In March, Michael Cohen’s lawyer went on NBC to declare with “100 percent” certainty that President Donald Trump had not reimbursed Cohen for a $130,000 payment to Trump’s alleged porn star mistress. The president has now officially confirmed that that was not the case.
The now-refuted claim by Cohen’s lawyer, David Schwartz, illustrated the potential pitfalls for allies of Cohen and his one-time client, the president, in publicly defending Cohen in the face of a rapidly escalating scandal. What began as a controversy over a six-figure payment to silence the president’s alleged mistress during the 2016 campaign has ballooned into to a far larger scandal involving the sale of Trump administration access to corporate clients with business before the federal government, and even foreign state actors accused of seeking to bribe top White House officials.
Schwartz continues to serve as Cohen’s spokesman in addition to his attorney. But his TV appearances have receded since late March, leaving the task of defending Cohen to White House allies and surrogates who are increasingly wary of being forced to stick up for the man at the center of the biggest Trumpworld scandal since the Russia investigation.
Michael Cohen, in short, has become a Trumpworld pariah.
Senior White House officials habitually dodge questions on Cohen, his predicament, and its potential consequences for the president, instead referring related questions to attorneys representing Cohen and Trump. Officials privately wish that President Trump never talked or tweeted publicly about his personal lawyer—which, true to form, is a wish the president has refused to grant.
Two prominent allies of the president, who also know Cohen well, told The Daily Beast they’ve begun ignoring or declining requests from cable news bookers to discuss Cohen on-air. “It’s time to keep a distance,” one of these people said.
Numerous other Trump associates, veterans of the 2016 campaign or presidential transition, and White House surrogates said they’re avoiding any phone contact with Cohen out of concern that his line might be tapped, and that direct interaction could involve them in the scandal that has enveloped Cohen and the influence-peddling operation he set up in the wake of Trump’s election victory.
The feds, Trump allies say, are treating Cohen as if he were a sketchy mafia lawyer. The White House wants nothing to do with him, and begrudges him for imperiling the Trump presidency with his antics (whether sanctioned by Trump or not). The president remains privately skeptical that his loyalist pit bull won’t end up snitching on him under a threat of serious jail time.
When Trump allies have been pressed to address the Cohen controversy on air, they’ve sidestepped some questions, and used others to try to distance the president and the White House from the embattled former Trump Organization attorney.
“Michael Cohen wanted very much to be in politics,” said Roger Stone, a Trump ally and informal adviser, in an appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday. “He wanted to be in the campaign. He wanted to be in the administration. He has not achieved any of those things. I don’t think the president regarded him as a political genius or was open to his desires in that area. And he had a tendency to discount any political advice that Michael would give him.”
Asked by host Chuck Todd whether the president should be concerned that Cohen might turn on him, Stone said, “I’ve been in politics for 40 years. I know enough not to answer hypothetical questions.”
Among some Trump allies and 2016 campaign veterans, Cohen is seen—or spun—as a hanger-on who attempted to parlay his connections to the president into a lucrative D.C. influence operation despite not having a major role in the campaign or in White House policymaking since then. As a result, few feel an obligation to publicly defend him as he faces down daunting legal and public relations challenges.
“He made a fortune [off of his Trump connections] and has been nothing but a headache,” one Trump campaign veteran told The Daily Beast. For loyalists, Cohen is worth defending only to the extent that his conduct implicates the president. When that conduct involved the payment to Daniels, it might merit some pushback. But on issues surrounding his post-election consulting business, he’s mostly “on his own,” the former campaign official said.
Cohen referred The Daily Beast’s questions to his attorney, who did not respond.
Even during the campaign, officials felt Cohen was a peripheral player in the president’s orbit who few felt the need to involve in strategizing or decision-making. Another former senior campaign official who was in frequent contact with the campaign’s team’s top executives—Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, and others—said, “no one ever asked me to loop in Cohen.”
Cohen, that source said, was mockingly referred to at Trump campaign HQ as “the ‘says who?’ guy,” a reference to a cable news interview that Cohen gave during the campaign in which he dodged questioning by simply repeating “says who?” to a seemingly dumbfounded host.
Already skeptical of Cohen, many Trump allies have watched warily as association with him has turned toxic. Cohen’s post-election work in Washington has already resulted in early retirements for C-suite executives at two prominent companies, AT&T and Novartis, that enlisted his “shadow-lobbying” services.
The controversy stemming from those services continues to grow, as revelations emerge that Cohen was hawking his services not just to major corporations but also to at least one foreign government. As the scandal continues spiraling, Trump allies that once vehemently defended Cohen amid controversy involving his payment to porn star Stormy Daniels have been more muted.
Even Sean Hannity, the president’s most vocal cable news advocate, has mostly ignored Cohen since the controversy has evolved from one implicating Trump in potentially illicit payments to Daniels to one more directly related to Cohen’s influence-peddling schemes. Hannity, who devoted a monologue on May 4 to defending Trump from criticism surrounding the Daniels payment, has not directly weighed in on his Fox News show on any subsequent development in the Cohen controversy.
In spite of that controversy, Cohen remains a member of the Republican National Committee’s finance leadership team, which he joined shortly after Trump took office. The RNC did not respond to questions about Cohen’s continued role as a fundraiser, and whether he is still participating in RNC events.
Cohen does have some defenders, though, among segments of Trumpworld who empathize with his ongoing legal problems and the burdens they create.
“As a mere witness in this investigation, I’ve seen clients, colleagues, and friends shy away, and my family has been mercilessly attacked by anonymous and even named individuals threatening violence and death,” Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser and a peripheral figure in the Russia investigations, told The Daily Beast. “But my closest friends and most important clients are standing by me and show no signs of waning in their support.
“I can tell you,” Caputo said, “that if Michael Cohen called me today, I’d pick up the phone without hesitation.”
—With additional reporting by Andrew Kirell.