Donald Trump’s longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen is playing a starring role in a riveting drama featuring the President, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Putin-connected oligarchs, shady vory v zakone-adjacent moneymen, and American and Russian corporations seeking influence with the Trump Administration. For Americans, this is a new lurid political drama, but it’s one London has seen up close for two decades. It’s the story of the inevitable consequences that result when Russian money, influence and corruption slither up on Western shores.
Fixers for oligarchs, cash payments for shady real estate deals to launder Russian money, overt and covert political influence, payoffs to mistresses, and the rest of the atmosphere of Rus-inflected sleaze surrounding Michael Cohen are part of a familiar arc. The tidal wave of post-Cold War oligarch money, criminal proceeds needing a safe laundry, and Russian state enterprise capital (but I repeat myself) that have flooded London since 1992 profoundly reshaped that city’s politics, real estate market, banking, and finance.
While the FBI and American law enforcement were forced to confront the impacts of this emergence of Russian cash, families, money, and criminality that came to the U.S. after the end of the Cold War, America’s experience was but a faint echo of what hit London. Russian mobsters in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn were buying taxi company medallions and running pump-and-dump stock scams. Some were picking up condos in Trump Tower. Russians in London were buying soccer teams, Renaissance art and whole blocks of Knightsbridge.
As many in Londongrad have already discovered, and Americans will soon learn, Russian money always finds a way. Like an Ohm’s Law of Corruption, their methods are programmed to seek a shortcut, a weak spot, a vulnerability to exploit. The U.S. is in an early phase of the Russian money-and-influence game; London is, I think, quite a bit further down the road.
Russians oligarchs and government officials saw in Trump a kindred spirit to their own Vladimir Putin and modeled the same kind of influence operations that ensured their both their prosperity and survival in Putin’s one-man state. Pay-to-play isn’t an outrage in Russia; it’s standard operating procedure in a game of survival. The spycraft practice known by the acronym of MICE — Money, Ideology, Compromise, and Ego — came into play with their approach to Donald Trump. They just needed the right access.
These soft invasions always require fixers; men with both connections to be effective at achieving the ends of their oligarch masters and the flexible morality to ignore from whence all that sweet, sweet cash is coming. Russian oligarchs need native armies of lawyers, accountants, finance experts, tax attorneys, real estate agents, PR minions, and security personnel. Western governments and finance systems aren’t going to rig themselves, after all.
The staggering number of ties to Russia and Russians that define both Trump’s business dealings and his campaign is almost comical, and for the Russians he presented a target even more rewarding than they could have imagined. His political advisor Roger Stone was in bed with Russian hacker Guccifer. Paul Manafort, the President’s campaign chairman, was the Kremlin’s go-to guy for keeping Ukraine under their control. With business connections stretching back 30 years, Donald Trump, Jr. once bragged, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”
To hook Trump, however, would take a special kind of man. It would take a man on the inside of Trump’s world who knew where the bodies were buried (and may well have buried them). They would need a trusted bagman to deliver the kind of payoffs they believed Trump, like Vladimir Putin, would demand. It wouldn’t hurt if that man was a shallow, slackjawed, not-terribly-bright mall lawyer.
Michael Cohen is obviously such a man. He is a self-consciously cinematic consigliere, a swaggering tough-guy fixer, a vain wannabe Ray Donovan. He was the private emissary to the demimonde of Trump’s priapic adventures, the cleanup man for a constellation of adult film stars, pageant girls, actresses, models, and random D-grade celebrity livestock who needed silencing. As lurid as the stories of Cohen’s role as the NDA-and-Payoffs Czar of Trump World have been, it’s quite obvious that the Russians could also smell corruption on Cohen like a hog sniffs out truffles. He was the perfect access point into Trump and his Administration.
Cohen already had Russian bona fides before Trump; he’d been in business with a variety of Russians and Ukrainians, with more than a few connected to the old country in less than savory ways. He was, as they say, comfortable in situations of moral ambiguity.
Cohen’s payments from Russian-connected sources are a matter of great concern to Special Counsel Robert Mueller and money coming in to Cohen’s Essential Consultants, LLC look overtly like payoffs from Russians very tightly tied to Vladimir Putin. That’s a bad look for anyone, particularly a man selling his close association with the President of the United States. Recently revealed payments to Cohen from American firms seeking influence with Trump look like the familiar swamp of Washington; sleazy, grubby and venal, but sadly, oh so recognizable.
The last two years have been an education for Americans who thought that stories of a Russia defined by bad actors and hostile intentions were nothing but Cold War nostalgia, but the Kremlin’s overt interference in the 2016 U.S. election in the form of active measures supporting Donald Trump’s campaign was a Homeland plotline made real. Americans are in for a wake-up call; we’re not at the end of the Russian influence campaign, we’re in the middle of it.
As the Cohen saga unfolds, Americans will become aware that the Russian government, Russian oligarchs, Russian organized crime, and Russian intelligence services are all deeply intertwined. (Kak skazat “Overlapping Venn diagram” po-Russki?) As London has discovered, once the Russians are in the system, it’s hard to get them out.
It’s inevitable that the corruption that attends Russian influence often bleeds into violence. Russians living in England who are on Putin’s enemies list have experienced violent retribution, often with fatal consequences. If I were in Cohen’s shoes, I’d avoid rooftops, enter the Witness Protection Program as soon as Bob Mueller makes the offer, and retain the services of a food taster, especially if he’s going to dine at Trump-branded restaurants.
And Michael, that’s a side of Novichok with your well-done steak.
Rick Wilson is a Republican political strategist and author of the forthcoming book “Everything Trump Touches Dies”.