President Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, spent years as Mr. Trump’s fixer and staunchest defender. Now, Mr. Cohen, who once told an interviewer that he would gladly “take a bullet for Mr. Trump,” has turned on him. It is a development that could have profound implications for the President.
Mr. Cohen is reportedly prepared to tell Special Counsel Robert Mueller that President Trump knew about the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting in advance, contradicting Mr. Trump’s denials. A few days earlier, Mr. Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis handed CNN a recording Mr. Cohen secretly made of September 2016 conversation between Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen, in which they discussed a deal to keep a Playboy model’s allegation of an extramarital affair with Mr. Trump under wraps. Mr. Trump’s camp had previously denied that Mr. Trump knew anything about an arrangement to buy the rights to former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s story.
In conversations with confidants, Mr. Cohen often described his role within Mr. Trump’s organization as akin to that of Tom Hagen, the consigliere to fictional mob boss Vito Corleone in The Godfather movies. In Trump world, Mr. Cohen, was the proverbial man who knows where the bodies are buried, often because he buried them himself.
From his post atop Trump Tower, Mr. Cohen helped Mr. Trump navigate his thorniest business problems and tamp down scandals that might damage his political prospects. Mr. Cohen engineered payments to buy the silence of women with whom Trump had affairs and earned a reputation for making outrageous threats against reporters who planned to write unflattering articles about Trump. Importantly, Mr. Cohen, whose own business dealings often involved some rather sketchy characters, was at the center of a broad array of Mr. Trump’s business ventures.
Mr. Cohen’s loyalty to Mr. Trump, however, has come at a cost. He now faces a wide-ranging corruption investigation stemming, in part, from his activities while in Mr. Trump’s employ. Mr. Cohen now appears to be fishing for a deal with prosecutors to escape charges being brought against him by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Mr. Cohen also figures prominently in as yet unproven accusations that Mr. Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia in its efforts to swing the 2016 election towards Mr. Trump. A Democrat-funded opposition research dossier prepared by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele alleges that Mr. Cohen was a key interlocutor between Trump’s campaign and Moscow, a charge which Mr. Cohen vehemently denies.
However, Mr. Cohen‘s potential connections to the Russia affair don’t end there. He took the lead in a new effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow that continued into 2016, well after Mr. Trump launched his campaign. In this, Mr. Cohen worked closely with a Russian-born, Brooklyn-raised, long-time business associate of both Trump’s and Cohen’s named Felix Sater. In a series of emails discussing the potential dealt Mr. Sater, probably overstating his influence, mused about securing Kremlin backing for Mr. Trump’s campaign and making money on the Trump Tower Moscow deal in the process.
“I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected,” Mr. Sater wrote in a 2015 email. “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins [sic] team to buy in on this, I will.”
Mr. Cohen downplayed the emails, saying that nothing ever came of the deal and the talk of securing Russian help for Trump’s campaign was just hyperbole. “He has sometimes used colorful language and has been prone to ‘salesmanship,’” a statement from Mr. Cohen said in reference to Satter. “I ultimately determined that the proposal was not feasible.”
While there is no evidence that Mr. Satter ever delivered on his boast, and the accusations against Cohen made in the dossier remain, for the most part, unsubstantiated, if there is any truth the allegations of links between Mr. Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin effort to meddle in the 2016 election, Mr. Cohen likely has a story to tell that Mr. Mueller will be very interested in hearing.
Even if there is no so-called “collusion” between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russia, Mr. Cohen — long the keeper of Mr. Trump’s secrets — could still spell trouble for the President.
According to a New York Times report, “President Trump’s advisers have concluded that a wide-ranging corruption investigation into his personal lawyer poses a greater and more imminent threat to the president than even the special counsel’s investigation.”
Mr. Trump’s defenders are mounting a furious effort to discredit Mr. Cohen, led by Mr. Trump’s current personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani, that have grown especially intense following reports that Mr. Cohen was prepared to tell Mr. Mueller that Mr. Trump knew about the Trump Tower meeting. Mr. Giuliani has called Cohen an “incredible liar” who has “been lying for years” and has a “tremendous motive to lie now.”
This stands in stark contrast to Mr. Giuliani’s take on Mr. Cohen just a few weeks ago when he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “I have no concerns that Michael Cohen is going to do anything but tell the truth” or back in May when Mr. Giuliani described him as an “honest, honorable lawyer.”
