In the course of two short years, Michael Cohen has gone from one of Donald Trump’s most trusted lieutenants to the potential agent of existential political and legal problems for his former boss.
Those who have spoken to Cohen in recent weeks tell The Daily Beast that President Trump’s longtime fixer is “scared” of possible jail time. He’s also frustrated by the distance that those close to Trump have worked to put between him and the president. He fears being discarded entirely.
President Trump “doesn’t talk about Michael much anymore,” a senior West Wing official also noted. “Not that he did much before.”
Cohen increasingly believes that Trump will not have his back as the feds continue to treat him like a mafia lawyer, and continues to worry about being made a fall-guy in the investigations surrounding the president. These fears underscore a remarkable change in status for one of the few figures who was seen, at least publicly, as a fixture of Trumpland.
It was not so long ago that Cohen would loudly threaten reporters who wrote critically of Trump and dutifully facilitate hush money payments to a porn star who claimed she had an affair with Trump. He also falsely denied that marital rape is illegal, and bragged about how he “destroy[ed]” the life of a young “idiot” beauty queen—all in the name of Trump, for whom Cohen had claimed he would take a “bullet” or jump out of a building.
Now, in just a matter of weeks, Cohen has gone from top pitbull to actively floating the prospect of cooperating with federal investigators—“snitching,” as numerous Trump allies and advisers would dub it. And he’s imploring the media not to paint him as a bad guy.
“I will not be a punching bag as part of anyone’s defense strategy,” Cohen told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, in an interview during which the notorious Trump fixer said he would put his country and family ahead of the president in the ongoing legal saga. “I am not a villain of this story, and I will not allow others to try to depict me that way.”
That it took this long for Trump’s fixer to show signs of inching away from the president, speaks to the extent of his loyalty. The Trump era, after all, hasn’t been too kind to Cohen.
He had left his senior position at the Trump Organization shortly after the election, expecting a coveted appointment in the new administration (he had told friends that he even expected to be named chief of staff), only to see President Trump pass him over for any White House post. Since the presidential campaign, Cohen routinely saw himself on the losing end of bitter feuds between himself and other Trump associates, including former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who received the kind of treatment and favor from Trump that Cohen had craved. And the “shadow lobbying” that Cohen engaged in, in his effort to profit off of the Trump era and his relationship with the president, blew up in his face and is one of the reasons he landed in hot water with the feds.
Cohen rode Trump’s coattails to prominence and recognition in GOP circles, even though he wasn’t actually a Republican until early 2017. His closeness to Trump earned Cohen a spot on the Republican National Committee’s finance leadership team shortly after the inauguration. In late March, Cohen bragged that he’d raised $500,000 for the party in a single day.
In reality, those with knowledge of the RNC’s fundraising apparatus say Cohen’s position was largely ceremonial, and that his actual fundraising hauls were minimal. Essentially, he wasn’t a significant player at the RNC, and was offered the gig merely because of his association with Trump. He has since resigned from the finance post.
But Cohen might be playing a longer game in his not-so-subtle hints of potential cooperation with federal law enforcement authorities. Several observers and legal experts speculated that his media gambit was less an indication of imminent flipping and perhaps more a signal to the president that he could later use a pardon.
“I think that [Michael] is in a jam where his legal bills are mounting up and it’s obvious, if you are a federal or a state investigator, you have an unlimited budget to go down every rabbit hole you want to—a guy like that knows he’s really collateral damage,” former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), a prominent Trump surrogate, told The Daily Beast. Kingston counts himself among Cohen’s friends and has stayed in touch with the embattled Trump associate in recent weeks.
“The target… is Trump, [that’s who] they’re after,” he continued. “I think [Michael’s] got a right to be weighing his options.”
Asked how Cohen has been feeling these days, Kingston simply replied, “How would you feel?”
While Kingston offered empathy for Cohen’s situation, others in Trump’s orbit weren’t so kind. Cohen, who did not respond to a request for comment on this story, has been eyed with suspicion by top Trump allies and officials for months. Trump confidants have been actively warning the president about the likelihood of Cohen flipping, and some have openly speculated about the lawyer’s potentially shakeable loyalties.
“Is [Michael Cohen] wilting under the feds’ pressure tactics? Why is he giving [interviews] to news outlets hostile to @realDonaldTrump?” Fox News host Laura Ingraham—a close ally to the Trump family who had even interviewed for the job of Trump’s White House press secretary—tweeted, as early as April 10.
The White House, which would by and large prefer to have absolutely nothing to do with Cohen, has been referring questions about Cohen to outside counsel. Rudy Giuliani, another Trump attorney, did not respond to The Daily Beast’s text or phone calls as of press time.
“Michael Cohen is too concerned right now with his reputation and attempting to repair his reputation, as opposed to simply doing the right thing,” said Michael Avenatti, the Stormy Daniels attorney who has become a chief Cohen antagonist. “If he was a true patriot who had ‘love of country’ at the top of his priority list, then he would disclose what he knows, come clean, and do the right thing… I think that it was a strategic blunder on Mr. Trump’s behalf to not keep this guy in the tent and thus ensure that he remains loyal… He’s only going to [flip] when he has to in order to save himself.”
There are other ways in which Cohen has demonstrated a possible change in heart. Last month, he publicly denounced Trump’s family separation policy, and this week’s ABC interview was littered with Cohen conspicuously underscoring differences between him and the president. “As an American, I repudiate Russia’s or any other foreign government’s attempt to interfere or meddle in our democratic process, and I would call on all Americans to do the same,” Cohen said, breaking from Trump’s refusal to blame the Russian government and hackers for 2016 U.S. election meddling.
“Simply accepting the denial of Mr. Putin is unsustainable,” Cohen continued.
There are subtle signs that Trump may be getting the message. Whether he acts on it is another question entirely.
As The Daily Beast previously reported, the president is, too, weighing his options and assessing the landscape. In private conversations, Trump has repeatedly vented his anger over federal authorities who have probed his business empire and inner circle. In April, multiple people close to President Trump noticed him using a familiar sentence and vocal tic, when talking about whether or not Cohen will crack under pressure and start cooperating with the feds.
“We’ll see,” Trump would say.