As you may have seen last night, Michael Cohen, President Trump’s purported longtime personal lawyer, conceded that he did pay adult actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 just before the 2016 election. But there’s a catch. It was his money! Or so Cohen says. Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign reimbursed him. “I am Mr. Trump’s longtime special counsel and I have proudly served in that role for more than a decade,” said Cohen in a statement released yesterday. “In a private transaction in 2016, I used my own personal funds to facilitate a payment of $130,000 to Ms. Stephanie Clifford. Just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean that it can’t cause you harm or damage. I will always protect Mr. Trump … Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly. The payment to Ms. Clifford was lawful, and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone.”
As some have noted, the statement makes no mention of Donald Trump personally reimbursing Cohen out of his own pocket. You also have this weird phrasing of using his funds to “facilitate a payment.” (Cohen refused to answer any questions beyond the prepared statement.) There’s also no mention of when Cohen was promoted to the ridiculous new title of “special counsel.” The key point of the statement appears to be to keep the payment out of the Federal Election Commission’s purview. It may be a scandal regardless. But it’s not clear there’s any legal problem or that it’s anyone’s business as long as it’s not tied to regulated campaign spending. Regardless of all that, it may surprise you to learn that I find it entirely plausible that Cohen covered this payment himself and was not reimbursed in any way that is legally definable or forensically traceable.
What you have to understand is that Michael Cohen is not the President’s lawyer and never has been – not in any sense most people would understand the term and not in any way that is real. Michael Cohen lies through his teeth like most people breathe. So it’s entirely possible that Trump or various other entities later reimbursed Cohen. But as someone who’s done a lot of research into Cohen and his decade-plus relationship with Donald Trump, I will say again: picking up this charge himself is entirely plausible.
Going on three years ago when I first started seeing Cohen on TV defending Trump, I figured he was just Trump’s punk lawyer. Especially his TV lawyer, the guy who goes on TV to talk shit on Trump’s behalf. He’s definitely that in a sense. But that really gives an incomplete sense of who the guy is. You may be thinking: Maybe Trump can cut checks for 6-figure payoffs but not his lawyer. Not so. On his own, Cohen is a very, very wealthy man. Scale of his wealth? Just one example. Two and a half years ago he bought an apartment building on the Upper East Side for $58 million. That’s just one of his holdings. Cohen grew up on Long Island. But from his teenage years, he was immersed in New York’s Russian and Ukrainian immigrant community and had personal or family ties to people with ties to organized crime.
Cohen has a nominal law degree. But I’ve seen very little evidence he ever practiced law in any real sense, either for Trump or at any point in his career. What Cohen was was a businessman, in a number of businesses favored by the Russian/Ukrainian emigre community and where large sums of cash can be moved, often over borders, into cash-intensive businesses: taxis, casino boats, and real estate.
Cohen came to Trump’s attention in the first years of the century because he was buying up large numbers of units in Trump properties, for himself, his family, his Ukrainian immigrant in-laws. He made himself handy by helping to quell a shareholder revolt in one building. Trump saw that Cohen was a conduit for money from Russia and Ukraine. And Cohen wanted to be helpful. That’s how and why Trump brought Cohen into the Trump Organization.
I don’t doubt that Cohen, who has a law license, made ample use lawyer-client privilege. But in the sense people think of, he was never Trump’s lawyer. Not even in the Tom Hagen sense in which he sometimes presents himself. He worked on business deals. But mostly he took care of problems for Trump and served as a conduit for money. While that was happening, Cohen continued to build his own real estate mini-empire from his perch at the Trump Organization, working with his original sources of money and pull and adding the resources of the Trump Organization to enable him to operate on a larger scale. (I go deeper into various of the wild details in this post from a year ago.)
That was the essence of the relationship. Cohen brought in money and connections. He also made big money under the Trump Organization umbrella – not only by whatever he made from Trump directly but far more from the deals he was doing on his own operating in Trump’s orbit. One key part of the arrangement though was total loyalty and maximal expressions of loyalty, making messes go away. You can see this in how Cohen talks about his relationship with Trump and the mix of aggressive bullying and lavish toadying he shows when he discusses Trump on TV.
Explaining his relationship to Trump to ABC News Cohen said: “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. 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.” As he said in his statement on the Stormy Daniels payment, “I will always protect Mr. Trump.”
In 2015 when the Daily Beast unearthed records of Ivana Trump accusing Trump of raping her in a maniacal rage over a botched scalp reduction surgery, Cohen issued a series of threats against the reporters if they published their story: “I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we’re in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know,” Cohen said. “So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me? You write a story that has Mr. Trump’s name in it, with the word ‘rape,’ and I’m going to mess your life up… for as long as you’re on this frickin’ planet… you’re going to have judgments against you, so much money, you’ll never know how to get out from underneath it.”
Doing conspicuous favors and fixing things is in the nature of this bizarrely public toady-chieftain relationship. Read through Cohen’s interviews. You’ll find it’s replete with mixes of mafia tough guy talk and zany levels of conspicuous self-abnegation. It’s all theater at some level. But I think to a great degree it’s genuine. It’s the guy’s identity, like the way a top captain thinks about the mob boss he serves. Who will rid me of this meddlesome Stormy? Did I mention that Cohen and Trump’s mafia business partner Felix Sater were childhood friends long before they both ended up as top Trump business partners right around the same time? Well, that’s true too. In the scale of money both Trump and Cohen operate at, covering the $130,000 payment himself seems entirely plausible as something Cohen would do as part of the larger relationship. He probably did get paid back some way or another. But I think it’s totally plausible he didn’t. He’d love to be that guy who made the problem go away. Doing Trump a solid like that would be something he’d happily do. It’s the basis of their relationship. He’d get paid back in other ways.