Trump’s Longtime Lawyer, Michael Cohen, Knows Way Too Much. So Why is He Still in Exile?
He’s the president’s ‘Ray Donovan.’ But he never had a home at the White House. Now, he’s plotting his next act.
Before his remarks at a $35,000-per-plate fundraiser last June in Miami, Florida, President Donald Trump took the podium to acknowledge his biggest boosters in the crowd. Eventually, he got to Michael Cohen, the longtime private employee of the Trump Organization who is currently serving as “personal attorney” to the president. Trump praised Cohen’s lawyering, his loyalty, and his love for appearing on television.
“I haven’t seen Michael in a month,” he added, wistfully. “It’s good to see you, Michael. I miss you, man.”
The feeling was mutual.
Cohen, 51, isn’t just an employee of Donald Trump, he’s a disciple. He dresses in the same slightly too large suits and wide-knot silk ties. He talks in short punchy bursts and refers to his enemies as “haters” and “idiots.” Even their sleep schedules are the same. (“Well, I don’t sleep,” Cohen told The Daily Beast.) And when Cohen says he’d “take a bullet,” for Trump, one gets the impression he’s serious.
For over a decade, Cohen was Trump’s right-hand man and the two rarely spent much time away from their offices on the 26th floor of Trump Tower.
But the presidency has changed things, creating a rare and growing distance between these kindred spirits. Cohen told a Vanity Fair reporter in August that it had been weeks since he had even spoken with the president, the first lady, or “the kids,” as he calls Trump’s adult children, Ivanka, Don Jr., and Eric. He also said that his lawyer suggested the separation continue until Cohen complied with an invitation for any information and testimony he might provide to congressional investigators looking into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Describing it as “difficult,” and “disappointing,” Cohen explained that his forced exile was for the greater good of shielding the Trump family from any headaches that may arise from his meetings with investigators. But they have still come.
After Cohen released his planned remarks to that same Vanity Fair reporter, the Senate committee accused him of violating a gag agreement and canceled his appearance. The questioning was rescheduled to consecutive-day appearances before both the Senate and House intelligence committees at the end of October. Cohen complied, but he described the marathon grilling as “abusive.”
“There’s no reason that you keep somebody for 14 hours. I mean, it’s a really long long time,” Cohen told The Daily Beast of the closed-door session, which reportedly focused heavily on emails concerning an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to open a Trump Tower in Moscow. “You know, to be sitting there and being asked the same question, to be asked ‘Have you ever seen this document?’ ‘No, well are you included?’ Yeah, along with 800 other people on a Cc. Do you have any idea how many emails I get a day?”
It’s unclear if Cohen has been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible links with the Trump campaign. He’s reportedly been under scrutiny in the FBI’s probe of alleged Russian election-meddling. Of interest to investigators are Cohen’s personal and business connections in Ukraine; emails and meetings between Cohen and Felix Sater, a Russian-born businessman and convicted criminal who has bragged about his ties to Vladimir Putin; an email Cohen sent to Putin’s spokesman seeking support for a Moscow project; and a report that Cohen hand-delivered a sealed “peace plan” for Russia and Ukraine that included lifting Russian sanctions to then-national security adviser Michael Flynn. Initially, Cohen seemed to confirm the peace plan report, but later denied delivering any documents. He has consistently denied any wrongdoing.
It’s his unshakable devotion coupled with this tendency to be creative with his construction of the truth that has some Trump insiders concerned about the prospect of Cohen potentially being ensnared in Mueller’s investigation, which has already lead to the indictments of four former Trump associates, and one lawyer who lied about his communications with a former campaign official.
“I’m just worried for Michael, worried for what [Mueller’s senior financial prosecutor] Andrew Weissmann might find when he calls him in,” said Sam Nunberg, an early political aide to Trump who still supports the president despite being fired by him in 2014 and again in 2015. “He can find anything that was illegal and prosecute you.”
