If Michael Cohen Flips, Trump Officially Loses Control of the Narrative
Michael Cohen has had a lot of time to think since April 9th, the day federal agents raided his office, apartment and hotel room. For the past few months, Donald Trump’s former legal counsel and “fixer” has been holed up in a Manhattan hotel room, presumably mulling over whether to cooperate with investigators or remain loyal to the president of the United States. Cohen has publicly professed absolute loyalty to Trump, but in recent weeks, reports have emerged that he could be willing to flip on his old client to avoid jail time. On Saturday night, he all but said so himself.
In his first major interview since the surprise raid in which millions of his documents were seized by the FBI, Cohen sat down with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos over the weekend. The conversation notably lacked any show of Trumpian loyalty by Cohen. “My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will,” Cohen said. “I put family and country first.”
As Stephanopoulos mentioned in his piece detailing the interview, which will not air on television, Cohen, the former taxi medallion kingpin distanced himself from Trump at just about every turn. Not only did Cohen’s responses signal a possible willingness to flip on the president, they read like he’s running for office as a Democrat. He said he doesn’t “agree with those who demonize or vilify the FBI.” He said he doesn’t like the term “witch hunt.” He said he would “call on all Americans” to “repudiate Russia’s or any other foreign government’s attempt to interfere or meddle in our democratic process.” When asked about a Trump tweet tweet from last week regarding Russia’s insistence that they didn’t meddle in the 2016 election, Cohen noted that “simply accepting the denial of Mr. Putin is unsustainable.”
Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election! Where is the DNC Server, and why didn’t Shady James Comey and the now disgraced FBI agents take and closely examine it? Why isn’t Hillary/Russia being looked at? So many questions, so much corruption!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2018
Cohen’s most high-profile entanglement with the seedier side of the president’s life and career (that we know about) was his role in paying adult film actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about her alleged affair with Trump. The payment came just weeks before the 2016 election, leading many to question whether it constituted a violation of campaign finance law. When asked if Trump instructed him to make the payment, Cohen did not deny it. “I want to answer,” he said. “One day I will answer. But for now, I can’t comment further on advice of my counsel.”
Cohen was similarly coy when asked if the president knew about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russia-linked figures at Trump Tower in June 2016 after being promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. “I can’t comment under advice of my counsel due to the ongoing investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York,” said Cohen, who called the meeting a “mistake.”
The interview with Stephanopoulos comes after months of speculation as to Cohen’s state of mind regarding the investigation. Reports have emerged detailing how frustrated and isolated he feels, especially as Trump has continued to distance himself from his former attorney. During a wild morning of interviews on the White House lawn last month, Trump maintained that Cohen was no longer his lawyer, that he hasn’t spoken to him in a long time and that he “always liked” him.
— TPM Livewire (@TPMLiveWire) June 15, 2018
Trump’s stiff-arming appears to have inspired in Cohen a new sense of purpose. According to a recent report in Vanity Fair, those around Cohen have been trying to impress upon him that cooperating with federal investigators could skew how he is viewed by the public. VF described one person as trying to get Cohen a message that “he could go down in history as the man that saved this country.”
Cohen’s ABC interview makes clear that he not only has his family and country in mind, but also his reputation. “I am not a villain of this story, and I will not allow others to try to depict me that way,” he told Stephanopoulos.
It’s still unclear whether Cohen will actually cooperate with the FBI, but the time to make a decision could be drawing near. Last week, Cohen’s lawyers completed their review of the 4 million seized files – including pieced-together shredded documents and encrypted messages – determining that just over 12,000 of them were protected under attorney-client privilege and shouldn’t be turned over to the government. The rest will soon be in the hands of federal investigators, which could lead to an indictment.
Spent Saturday afternoon with @GStephanopoulos @abc (not on camera) interview for Monday’s @GMA. My silence is broken! pic.twitter.com/ed6WRYpvVA
— Michael Cohen (@MichaelCohen212) July 2, 2018
Cohen is no longer with the legal team that helped review the documents, which could prove significant. As speculation about whether he would flip on the president intensified last month, VF reported that he was ditching his team for Guy Petrillo, the former head of the criminal division of the Southern District of New York, the same office that is currently investigating Cohen. Many feel that the switch could increase the likelihood that Cohen will opt to settle the case outside of a courtroom, which could be bad news for President Trump. “Once I understand what charges might be filed against me, if any at all, I will defer to my new counsel, Guy Petrillo, for guidance,” Cohen told Stephanopoulos on Saturday.
If Petrillo does indeed guide Cohen to cooperate, it could be a watershed moment for Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, which is reportedly looking at several aspects of Trump’s life and career that involve Cohen. Because of the potentially massive implications of his cooperation, Stephanopoulos wanted to clarify where Cohen’s priorities lie, pressing him on his past remarks about his unequivocal allegiance to Trump. Cohen doubled down: “To be crystal clear, my wife, my daughter and my son, and this country have my first loyalty.”
Depending on how the next few months play out, a mob-connected attorney who has threatened reporters, allegedly solicited bribes and engaged in an untold litany of unethical and illegal business practices could go down as a national hero. Welcome, once again, to Donald Trump’s America.