Michael did something outside the scope of any of his duties for Donald Trump, then that’s Michael’s problem,” Nunberg said. “But he should not go to jail for anything that he did for Trump. And if he does, then he deserves all the terrible things that will happen to him in jail.”
Cohen did not respond to a request for comment and has previously denied all wrongdoing through his lawyer, who did not respond to a request for comment. Trump has claimed that the investigation of Cohen “doesn’t have to do with me”.
But as a Trump employee who for 12 years enjoyed unusually close access to the boss and was entrusted with the most sensitive errands, Cohen is inextricably caught up in Trump’s world and could be poised to hasten its unraveling.
Cohen’s official title in the Trump Organization, which he left after the election to continue to advise Trump on a personal basis, was executive vice-president and special counsel to Trump. In practice, Cohen’s duties were both idiosyncratic and expansive, ranging from putting together foreign real estate deals to telling off reporters to buying the silence of women linked romantically to Trump.
“If somebody does something Mr Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr Trump’s benefit,” Cohen told ABC News 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.”
It was in this bulldog capacity that Cohen set in motion the chain of events that has drawn him, and by extension the president, into legally vulnerable territory. In October 2016, Cohen set up a shell company to pay off the pornographic film actor Stormy Daniels, who has said she had an affair with Trump beginning in 2006, which Trump has denied.
But after the election, Cohen began to use the company, Essential Consultants LLC, in a new way, to collect millions of dollars for himself from clients eager for the new president’s ear. Those clients allegedly included foreign entities.
A bank flagged the transactions and prosecutors appear to be weighing charges against Cohen that could include bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations.
The pressure from that investigation and Cohen’s loyalty to Trump are pulling him in opposite directions. But if he is now the man in the middle, Cohen was once very much on the fringes, as a hustling lawyer working out of a taxi stand in Queens, with his eyes on the Manhattan skyline.
Five TownsCohen was raised in the village of Lawrence, in the Five Towns section of Long Island, in the shadow of John F Kennedy airport. The son of a nurse, Sondra, and an ear, nose and throat surgeon, Maurice, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, Cohen attended a Jewish day school and later the Lawrence Woodmere Academy. He has said he grew up admiring Trump, and read the Art of the Deal, Trump’s magnum opus, twice.
In college at American University in Washington DC, Cohen drove a Porsche and had a business importing luxury cars, the New York Times reported. One of his college roommates, the New York artist Laurance Rassin, would go on to play a strange role in the Trump campaign, giving interviews as a random Trump supporter at a 2016 taping in which TV host Dr Oz reviewed Trump’s medical records.
“He’s been healthy – he says he’s been healthy. I believe him,” Rassin said.
In 1992, Cohen graduated from Thomas M Cooley law school in Lansing, Michigan, which has been featured on more than one list of the worst law schools in the country.
Upon returning to New York, Cohen set up a personal injury law practice, bringing charges of negligence on behalf of auto accident victims in many cases, according to a deposition obtained by Rolling Stone. At least one of his clients was indicted on insurance fraud charges, the magazine reported.
At his office near the foot of the 59th Street bridge in Queens, Cohen shared space with a taxi cab management company, a business he entered through his marriage in 1994 to Laura Shusterman, the daughter of a Ukrainian immigrant and taxi operator.
The couple eventually built taxi companies that owned dozens of medallions in New York and Chicago, worth millions at the peak of the market. At one time, Cohen has said, he carried a pistol in an ankle holster.
On Tuesday, a longtime partner of Cohen’s in the taxi business, Evgeny Freidman, a Russian immigrant, agreed to cooperate with prosecutors to avoid prison time on charges that he had failed to pay more than $5m in taxes.
Known as the “taxi king” of New York City for the volume of his business, Freidman could shed light on Cohen’s private cashflow, which in recent years has included a $26m loan Cohen made with his father-in-law to a second taxi magnate, also a Ukrainian immigrant, who is shifting into the legalized marijuana industry, the Associated Press revealed.
Cohen distanced himself from Freidman, denying they were partners.
In those years before the Trump Organization, meanwhile, Cohen scrambled for other investments that included a failed partnership with two other Ukrainian immigrants on a casino cruise business run out of Miami Beach, Florida.
He also helped set up two medical practices, an acupuncture clinic, and two medical billing companies, with a doctor at one of the offices later pleading guilty to a fraud scheme, the New York Times reported. Cohen’s role, if any, in operating the businesses remains unclear.
The through line in Cohen’s ventures from the era were his partnerships with immigrants from Ukraine or Russia.
In one purported real estate deal, Cohen was accused of civil fraud over a $350,000 check he had received from a Russian hockey player. Cohen testified that he did not recall where the money went and he was not charged with a crime.
Until the presidential election, Cohen held a minority stake in a Brooklyn club owned by his uncle, Morton Levine – “Uncle Morty”, in the family – whom the FBI accused in 1983 of providing medical services to the Lucchese crime syndicate, according to the Times report.
Levine was never charged with wrongdoing. But the club, El Caribe, was used as an office by the Russian mob boss Evsei Agron, who was assassinated in 1985, and by his successor, Marat Balagula, who was later convicted of credit card fraud and gasoline bootlegging.
Seemingly far from such intrigue, Cohen and his wife started a family, having two children, a son who plays baseball and a daughter who just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. And they began buying Trump real estate.
Trump timeCohen first came to Trump’s attention, the way he has told it, by helping to resolve a board dispute in one of Trump’s buildings. When the Trump Organization job offer came up, Cohen has said, he quit his law partnership on the spot.
Early in his Trump tenure, Cohen scouted a dead-end golf course project in Fresno, California, and stood as the chief operations officer of Affliction Entertainment, a mixed martial arts company Trump was promoting.