Nunberg stressed that he had no reason to believe Cohen had done—or would do—anything illegal, but said, “I’m worried that they are going to target Michael as a way to take down Trump.”
If Mueller’s team wants to know what was happening inside Trump Tower or Donald Trump’s mind in the run-up to the election—and they clearly do—talking to Michael Cohen would be smart. Few other people outside of Trump’s own family, after all, have spent as much time with the president.
Cohen grew up on Long Island, worked as a personal injury lawyer, then spent the ’90s buying up taxi medallions in New York City and Chicago and hustling side projects like a Miami gambling boat and several family-run Ukrainian ethanol businesses. By the aughts, Cohen and his extended family were investing in real estate—specifically in Trump properties.
“Michael Cohen has a great insight into the real-estate market,” Trump told the New York Post in 2007 of Cohen’s appetite for his apartments. “He has invested in my buildings because he likes to make money – and he does.”
Three months after Trump’s comments, Cohen was brought on as both “special counsel” and executive vice president for the Trump Organization and given an office a few doors down from the boss’. As EVP, Cohen “oversaw business dealings globally,” as he explained in a recently shopped book proposal obtained by The Daily Beast last month. His special counsel role was less defined. “I basically handled, shall we say, ‘issues.’ In other words, I was the family fix-it guy,” Cohen wrote.
By 2011, Cohen was playing an instrumental role in building the framework for Trump’s forthcoming political career. He had enlisted the help of a few other rich men and launched ShouldTrumpRun.com, a website that urged “the many frustrated Americans sick and tired of hearing the same old mundane political campaign promises,” to “convince Donald Trump to run for President in 2012.”
Trump did not run that year. But the site, along numerous television appearances cheerleading for Trump and a flight to Iowa on Trump’s private jet to to meet with state officials, caught the attention of the Federal Election Commission. The FEC launched an investigation into a complaint that Cohen had violated campaign finance laws but ultimately sided in Cohen’s favor (PDF).
After years of teasing presidential runs, Trump officially announced his candidacy in the summer of 2015. Cohen soon appeared on television and in print, promoting and defending his boss. But just what his role entailed has never been clear.
“I used to call him the Ray Donovan of the office,” said Nunberg, referring to the Showtime drama about a “fixer” who uses threats to rid rich and famous clients of their problems.
“We never knew specifically what he did, but we knew he took care of the garbage,” he added. “He’s also, and I mean this as a compliment, he’s a crazy man.”
Cohen refused to elaborate on the specifics of his role, citing “attorney client privilege” in a text. But he seems to relish his reputation as Trump’s personal pit bull. “It means that if somebody does something Mr. Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr. Trump’s benefit,” Cohen famously told an ABC News reporter in 2011. “If you do something wrong, I’m going to come at you, grab you by the neck and I’m not going to let you go until I’m finished.”
Reporters, lawyers, and regular folks who dared to challenge Trump’s carefully crafted image as the consummate businessman would often find themselves locked in Cohen’s proverbial jaws. Cohen once bragged of “destroying” the life of Sheena Monnin, a beauty queen who in 2012 questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s Miss USA pageant. Monnin’s father, who said he spoke to Cohen twice, described Cohen “throwing a fit,” on the phone. “I’m sure if you check other people who have had to deal with him, you’d hear the same. Just bullying tactics and intimidation.”
And, indeed, that’s precisely what others who have dealt with Cohen have faced. In the summer of 2015, as Trump was barreling his way toward the Republican nomination, Cohen threatened a Daily Beast reporter who had called for comment on allegations that Trump abused his ex-wife, as detailed in a 1993 biography. “Tread very fucking lightly,” Cohen told the reporter, Tim Mak, “because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting.”
The Trump campaign, then-helmed by Corey Lewandowski, distanced itself from Cohen after The Daily Beast report came out—saying that despite Cohen’s nearly constant television appearances where he defended Trump, Cohen was not affiliated with the campaign.
