The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Michael Cohen to Trump: I will flip on you if I need to

President Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen said that he will fight back against attempts to discredit him or his family. (Video: Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

Michael Cohen once said he would “take a bullet” for President Trump. He reportedly said he would rather “jump out of a building than turn on Donald Trump.”

He now sounds ready to leap.

In an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos running Monday morning, Trump's former lawyer and fixer sent his clearest signal to date that he is prepared to flip on Trump. And while there have certainly been other signs recently, this one came from the horse's mouth.

“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 said.

Pressed on his past commentary about being willing to do anything for Trump, Cohen again hinted at flipping: “To be crystal clear, my wife, my daughter and my son, and this country have my first loyalty.”

Cohen agreed to this interview knowing that this would be a prominent question. And it can't have been a coincidence that a trio of stories emerged a couple weeks back, all pointing toward possibly flipping on Trump. There was a Wall Street Journal story indicating that he was unhappy with Trump for not helping with his legal bills. CNN quoted an anonymous source close to him saying, “If they want information on Trump, he's willing to give it.” Then Cohen resigned as deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee by citing not just the investigation he faces, but his disagreement with the Trump administration's policy of separating families at the border. That latter justification seemed conspicuous, given Cohen has pledged complete loyalty to Trump and rarely spoken publicly about policy.

And Cohen's interview came with another big signal: the reported end of a joint agreement between Cohen and Trump's legal team to share information. Such things often presage a more antagonistic relationship or even cutting a deal to inform on someone else. Michael Flynn's lawyers stopped sharing info with Trump's lawyers, for example, shortly before he flipped.

Former federal prosecutor Patrick Cotter said the move would be, at least, a signal of diverging legal strategies.

“Sometimes it is as simple as the two parties want to pursue different defenses, ones which may be inconsistent but not necessarily asserting or dependent on the other person’s guilt,” Cotter said, adding: “Of course, ending a [joint defense agreement] would also be a necessary first step to seeking to cut a deal.”

Former Justice Department official Harry Litman added: "It would be an ethical violation of a violation of the JDA itself for a defendant to begin to cozy up to the government while still sharing information and documents with other defendants who remain out in the cold."

And if we're really reading between the lines, it could also be significant that Cohen declined to downplay criticisms of Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. “I don’t like the term 'witch hunt,'” he said. Cohen faces problems unrelated to the Russia probe, but if he flipped he would be providing evidence for that investigation.

So a message is clearly being sent; the question is why. Is Cohen truly prepared to flip, or are all these signals being sent in the name of forcing some action from Trump — whether through paying legal bills or something more absolute, such as a pardon?

If it's the latter, it doesn't seem to be working. The signs that Cohen may flip date back months, to shortly after he was raided by federal investigators. There does seem to be more of a concerted effort since Cohen retained Petrillo, a veteran of the Southern District of New York, with which Cohen would be cutting a deal. Thus far, it doesn't seem to have elicited the reaction that is being sought.

Video: Trump feels 'badly' for Manafort and Cohen

And in fact, the opposite seems to have occurred. Trump and the White House have minimized Cohen and suggested that his legal problems have nothing to do with it. Asked by Stephanopoulos about that treatment, Cohen grew rigid and assured. “I will not be a punching bag as part of anyone’s defense strategy,” he said. “I am not a villain of this story, and I will not allow others to try to depict me that way.” And ending the JDA is crossing a very clear line in this whole saga.

Is Trump unconcerned about what Cohen might provide? Has he just been blind to the signs? Does he not think he can pardon Cohen or pay his legal bills, politically speaking? Or is this just part of the intense (if thoroughly and strangely Trumpian) public negotiations that are going on around this whole thing right now?

There are so many questions. But now a threat that had been danced around has clearly and unequivocally been made. Cohen has put the ball in Trump's court.

This post has been updated.