From Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, comes a warning to his old boss. “My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will,” Cohen told the ABC anchor, George Stephanopoulos, off-camera, “I put family and country first.” He was answering a question about whether he would cooperate with the Feds and flip on the president if that were the price of his freedom. Such a deal may be a real possibility now, following an FBI raid on his offices, home and hotel room. Cohen said, menacingly, that the president’s lawyers had better think very carefully about their next steps: “I will not be a punching bag as part of anyone’s defence strategy. I am not a villain of this story, and I will not allow others to try to depict me that way.”
Cohen is being investigated over a payment of $130,000 to the porn star Stormy Daniels, hush money so she would not talk about having an (alleged) affair with The Donald. The payment was made just two days before the presidential election and could be seen as an illegal campaign contribution. Presumably, this is why President Trump now admits to reimbursing Cohen, despite earlier denials that he knew anything about the money: you can contribute as much as you want to your own campaign.
Cohen’s warning was partly a plea for help, the frantic waving of a man drowning under a rising tide of legal bills. This is the former consigliere who once said he’d “take a bullet for Trump,” now threatening to squeal. What a difference imminent bankruptcy and the threat of jail makes! This is dangerous for The Trumpster, however he opts to respond. Signal a pardon? That would be to hand any future Congress controlled by the Democratic Party one more reason to impeach him for obstruction of justice. Ignore Cohen? Maybe, but this is Trump’s bagman, his personal lawyer, the man who cleaned up the “women messes” – paid them off, got them to sign NDAs (non disclosure agreements). What does Cohen know?
Everything. Perhaps more than enough to be deadly to Trump’s chances of staying out of jail himself. There are several more women said to have received hush money. These stories about porn stars and Playboy models may start out as a joke…I spanked Trump with a copy of Forbes that had his face on the cover, says Stormy…but they quickly move into more serious legal territory. Campaign finance in the Daniels case, sexual harassment and defamation in the case of Summer Zervos, a former Apprentice contestant. There are at least 20 – count them, 20! – women who have made allegations of groping, forced kissing or other sexual assault by Trump.
Video testimony from 16 of them can be found here:
Cohen’s job wasn’t just to go around with a box of Kleenex and fistful of cash cleaning up the ‘women messes’. He had serious business with the Russians, or tried to. As late as June 2016, well into the election campaign, Cohen was trying to get a Trump Tower built in Moscow. His eager helper in this was Felix Sater, a convicted former mobster who once built and sold condos for Trump in Manhattan. Sater emailed Cohen: “Everything will be negotiated and discussed not with flunkies but with people who will have dinner with Putin and discuss the issues and get a go-ahead. My next steps are very sensitive with Putin’s very, very close people.”
Sater and Cohen knew enough to keep this a secret as Trump headed towards his unexpected general election victory. They would chat on an encrypted app called Dust. “Gotta keep this quiet,” Sater told Cohen.
And they did. After the Steele dossier was published in January 2017, Trump was asked in a news conference: “Does Russia have any leverage over you, financial or otherwise?” He was able to reply, in typically meandering, and typically boastful style: “I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we’ve stayed away… So I have no deals, I have no loans and I have no dealings. We could make deals in Russia very easily if we wanted to, I just don’t want to because I think that would be a conflict. So I have no loans, no dealings, and no current pending deals.” It was true that he had ‘no deals’ but he had not ‘stayed away’.
Cohen himself says he has never actually been to Moscow. “This is strangely suspicious,” says Ryan Goodman, a professor of law at New York University,“because he has so many business dealings that relate or attempt to relate to Russia.” Goodman has written one of the best simple guides to the Trump Russia allegations, for the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Skip the legal stuff and go straight to appendix three.) He points out that not only was Cohen trying to get a Trump Tower Moscow, he was also on the board of the Miss Universe contest, held in the Russian capital in 2013. Cohen was asked by The Atlantic about ties to Russia, and about whether he had met Russian intelligence officers in Prague, as alleged in the Steele dossier. He responded: “I’m telling you emphatically that I’ve not been to Prague, I’ve never been to [the] Czech [Republic], I’ve not been to Russia.”
If Cohen was being misleading about Russia, says Goodman, then perhaps he was, in the same breath, being misleading about Prague, too – and the whole Russia ‘conspiracy’ starts to unravel. McClatchy reported that the Mueller inquiry has been passed evidence of a Cohen visit to the Czech Republic – a claim backed up by one intelligence source in London. But was Cohen really concealing a visit to Russia? There is an eyewitness who puts Cohen in a hotel room with members of the Solntsevskaya organized crime group in Moscow, in 2013, as he pursued the hotel deal. The occasion was the birthday party of one of the group’s leaders. Solntsevskaya is the most feared and powerful of Russia’s mafia gangs, with deep connections to the Kremlin at the most senior level. The introductions for Cohen were said to have been made by Felix Sater. The eyewitness is not willing to be publicly identified – no surprise, given Solntsevskaya’s terrifying reputation – and there is no independent corroboration of his story. But this a tantalising possibility for the Mueller team to explore.
To determine the truth, perhaps Robert Mueller should examine Cohen’s passport, or passports plural, since one former White House official told Cockburn he thought the president’s lawyer had two. The official said this after Cohen attempted to refute the Prague claims by tweeting a picture of his passport: a look inside would show he had not been conspiring with any Russians, he said. In his evidence to Congress last September, Cohen stated: “I find the activities attributed to the Russian Federation, if found to be true, to be an offense to our democracy.” He told George Stephanopoulos this week: “I respect our nation’s intelligence agencies’ unanimous conclusions” about Russian interference in the US presidential election. Trump will have noticed his second statement, for sure, another public act of disloyalty.
Perhaps Cohen is just trying to get the President’s attention – if so, he will certainly have succeeded. And maybe this is all about money. Make me whole again, the capo says to his boss. But if Trump is thinking of getting a rich friend to pay Cohen’s legal bills, he should remember what happened to Richard Nixon. “I would say these people are going to cost a million dollars over the next two years,” John Dean, Nixon’s own lawyer, told him after the Watergate burglars were arrested. “We could get that,” Nixon replied. “You could get a million dollars. And you could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten. I mean, it’s not easy, but it could be done.” As Nixon’s ghost could tell The Donald, it’s the cover-up, not the crime, that gets you in the end.