Three months ago, Donald Trump allowed Michael D. Cohen, an executive vice president in the Trump Organization who also serves as his special counsel, to found ShouldTrumpRun.com and gauge the public’s interest in a potential presidential run in 2012, as well as to carry out other politically related activities. In essence, Trump made Cohen his chief political adviser. That decision may come back to haunt him.
In modern American politics, the relationship between candidate and adviser has played a vital role in the candidate’s political life. Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell were so central to Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential victory that they famously ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone. In 1992, Bill Clinton may not have been elected without the guidance of James (“It’s the economy, stupid!”) Carville. And of course Karl Rove was so integral to the political persona of George W. Bush he was dubbed “Bush’s Brain.”
The behavior of an adviser can reflect on a candidate’s political judgment. So eyebrows were raised when Cohen flew to Des Moines, Iowa, on March 7 on a testing-the-waters effort to meet with state operatives and officials about a Trump candidacy. He flew in a Trump 727, but when reporters asked if Trump was paying for the trip, Cohen said Trump supporter Stewart Rahr provided the financing.
Had Trump put up the funds for Cohen’s trip, he would have violated federal law; he has yet to file paperwork declaring himself as a candidate or establishing an exploratory committee, and cannot fund his own political efforts beyond $2,500. Rahr himself may be in violation of federal law for the same reason—by financing Cohen’s travel, he may have contributed more than $2,500 to a political effort
By Friday, a Ron Paul supporter had filed a claim with the Federal Elections Commission, noting that Trump had failed to file any documents with the FEC, even though “by his own admission [he is] testing the waters for election to the presidency and [is] a de facto candidate for the Republican nomination.”
Of Cohen’s handling of Trump’s fledgling efforts, Rollins said: “There is a naiveté there on his part. Either that or he’s saying, ‘We’re not going to play by the same rules as everyone else.’”
After a torrent of negative headlines, Cohen released a statement March 15, saying: “Numerous press articles have been circulated questioning the alleged violation of FEC rules/regs stemming from my usage of one of Mr. Trump’s aircrafts used on my trip to Iowa. For the record, which I hope will be the last I hear of this nonsense, no FEC rules/regs have been violated as my trip was not for Mr. Trump but as the co-creator of ShouldTrumpRun.com.” Pointing out that the website is paid for by Rahr and himself, Cohen noted: “Mr. Trump is not a candidate and has stated this more than 1,000 times, including that he will not make a decision to run until June.”
Cohen, who has an office on the same floor as Trump in 725 Fifth Avenue, the headquarters of The Trump Organization, also has been accused of violating federal laws by using Trump’s facilities, including telephones and corporate email accounts, to advance Trump’s political activities. Even after the complaint was filed with the FEC, Cohen has continued to use his trumporg.com email address, as well as his Trump telephone line.
“All of this confusion and potential illegal activity could have been avoided,” said a political observer who asked not to be named, “if Trump had filed papers establishing an exploratory committee and Cohen had set up a separate entity, with independent phones and email addresses, to test the waters for Trump’s political viability. But neither of these things was done, so you have a situation where Trump or one of his main supporters may have already violated federal elections laws. It makes you wonder about Trump’s—or Cohen’s—political acumen.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Cohen remained defiant. “I have no concerns with any of the allegations. Absolutely none,” he said. “When we receive the complaint, we’ll turn it over to counsel and counsel will deal with it.” Asked whether the bad press over the Iowa trip would affect Trump’s presidential ambitions, he said: “No decision will be made until June.”
The FEC complaint is not Cohen’s first run-in with the press. In mid-February, when a National Journal reporter asked him about Trump’s recent switch from pro-choice to pro-life, the adviser answered, “People change their positions all the time, the way they change their wives.” Then he added: “What you stood for 11 years ago you may not be standing for today. Maybe it was the birth of his five children or his grandchild that changed his mind.”
The awkward marriage talk aside—Trump has been married three times—Cohen’s logic appeared strained. Eleven years ago, when Trump was outspoken in his support of abortion rights during a flirtation with a presidential run as an independent, four of his five children had already been born.
Cohen is still somewhat new to politics, and certainly a rookie to presidential campaigning. In 2003, at the request of New York Gov. George Pataki, he switched parties to run for New York City Council as a Republican against the Democratic incumbent Eva Moskowitz. The foray was short-lived and did not produce a permanent party change; he shifted his party affiliation back to Democrat in June 2004.
Afterward he focused on his work for Trump. As of April 2008, he was the project manager for EnCap, a company through which Trump then intended, and perhaps still intends, to build a smallish city in the Meadowlands once the old landfills have been cleaned up to the specifications of the state of New Jersey. As of early June 2008, Cohen was named chief operating officer of Affliction Entertainment, a new partnership formed between Affliction, a Gothic-inspired fashion line for men, with Trump. The goal was to produce and promote live events featuring mixed-martial arts.
“MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world and I’ve been a tremendous fan for years,” Cohen was quoted as saying at the time.
After overseeing a handful of these live events, Cohen was drawn back into politics, entering a state senate race in New York in December 2009 to mount a primary challenge against incumbent Democrat Liz Krueger. “I handle very important matters for Mr. Trump,” Cohen told City Hall, “which involves budgets and contracts—everything the state is lacking right now.”
He made some nascent attempts at campaigning. On Jan. 3, 2010, he sent out an email seeking campaign contributions. “Unlike the incumbent, I am a fiscal conservative with a social conscience,” he wrote. “My primary focus, if elected, will be to stop the continued taxing of the few and balance the state’s budget of over $3 billion… I need your support and the support of those who you know! I ask you to take 30 minutes and spread the word to friends and colleagues.” He requested that contributions be mailed to him at Cohen for State Senate at 725 Fifth Avenue, 26th floor, the address of the headquarters of The Trump Organization. Eighteen days later, he dropped out of the race, citing “professional and personal reasons that prevented him from mounting a successful campaign.”
“For a very brief period of time, about a month, it appeared Michael Cohen was going to run,” said Katie Kinkaid, a spokeswoman for Krueger. “People do test the waters. That could have been it—he was testing the waters.”
For much of the next year, Cohen focused on his duties working for Trump, until the adviser ventured into politics again, now with Trump as the potential candidate. “So far, it’s a lot of commotion but nothing concrete to prove Trump’s a candidate,” said Ed Rollins, the Republican political strategist. “A lot of blather.”
Of Cohen’s handling of Trump’s fledgling efforts so far, Rollins said: “There is a naiveté there on his part. Either that or he’s saying, ‘We’re not going to play by the same rules as everyone else.’”
Paul Alexander is the author of Machiavelli’s Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove and Man of the People: The Life of John McCain, among others. A member of The Authors Guild and PEN American Center, Paul has been a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.