A week later, against the better judgement of top campaign officials, Cohen was back in the surrogate’s chair on CNN and in the good graces of his longtime boss. He walked back his statements about rape, but expressed little regret for his treatment of Mak. Recently, he told The Daily Beast, “The guy went way too far and I probably went too far and OK, I’ve been known to lose my temper here and there. But I’m not what the press tries to create me into. It’s just not me, you know?”
The Mak incident wasn’t the only headache Cohen would create for the campaign. In the year that followed, he was criticized for retweeting an account named “surfersfortrump” that said of then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly: “We can gut her.” Then, in August 2016, he turned heads by denying to CNN’s Brianna Keilar, that Trump was lagging in polls
“Says who?” Cohen asked. Keilar dryly responded, “Polls. Most of them. All of them.”
The moment became a viral joke, with a corresponding hashtag. But Cohen has had the last laugh. The polls—most of them, at least—were wrong.
By that point, however, Cohen and his media hits had already become an internal punchline to many senior staffers on Team Trump, according to three top campaign alums. Several called him the “Says Who Guy.” Others were more disparaging, referring him an “idiot,” and a liability.
In a White House full of backbiters and opportunists, Cohen would have been a true believer. But it wasn’t meant to be. According to former and current administration officials, senior Trump aides, including Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon, wanted nothing to do with Cohen. Too many saw him as a hothead (even compared to others in the uniquely tumultuous Trump-world) and an inept political operator who would inevitably get the White House into trouble.
The week of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Cohen said the president elect asked him to stay on as his “personal attorney.” Cohen said he was “honored” at the request, but others inside the campaign have said the longtime aide-de-camp was expecting an official White House post.
“He wasn’t expecting attorney general, but he was holding out for a senior job that would have also allowed him to continue being an attack dog for the president,” a source familiar with the situation said, corroborating what other people close to Cohen and Trump told The Daily Beast.
The White House did not return a request for comment.
Instead of relocating to Washington along with Ivanka and Jared, Cohen moved his office just six blocks south of Trump Tower and with plans to travel between D.C. and New York in service of President Trump. His title—personal attorney to the president—is misleading. He is not acting as an attorney in the way most people think of the job. He is not representing Trump in court against any of the women who accused the president of sexual assault; that’s Marc Kasowitz’s job. And he is not helping Trump with any crises or fallout extending from the Russia investigations; the president already has a team for that.
He remains, very much, a mysterious operator, one whose methods and past work continue to generate embarrassing headlines. In mid-February, The New York Times reported that during the campaign, Cohen had been tasked with stopping any damaging stories about his boss from seeing the light of day, including at least two stories from women—one a former Playboy Playmate, another a porn star—who claimed they’d had consensual affairs with Trump in the mid-2000s. In one case, Cohen arranged a $130,000 payment to porn star Stephanie Clifford, better known by her stage name Stormy Daniels, in the month before the election to effectively buy her silence.
Cohen first denied a sexual encounter had taken place, and sent reporters a written denial of any affair signed by “Stormy Daniels.” A week later, The Wall Street Journal reported that Cohen established a private Delaware LLC to facilitate the payment. Though Cohen established the company in Delaware ostensibly for the state’s reputation for privacy (owners and managers aren’t required to disclose their names) he curiously volunteered himself as the “authorized person” on the formation documents, instead of hiring a third party to act as the signatory.
The following day, InTouch magazine published a 5,000-word interview with Clifford from 2011 that had been shelved after Cohen threatened the publisher with a lawsuit, according to the Associated Press. After a D.C. watchdog group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Committee claiming that the $130,000 payment violated campaign finance laws, Cohen released another statement admitting that he had facilitated the payment to Clifford, but claiming he had used his own money and was never reimbursed by the campaign or the Trump Organization. The carefully worded statement stopped short of denying any reimbursement and Cohen did not respond to follow-up questions.
