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Trump lawyer Michael Cohen says his family, not the president, is his first loyalty

July 2, 2018 at 7:30 PM

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President Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen said in an off-camera interview to ABC News that he would fight back against Trump and his legal team if they try to discredit him. (Reuters)

President Trump faced a mounting legal threat from his onetime lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen on Monday, as Cohen signaled in a new interview his willingness to cooperate with federal prosecutors, even if doing so would undercut the interests of the president.

Cohen’s allies suggested in recent weeks that the Manhattan lawyer felt abandoned by the president as he faced a federal investigation of his personal finances.

But a 45-minute off-camera interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos published Monday represented a distinct escalation, a message to investigators that he is ready to deal.

“My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will,” Cohen told Stephanopoulos, according to a story posted Monday morning on the network’s website.

Reminded that he had previously vowed to “take a bullet” or “do anything” to protect the president, Cohen said Trump is not his top priority: “To be crystal clear, my wife, my daughter and my son, and this country have my first loyalty,” he said.

Michael Cohen arrives at court in New York last month. His business practices are under investigation. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Cohen complained to friends last month that Trump refers to their relationship in the past tense and that he is being forced to pay his own legal bills. He also sees himself as “collateral damage,” one person who spent time with him in June said.

No moment in the investigation infuriated Trump more than the raid on Cohen’s home, office and hotel room, several officials said.

Cohen is under intensifying scrutiny from federal prosecutors in Manhattan who are examining his business practices, as well as from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating episodes involving Cohen as part of his probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who has at times been supportive of Trump through the special counsel investigation, said Cohen probably had several audiences in mind during the interview.

“The president has the option of pardoning him, the prosecutor has the option of giving him immunity. The Southern District has the option of giving him a deal,” he said. “The one big mystery is whether he knows anything that can be helpful to the prosecutors or hurtful to the president.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders referred questions about Cohen’s interview to Trump’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, who did not return calls for comment Monday.

Some in Trump’s orbit said the interview was a miscalculation if it was an attempt to reach out to the president — whom Cohen had served since 2007 — for attention, financial support or even a pardon that would end Cohen’s legal predicament.

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President Trump and Michael Cohen's legal woes are bringing up lots of questions about attorney-client privilege. Here's a primer on what the privilege protects and who it applies to. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

“I think it’s a cry for help and a cry for attention,” said one person close to the Trump Organization who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the criminal probes. “Every time the story dies down, he seems to want to reignite it.”

Cohen, said another person close to the company who spoke on the same condition, had never been given major responsibilities at the real estate company that served as Trump’s springboard to the White House.

“Is anyone at the Trump Organization lying awake at night worrying that Michael is flipping? No,” the person said.

Trump himself has insisted to associates in recent months that Cohen was only a minor player in his business.

Cohen did not respond to requests for comment Monday from The Washington Post.

The new assessments of his role in Trump’s world stand in contrast to years of company profiles that depicted Cohen as a close adviser entrusted with all manner of sensitive and personal tasks, and as a confidant not just of Trump but of his eldest children, Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric.

In a May interview, for instance, Giuliani told Stephanopoulos that Cohen was routinely asked to handle issues that could cause personal embarrassment for Trump, such as the claim of an affair from adult-film actress Stormy Daniels.

Trump has denied the affair, but Cohen directed that Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, be paid $130,000 just before the November 2016 election to ensure her silence.

“The agreement with Michael Cohen, as far as I know, is a long-standing agreement that Michael Cohen takes care of situations like this, then gets paid for them sometimes,” Giuliani said then.

Trump has been occupied in recent days with a Supreme Court vacancy, focusing most of his conversations on the opening, according to two White House officials. But his advisers have privately told Trump that Cohen could be dangerous.

Stephanopoulos said that Cohen, who has not been charged in connection with either probe, came across “as his own man” during the weekend interview and that the lawyer said he will “not be a punching bag” if Trump’s team tries to discredit him as part of a legal strategy.

In New York, federal investigators are scrutinizing Cohen in connection with possible bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations as they examine his efforts to squelch damaging information about Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election, including Daniels’s allegations of an affair.

Monday, a special master turned over to the government more than 1.3 million items of evidence that the FBI had seized from Cohen’s New York home, office and hotel room in April. A judge had appointed the special master to determine whether some documents were subject to attorney-client privilege and should be withheld from prosecutors.

In a filing, the special master told Judge Kimba Wood that the Trump Organization, facing a Thursday deadline, was still reviewing about 22,000 items to see if they object to those being turned over to the government. But the handover of the vast majority of the documents taken in the raids marks an important milestone as Manhattan prosecutors weigh whether to charge Cohen.

In Washington, Mueller has been examining Cohen’s role in at least two episodes involving Russian interests.

People close to the case have said Cohen will soon switch lawyers with the departure of Washington litigator Stephen M. Ryan, who has worked closely with Trump’s lawyers during the court-ordered document review.

Ryan will be replaced by New York attorney Guy Petrillo, a veteran of the Manhattan federal prosecutor’s office, who could open negotiations on Cohen’s behalf with his former colleagues.

During the ABC interview, Cohen declined to discuss specifics of particular cases and offered circumspect responses to some questions.

Stephanopoulos, for example, said he asked Cohen whether Trump had directed him to make the payment to Daniels in exchange for her silence. Cohen has previously said he acted on his own, without guidance from Trump, though Giuliani has said Trump reimbursed his lawyer.

“I want to answer. One day I will answer,” Cohen told Stephanopoulos during the Saturday interview. “But for now, I can’t comment further on advice of my counsel.”

Stephanopoulos said that in several instances, Cohen broke with Trump in characterizing the federal investigations.

“I don’t like the term ‘witch hunt,’ ” Cohen said, taking issue with the way Trump has characterized Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference and possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“As an American, I repudiate Russia’s or any other foreign government’s attempt to interfere or meddle in our democratic process, and I would call on all Americans to do the same,” Cohen said.

He also declined to criticize FBI agents who served the search warrants on his New York home, hotel room and office, as Trump has done. “I don’t agree with those who demonize or vilify the FBI,” Cohen said. “I respect the FBI as an institution, as well as their agents.”

“When they searched my hotel room and my home, it was obviously upsetting to me and my family,” Cohen said. “Nonetheless, the agents were respectful, courteous and professional. I thanked them for their service, and as they left, we shook hands.”

According to Stephanopoulos, Cohen also repeated his previous denials of personal involvement in Russian attempts to interfere in the U.S. election.

But Cohen did criticize Trump campaign aides who took part in a June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower with several Russians after being promised damaging information about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

“I believe it was a mistake by those from the Trump campaign who did participate,” Cohen said. “It was simply an example of poor judgment.”

He declined to say whether Trump knew about the meeting before it happened, citing the advice of his lawyer.

Matt Zapotosky and Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.


Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for The Washington Post. She joined The Post in 2001.

John Wagner is a national reporter who leads The Post's new breaking political news team. He previously covered the Trump White House. During the 2016 presidential election, he focused on the Democratic campaigns of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. He also chronicled Maryland government for more than a decade.

Josh Dawsey is a White House reporter for The Washington Post. He joined the paper in 2017. He previously covered the White House for Politico, and New York City Hall and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for the Wall Street Journal.

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