In a series of confusing interviews Monday, Mr. Giuliani sought to knock down Mr. Cohen’s allegations about the Trump Tower meeting as “categorically untrue.” Mr. Giuliani also denied that Mr. Trump participated in a previously unreported separate meeting in which Trump’s advisors discussed the upcoming meeting with the Russian lawyer, which was curious because no one had publically claimed that Mr. Trump was there. Mr. Giuliani later clarified that this was something Mr. Cohen’s camp was telling reporters. But, Mr. Giuliani said the whole thing is a “figment of [Mr. Cohen’s] imagination,” and then added that the meeting did happen, it was just about something else. Interestingly, among the purported attendees was Rick Gates, who is already cooperating with Mr. Mueller’s probe, and could potentially corroborate Mr. Cohen’s claim, assuming he actually made it.
Why the Trump Tower Meeting Matters
The strong reaction to Mr. Cohen’s Trump Tower claim is a tacit acknowledgment that if it proves to be true, it could have significant implications for Mr. Trump. If he knew about the meeting, he presumably also knew about the Russian’s intentions to help his campaign. And, if he did, then it would cast his repeated denials that Russia intended to help his campaign and his reluctance to accept that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election in a far more suspicious light.
While Mr. Cohen has much to gain from his allegations against Trump, and he’s hardly known for his honesty, there’s reason to suspect that in this case, he might be telling the truth.
It is hard to believe that Donald Trump, who has always maintained tight control of his organization would not be informed of something as important as the impending delivery of a horde of damaging information on Hillary Clinton.
It’s also interesting that two days before the Trump Tower meeting, Trump said he planned to give a major speech the following Monday in which he would reveal new information about Clinton. After the Trump Tower meeting failed to yield the promised dirt on Clinton, Trump’s speech never happened. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that these two things were connected. It seems plausible that Trump announced his planned speech because he anticipated that the Trump Tower meeting would yield negative information about Hillary Clinton. When it didn’t, he abandoned these plans.
In an email sent to Donald Trump junior by Rob Goldstein, a British publicist who acted as a go between with Kremlin-connected Russian oligarch Aris Agalarov, the information on Hillary Clinton promised at the Trump Tower meeting was “part of Russia, and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
The next month, after cybersecurity firms attributed the DNC hack to Russia’s intelligence services, Mr. Trump tweeted that, “The new joke in town is that Russia leaked the disastrous DNC e-mails, which should never have been written (stupid), because Putin likes me?”
The new joke in town is that Russia leaked the disastrous DNC e-mails, which should never have been written (stupid), because Putin likes me
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 25, 2016
In a May 2017 interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Mr. Trump declared “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,” saying “It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.” If Mr. Trump knew about Goldstone’s email and thus was aware that the Russian government’s support for him, then Mr. Trump’s attempts to discredit reports, including from his own intelligence services, about Russia’s role in the DNC hack make it look like he’s covering for Moscow.
It also makes Mr. Trump’s statement suggesting that Russia hack missing emails from Hillary Clinton’s private email server more troubling. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Mr. Trump implored in a press conference in late July.
While this could be dismissed as a joke at the time, if Mr. Trump knew that the Russian government was trying to help him, then it suggests he might have made this request knowing that the Russians were, in fact, “listening.” According to Special Counsel Mueller’s recent indictment of a dozen Russian spies in connection with the hacking of Democratic emails, we know that the Russians apparently heard him. The very same day Trump suggested that Moscow go looking for his rivals personal emails, Russian hackers attempted to penetrate servers associated with Hillary Clinton’s personal office.
What if Cohen is Lying?
What if Michael Cohen is lying and Trump didn’t know about the Trump Tower meeting? While it seems unlikely Trump was in the dark, if he was, it raises the question of why the Trump aides involved, including Donald Trump Jr., Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort, and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner would have kept it from him. After all, if they saw nothing wrong with the meeting, as Donald Jr. claims, there would be no reason not to tell the boss. So, if they didn’t tell him, it suggests that his aides knew that there was something wrong with accepting damaging information on his opponent from the Russians and sought to protect Trump from this by maintaining plausible deniability.
So, one of two things are probably true: Either Mr. Trump knew about the Trump Tower meeting, or Trump’s campaign aides agreed to the meeting knowing that it was shady all along. Whatever the case, as Mr. Mueller’s Russia probe moves into its final stages, unraveling exactly what happened during that meeting at Trump Tower will be key.
Mr. Trump has steadfastly maintained that there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia. But, if Mr. Trump has secrets to hide, Russia-related or otherwise, it’s a good bet Mr. Cohen knows them. For Mr. Trump, the prospect of Michael Cohen, the man that said he would take a bullet for him, electing to dodge it instead is undoubtedly unnerving.