If you’re wondering why President Trump’s mad-dog frenzy in the last 48 hours has surpassed even his typically manic tone, look no further than Michael Cohen’s mounting legal troubles. Two new fronts were opened this week, pushing Cohen closer to the edge of a painful, existential choice: cooperation with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, or an extended, unpleasant stay in federal prison. Trump can sense his friend edging closer to capitulation and his own legal peril mounting as Cohen begins to crack. As usual, he’s having a very public, very loud meltdown.
First came the news that Gene Freidman, Cohen’s associate in his taxi-medallion enterprise, has flipped. You’ll be shocked (and by ‘shocked’ I mean, ‘entirely unsurprised’) to learn that Soviet émigré “Gene” Freidman, formerly “Evgeny” is tied to – wait for it – shady Russian and Ukrainian interests. For those of you in more civilised climes, New York’s taxi business isn’t the most genteel and ethical business niche; it’s notoriously mobbed-up. Cohen comes from the same Russian wiseguy-inflected, criminal enterprise-adjacent circles as Freidman. Freidman has now pledged to assist Federal officials in their investigation of Cohen, and by extension, Trump.
The second source of new psychological and legal pressure on Trump and Cohen came from the BBC’s Paul Wood. In an impeccably-sourced piece, Wood revealed yesterday that Cohen has engaged in illegal lobbying on behalf of Ukraine, serving in both of his usual roles as fixer for and conduit to Donald Trump.
All this news has forced Cohen and Trump into a wave of thin and implausible denials. Cohen is no doubt having to listen to his attorney melt the phone in a volcanic torrent of rage over how Cohen has failed to meet the requirements of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Oh, that Foreign Agents Registration Act. You know, that law that requires anyone doing paid work on behalf of a foreign government to register with the United States Department of Justice.
While Donald Trump may think our laws are for the little people, the FARA violation in Cohen’s $400,000-$600,000 payday from Ukraine’s President Petro Oleksiyovych Poroshenko won’t get a pass from the Feds just because Michael Cohen is the President’s friend and fixer. According to Wood’s bombshell BBC story, Poroshenko was willing to pay Cohen handsomely for access to Trump, and his allies went straight to Michael Cohen, self-proclaimed super-lawyer to the President. Cohen saw a sweet payday coming, and somehow got the Ukrainians to pay in advance.
Cohen delivered for the Ukrainians. Poroshenko and Trump met in the White House in June 2017, despite objections from Trump’s inner circle. The meeting was a success for Trump; in a move that stretched coincidence to the very edges of reason, the moment Poroshenko returned to Kiev after his whirlwind trip to Washington, Ukraine’s anti-corruption agency suddenly – shocker! – dropped their investigation into former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Dropping the inquiry into Manafort’s longstanding ties and service to Poroshenko’s Putin-friendly predecessor Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych raised more than a few eyebrows in Kiev and Washington.
It’s not as if Poroshenko had been previously been unwilling to tear into Yanukovych’s financial and political misdeeds, but suddenly the connection between Manafort and Yanukovych was mysteriously no longer of interest. Pay no attention, Poroshenko seemed to be saying, to Pavel Manafort’s history with Yanukovych’s discredited Party of Nations, or his work for Russian oligarchs and Putin clients Oleg Deripaska and Dmitri Firtash. It was clear that Poroshenko, like Yanukovych before him, understood that access and power in Washington comes with a price tag. Poroshenko, doubtless with a nudge from Cohen, understood that any pressure on Manafort was pressure on Trump.
Cohen’s partner in the Ukraine deal was the notorious Felix Sater, because of course it was. Sater, the bad penny of the Trump/Russia story, is like a spider in the center of a scuzzy web. Sater is a character so lavishly corrupt and colorful that even a Hollywood screenwriter would discard him as too ludicrous. The deal Cohen and Sater constructed for unregistered, illegal lobbying efforts on behalf of the Poroshenko government had unintended consequences. Now that Cohen has been ratted out by Ukrainian government sources, the pressure to flip and cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller is rising by the minute. Cohen’s money trail is nowhere near as sophisticated as Manafort’s, and dogged Stormy Daniels attorney Michael Avenatti rather easily exposed Suspicious Activity Reports from the U.S. Treasury regarding Cohen’s payoffs from Ukrainian interests.
For Donald Trump, these new pressures on Michael Cohen are obviously a source of raw terror and goes a long way to explain the recent hair-tearing and garment-rending on the President’s part. It’s not because Cohen was a client of Freidman’s in the taxi business, it’s because Freidman can verify and validate Cohen’s connections to the vast wave of Russian money washing over Trump’s business interests. It’s not simply that Cohen was cashing in; it’s that violating FARA exposes him to more discovery, legal jeopardy, and opens new avenues for the Special Counsel’s investigation. None of this is, as they say, a good look for Trump.
Michael Cohen’s deep entanglement with Donald Trump as his attorney, sleaze consigliere, and fawning fixer was a matter of record even before these new stories appeared. As Mueller and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York peel back the layers of Cohen’s shady business dealings, it shines an unwelcome light on Trump’s businesses, taxes, financial dealings, debts, and personal conduct.
Before he reached too far, Cohen was a man mostly behind the curtain, a sometimes sinister voice threatening legal misery on behalf of his powerful client. The risks he took to achieve a lucrative, immediate payday in the wake of Donald Trump’s election speak not only to Cohen’s greed but also to his clear expectation that Donald Trump would look the other way as his longtime associate and toady cashed in. Like any mobster, Cohen wanted his cut.
Lobbying is an old, old game in Washington and around the world. People who know the people in power, who have access and can open doors, build friendships, and move policy mountains – get things done. In the United States and much of the West, it’s an organised and systematic process governed by laws, mores, and public scrutiny. Sure, lobbying can sleazy but it isn’t generally as scummy as lobbyists like Cohen and Manafort may lead you to believe. Even the most morally ambiguous players in the Washington game understand that there are limits and boundaries. Most people play by the rules. A few cautionary tales like that of Jack Abramoff tend to be memorable.
Far from Trump draining his famous swamp, Michael Cohen’s patron has now created a climate too tempting for venal, small men like Cohen to resist. From Stormy Daniels to Trump Tower Moscow, to a constellation of American corporate interests who stroked him six-figure checks, to illegal lobbying for foreign governments, Michael Cohen now has the world’s largest ‘kick me’ sign on his back, all because he sold himself as a man who could deliver.
Just as there is no political Trumpism without Trump, neither is there a shield from legal consequence for his minions, emulators, hangers-on, and wannabe power-players. As shocked as Cohen must have been when the Southern District of New York executed a thorough, full-throttle raid on his home, office, and hotel room, Cohen may have thought he had weathered the storm. He was wrong. Things are about to get even more ugly for Michael Cohen. The irony of Cohen’s mob-manque tough-guy act is that he had to be aware of how these stories always end; lower-level players flip or die. Now, Cohen’s freedom is contingent on giving prosecutors a bigger fish to fry. Trump knows it, Cohen knows it, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller most certainly knows it.