Cohen-ology Pays Off After All

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 13: Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's attorney, chats with friends near the Loews Regency hotel on Park Ave on April 13, 2018 in New York City. Following FBI raids on his home, office and hotel room, the Department of Justice announced that they are placing him under criminal investigation. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
Yana Paskova/Getty Images North America

Yesterday afternoon I had one of those epiphanies about a story I usually have no more than once every few years. It was partly triggered by details I put in this post about Michael Cohen. But it wasn’t about that alone. It was the sum of a dozen developments since the raid on Cohen’s homes and office last Monday. Starting over a year ago we focused our resources tightly on Cohen, Sater and an assortment of lesser capos and goodfellas in the Trump syndicate.

My first interest in the whole question of Trump’s ties to Russia began before we had any idea that there was a 2016 subversion and interference campaign. It was about the money. As events unfolded late in 2016 it seemed clear to me that whatever had happened between Trump and Russia in 2016, if anything had, it had to grow out of the Trump-Russia money channel which stretched back at least to the first years of this century. Cohen and Sater were at the center of it. The bizarre “peace plan” caper in February 2017 just confirmed my sense that these two, but especially Cohen, played some critical role.

And yet I have to confess that as the Trump/Russia story and then the Special Counsel probe moved forward I began to wonder whether, despite all the indications, the Cohen angle was somehow just a dry hole. Despite making an appearance before a congressional committee, Cohen had barely registered as part of the unfolding story over the last year. So I was fascinated and perhaps a touch gratified to see him rocket back to the center of the story last week.

Of course, we don’t know yet what story he is at the center of. There are the hush agreements. NY prosecutors clearly think there’s a mess of financial crimes. But even though Cohen’s downfall may pose a grave danger to President Trump in itself, there is as yet no clear indication Cohen’s case has any clear tie to the Russia probe. Indeed, on this point I should be clear: I’ve never thought Cohen was the mastermind of some grand deal with Russia or indeed the mastermind of anything. He has always struck me as basically a dolt, someone whose value is based on aggression and loyalty rather than any canniness or smarts. It’s not about him being a mastermind or even a key player. It’s that he was involved, often as a close, close Trump confident in all the paths of money and deal making where a corrupt relationship with Russia’s political or economic leadership would have emerged.

This was all my thinking when I wrote this post yesterday evening about Michael Cohen’s uncle and his social club that was the headquarters of the Russian mob. As I noted, we’d known the El Caribe was a reputed mob hangout for Italian and Russian mobsters. What I hadn’t realized was that the boss of the Russian mafia in the U.S. literally worked out of an office in that establishment. Then someone flagged me this excerpt of Seth Hettena’s new Trump/Russia book just published in Rolling Stone. Seth already had most of what I stumbled across yesterday.

Now, who’s Seth Hettena?

It turns out we at TPM have known and admired Seth’s work for years and years. He was one of the lead reporters – I think with the AP – on the Duke Cunningham scandal and wrote a book about it. A couple weeks ago I was emailed a press release announcing the imminent release of Seth’s new Trump/Russia book. I get a million press releases. But I had no idea he was even working on one. So I replied to the email and asked for a review copy which arrived a few days ago. I had not gotten around to looking at it yet. But in that excerpt, the reference to the El Caribe is followed by these two paragraphs …

I spoke to two former federal investigators who told me Cohen was introduced to Donald Trump by his father-in-law, Fima Shusterman, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Ukraine who arrived in the U.S. in 1975. Shusterman was in the garment business and owned a fleet of taxicabs with his partners, Shalva Botier and Edward Zubok – all three men were convicted of a money-laundering related offense in 1993. “Fima may have been a (possibly silent) business partner with Trump, perhaps even used as a conduit for Russian investors in Trump properties and other ventures,” a former federal investigator told me. “Cohen, who married into the family, was given the job with the Trump Org as a favor to Shusterman.” (“Untrue,” Cohen told me. “Your source is creating fake news.”)

Shusterman, who owned at least four New York taxi companies, also set his son-in-law up in the yellow cab business. Cohen once ran 260 yellow cabs with his Ukrainian-born partner, the “taxi king” Simon V. Garber, until their partnership ended acrimoniously in 2012. Glenn Simpson, the private investigator who was independently hired to examine Trump’s Russia connections during the real estate mogul’s presidential run, testified before the House Intelligence Committee that Cohen “had a lot of connections to the former Soviet Union, and that he seemed to have associations with organized crime figures in New York and Florida – Russian organized crime figures,” including Garber.

Now, when I saw this, my jaw dropped. Admittedly, the significance probably needs some deciphering and perhaps you need to be a bit obsessed. But it connects together and makes sense of a number of key questions I’ve had. As I’ve explained many times here at TPM, Trump brought Cohen into the organization not because he was a lawyer but because he was a conduit for money from Russia and Ukraine. He’d been on a buying spree in the year or so before he was hired, buying up apartment units for him and members of his Ukrainian immigrant family. Trump wanted access to that spigot and more. So what Seth describes here – along with how Cohen got into the taxi business – is basically in line with my understanding. But I’d never realized Shusterman was such a critical player – perhaps even already a source of cash for Trump and, if Seth’s source is right, the reason Cohen got his job.

This brings a lot together – not least of which is fleshing out just what who Cohen’s money channel was based on. It also helps me understand, candidly, how a dope like Cohen got the gig. Quite apart from the money, it’s always been clear – he’s said as much – that Cohen has worshiped Trump since he was a high schooler – when Trump was king of the NYC tabs. It may not seem like much. But for us Cohen-ologists, it’s like the missing link, where the derp meets the wise guys and it all makes sense.

This all crystallized for me what I already knew or thought I knew and added another layer of knowledge and illumination. I’ll explain more about why in subsequent posts. For now, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Hettana’s book. It’s actually called Trump/Russia: A Definitive History. I plan to dig into my copy tonight. It’s apparently available for pre-order now and comes out in early May.

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