“He told me that he studied martial arts,” former Affliction vice-president Tom Atencio told the Daily Beast. “He was a really nice guy.”
Later Cohen spearheaded Trump real estate projects or attempted projects in the former Soviet states of Russia, Georgia and Kazakhstan, including with partners that have been subject to US sanctions or suspected of money laundering, the New Yorker reported.
Along the way, Cohen showed a willingness to defend Trump against all comers, even if – or especially if – it meant getting nasty.
“I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting,” Cohen told a journalist reporting in 2015 on a sexual assault claim against Trump by ex-wife Ivana Trump. “You understand me?”
But Cohen did not get rough only with reporters. A lawsuit brought against Trump this spring by Stormy Daniels, born Stephanie Clifford, accuses Cohen of “attempts to intimidate Ms Clifford into silence and ‘shut her up’ in order to ‘protect Mr Trump’”.
Cohen has asserted fifth amendment protections against self-incrimination to avoid testifying in the case.
Underlying his occasional pugnacity, Cohen appears to harbor a vulnerable side that includes a deep-seated fear of disappointing Trump.
“Not you or anyone you know will embarrass me in front of Mr. T when he asks me what is happening,” Cohen texted an associate, Felix Sater, when their efforts to broker a deal for a Trump tower in Moscow had foundered, according to messages obtained by BuzzFeed News.
Cohen added: “After almost two months of waiting you send me some bullshit letter from a third-tier bank and you think I’m going to walk into the boss’s office and tell him I’m going there for this?”
By all accounts, Cohen was wounded when Trump did not offer him a White House job, in a decision that has been linked to machinations by Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner.
“Boss, I miss you so much,” the Wall Street Journal quoted Cohen as telling Trump in a long-distance phone call in the spring of 2017. “I wish I was down there with you. It’s really hard for me to be here.”
It was not the first time that Cohen had reason to feel betrayed by Trump, who reportedly embarrassed Cohen at his son’s bar mitzvah – showing up late and then giving a speech describing how Cohen had begged him to come – and sidelined Cohen at the presidential inauguration.
Nunberg, who was fired from the Trump campaign in 2015 over racially charged Facebook posts, said he tried to warn Cohen that his loyalty to Trump would not be reciprocated.
“He called me to meet a week after I was fired,” Nunberg said. “I said to Michael, I told him, ‘get your head out of your ass, for once, with him [Trump]. He has no loyalty to anyone. He plays favorites. He doesn’t appreciate you.”
Essential ConsultantsWhen he set up Essential Consultants LLC in October 2016, Cohen filed paperwork with First Republic bank designating the company as a vehicle for modest commercial and residential real estate deals, the New Yorker reported.
Then the money started to flow. Between November 2016 and January 2018 it came in: $600,000 from AT&T, the telecom giant; $1.2m from Novartis, the Swiss drug maker; $580,000 from Columbus Nova, an investment firm linked to a Russian oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg, who had met Cohen at Trump Tower during the presidential transition; $150,000 from a Korean defense contractor; and reportedly millions more in additional deposits from sources that have not yet been publicly identified.
The money flowed out, too: more than $1m to personal accounts belonging to Cohen; separate checks written to Cohen for more than $100,000; additional funds to cover credit card bills, car payments, social club dues, the New Yorker reported.
Trump has denied knowledge of the payments. Apart from a $130,000 payment to Daniels, it’s not clear what disbursements from the account were directly related to Trump.
What is clear is that Cohen was impressed with the potential of his latest enterprise. “I’m crushing it,” he told an associate at the time, according to the Washington Post.
In the salad days after the inauguration, Cohen hoovered up money from elsewhere. The Washington-based law firm and lobbying powerhouse Squire Patton Boggs agreed to pay Cohen $500,000 for a year’s work. Ukrainian sources paid Cohen $400,000 to set up a White House meeting between Trump and the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, the BBC reported on Tuesday.
But not everyone Cohen approached wanted in on the deal. Uber reportedly rejected Cohen’s advances, as did Ahmed al-Rumaihi, the head of Qatar Investments, who said Cohen hit him up for $1m at a restaurant in New York’s Peninsula hotel.
“He just threw it out there” as a cost of “doing business”, Rumaihi told the Washington Post.
Not all of Cohen’s new clients were pleased with his work. Novartis held only one meeting with him, and the lawyer who arranged it later quit the company. AT&T’s CEO called the decision to hire Cohen “a big mistake”, and the company’s top lobbyist was forced to retire.
There was one other notable payment that came Cohen’s way in 2017. A financial disclosure form filed last week by Trump revealed that the president had “reimbursed” Cohen for unspecified expenses in the $100,001 – $250,000 range.
‘An attack on our country’Not only did Cohen have a ringside seat during the election to continuous contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, he would have firsthand knowledge of Russian investments in Trump properties in the United States and abroad.
Working alongside Cohen on those deals were Trump’s children, potentially making any cooperation between Cohen and prosecutors viscerally threatening to Trump.
Trump, who called the Cohen raid “an attack on our country in a true sense”, has repeatedly erupted about the case, accusing the New York Times of “going out of their way to destroy Michael Cohen and his relationship with me” after the paper published this quote about Cohen from the former Trump adviser Roger Stone Jr: “Donald goes out of his way to treat him like garbage.”
“Most people will flip if the Government lets them out of trouble, even if it means lying or making up stories,” Trump tweeted. “Sorry, I don’t see Michael doing that despite the horrible Witch Hunt and the dishonest media!”
But there are signs the strain is getting to the president’s famously loyal lawyer. Vanity Fair quoted him as telling a friend last week: “I just can’t take this anymore.”