Cohen still insists the affair never happened. He added in his statement, “I will always protect Mr. Trump.” It’s just not clear how much protection he’s providing. Cohen, once more, found himself a national punchline for the services he had rendered to his favorite client. A commercial parody on Jimmy Kimmel Live! asked, “Have you never had sex with a porn star? Then you need a lawyer to give that porn star large amounts of cash! Not your own cash, his own cash. Call the law firm of Michael Cohen & Associates.”
After a year of being vilified in the press, targeted by federal investigators, and perhaps worse, isolated from his idol, Cohen reveled in a counterattack one evening this January.
He announced on Twitter that he had filed two defamation lawsuits: one against Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that commissioned “the Steele dossier” a salacious 35-page report that alleged connections between Donald Trump and Russia, and another against BuzzFeed News, over its decision to publish the document.
The unverified dossier named him as a central player in a Russian conspiracy to influence the 2016 election in favor of Trump, a claim that Cohen has repeatedly denied. For BuzzFeed’s alleged defamation, Cohen was demanding $100 million.
When reached by phone, Cohen called it “premature” to discuss damages. “But you can only imagine,” he said. “It’s not just me that has been harmed in many different ways, forgetting about just financial, it’s the attacks on my wife, the attacks on my children.
“You can imagine what goes on at these schools where it’s become increasingly chic to be a far-left liberal,” he said. “You know it’s beyond, I can’t tell you the number of friends who no longer associate with us because our views are just so diametrically opposite.”
And that’s just the personal, Cohen said. The allegations that he may have played a role in Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election are affecting his business prospects, too.
“There’s all sorts of businesses, where they’re like, ‘You’re exactly what we want, but can we hold off until maybe this Russian thing is over?’”
On Fox News, famed defense lawyer and newcomer Trump defender Alan Dershowitz reacted to news of Cohen’s lawsuit by questioning the common sense of a case that would have Trump deposed.
“He’s going to withdraw the case,” Dershowitz told Martha MacCallum. “I’m not sure whether Cohen got the permission to file this lawsuit.”
Dershowitz was onto something. When asked whether President Trump had indeed supported his actions, Cohen told The Daily Beast, “I’m sure he does. I haven’t spoken to him about it.”
There are some signs that Cohen’s exile from the administration is no longer so absolute. Though he may not be at the White House physically, he is serving as a helping hand on Trump-world odd jobs and pet projects.
Later this year, the Trump White House is hoping to unveil an “Urban Revitalization Plan” targeting black and minority communities that the president has outsourced to outside allies, led by pro-Trump pastor Darrell C. Scott. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Scott credited Cohen, a close friend of his, as “one of the originators” of the plan—which Scott tongue-in-cheek refers to as the Trump administration’s “black people plan.”
“We came up with it together,” Scott said.
But even as he’s been tasked with helping to save America’s ailing urban centers, Cohen still lacks allies in Trump-world. White House officials continue to describe him as a “non-entity” and a goofy “character,” according to a senior Trump aide.
In addition to co-founding the National Diversity Coalition for Trump, Cohen in his spare time is pitching in with the Republican National Committee’s fundraising crew, lashing out at Trump critics on Twitter, and shopping a book.
According to a proposal sent to several publishers and obtained by The Daily Beast earlier this month, Cohen’s book will likely be titled, “Trump Revolution: From the Tower to the White House, Understanding Donald J. Trump,” and will focus on the attorney’s role in the campaign and the business empire.
“No issue was too big, too sticky or too oddball for me to tackle,” Cohen teases in the book proposal. “I saw it all, handled it all. And still do.”
Michael Cohen wants you to know that he’s not making a comeback any time soon. After all, he’s been with Mr. Trump the whole time.
“I haven’t gone anywhere,” Cohen wrote in a text message to The Daily Beast. “Sadly, the press wants to create the narrative that I am on the outside. More fake news!”