Michael Cohen, the personal lawyer of President Donald Trump whose home and office were raided earlier this month reportedly said, “I’d rather jump out of a building than turn on Donald Trump,” in a conversation with a radio host.
But many in Trump’s circle are not so sure.
Two sources close to the president said people in Trump’s inner circle have in recent days been actively discussing the possibility that Michael Cohen — long seen as one of Trump’s most loyal personal allies — might flip if he faces serious charges as a result of his work on behalf of Trump.
“That’s what they’ll threaten him with: life imprisonment,” said Alan Dershowitz, the liberal lawyer and frequent Trump defender who met with the president and his staff over two days at the White House last week. “They’re going to threaten him with a long prison term and try to turn him into a canary that sings.”
In an interview with CNN last week, Cohen called the raid “unsettling to say the least.” But he also said in the same interview that the federal agents were “extremely professional, courteous and respectful” — a dramatic departure from his usual combative style.
Those comments raised eyebrows among some in Trump’s inner circle, who noted that one of the president’s most ferocious attack dogs seemed unusually taciturn.
“When anybody is faced with spending a long time in jail, they start to re-evaluate their priorities, and cooperation can’t be ruled out,” said one Trump ally who knows Cohen.
Cohen has said that he owes everything to Trump and it is clear that he would go to extremes. But Cohen has a wife and children. And when faced with only seeing his kids from inside a prison, it is hard to believe that his loyalty will hold. Especially if Cohen gets thrown under a bus.
But then there is the pardon.
The good news for Cohen is that Trump could pardon him if he’s convicted of violating federal campaign finance or banking laws. The very bad news for Cohen is that he could still be convicted of those alleged crimes under New York state law — and Trump would have no way to prevent him from being punished for his misdeeds.
Here’s why: New York has laws that closely mirror the federal ones Cohen stands accused of breaking. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman could charge Cohen with breaking those state laws regardless of whether Cohen is convicted of breaking some of the federal ones — and regardless of whether Trump issues a federal pardon. He also has a wide array of weapons to use against Trump’s attorney and confidant.
Take federal banking laws, which Cohen may have broken if he lied about the reason he got a loan to pay off one of the women. That would also be illegal in New York, which outlaws bank fraud. New York prosecutors could go after Cohen at the same time as federal prosecutors do. The only difference would be that Cohen would have no White House protection.
Schneiderman hasn’t announced any kind of investigation into Cohen, but he has been coordinating closely with the Justice Department and special counsel Robert Mueller on their investigation into former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort. Some commentators argued that the early charges against Manafort, which left off a series of related crimes, were a sign that Mueller was leaving the door open for state prosecution.
And while many states have laws on the books related to the types of crimes federal prosecutors are investigating Cohen for, including bank and wire fraud, the New York state judicial system is uniquely well prepared to handle possible financial crimes.
So Cohen has severe legal problems, and could turn on Trump very easily.
It’s telling that the people who have an acquaintance with the facts understand that the only question now is if Cohen will flip on the president, not whether he has anything to offer to the prosecutors. But I think this is the wrong question to ask.
A better question is if the prosecutors now have all the evidence they need from Cohen. They may not need his testimony at all. Everyone is wondering if he’ll cut a deal, but the prosecutors may have no interest in a deal. The biggest piece of evidence Cohen could probably provide is oral confirmation that he did indeed travel to Prague as the Steele dossier alleges in order to collude with the Russians in paying off hackers and covering up Paul Manafort’s connections to the Kremlin. But the prosecutors reportedly have evidence that Cohen made the trip. They had that evidence before the raids on Cohen’s home, office and hotel room. Certainly, Cohen could fill in important details and explain what Trump knew and when he knew it, but if he doesn’t want to cooperate it might not be necessary to cut a sweet deal to prove the case.
The Prague trip is hardly the only criminal vulnerability here. Cohen has been involved in real estate deals and negotiations abroad that probably involved bribes and other financial crimes. He’s made threats against journalists and people who have accused Trump of everything from fraud to sexual assault. Stormy Daniels alleges that Cohen sent someone to threaten her in Las Vegas, which was done in front of her child. Yesterday, she released a sketch artist’s drawing of the man who told her she had a nice child and it would be a shame if something happened to her mother. We already know he’s under investigation for bank fraud, wire fraud, and campaign finance violations in relation to his efforts to help Trump cover up his sexual dalliances. Prosecutors also seem to have him on something related to New York City’s (and maybe Chicago’s) taxicab business, although that’s not likely to involve the president. To be honest, this is just scratching the surface. As Josh Marshall reported this week, Cohen is so tightly connected to the Russian mafia that he essentially is the Russian mafia.