Michael Cohen — erstwhile Trump factotum, alleged lawyer, bagman and fall guy and federal prisoner — is soon to breathe the sweet air of freedom, or at least the relative freedom of house arrest. A federal judge has ordered Cohen released after finding that when they imprisoned him after a brief time at home, Bureau of Prisons officials were punishing Cohen for his intention to write a book about the president.
The abridgment of his First Amendment rights, the judge said, was unlike anything he had seen “in 21 years of being a judge and sentencing people and looking at the terms and conditions of supervised release.”
But this is the Trump era, and the Justice Department is run by William P. Barr, who has turned it into a tool to punish the president’s enemies and reward his friends.
So Cohen will return home, about halfway through his three-year sentence for what the judge in his original case called “a veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct.” Which, as it happens, is a fair description of Donald Trump’s entire life and career. It’s fitting that Cohen is now the target of a corrupt act on the part of the Trump administration.
In fact, Cohen’s own story so perfectly illustrates all of his former boss’s weaknesses and misdeeds that he’s kind of a real-life literary device illuminating who Trump really is.
You can understand almost everything about Trump — his sordid business, his lurid private life, his desperation to please Vladimir Putin, his chaotic campaign, his corrupt presidency, and his inevitable abandonment by the seedy characters he attracts — through the sad and comical story of Michael Cohen.
When Trump first hired Cohen, he might have seen parts of himself in the young man. Cohen was no intellectual — his law degree came from what has been described as “the worst law school in America” — but he was a striver, with precisely the flexible ethics Trump was looking for. Like Trump, he had connections to the former Soviet Union and associates who wound up behind bars, but had never been arrested himself.
Trump found in Cohen someone desperate to make money, willing to grovel before him and happy to debase himself in Trump’s service. When necessary, Cohen could play the thug: “I’m warning you, tread very f---ing lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be f---ing disgusting. You understand me?” he told a reporter working on a story that would be unflattering to Trump.
When Trump was worried that his high school and colleges might make his grades public, he dispatched Cohen to threaten them with legal action. When Trump needed to send someone to negotiate with corrupt oligarchs in a former Soviet republic, Cohen was the guy.
During the 2016 campaign, when he wasn’t offering sad defenses of his boss on TV or reportedly giving IT guys bags of cash to rig online polls in Trump’s favor, Cohen was working to broker the deal Trump desperately wanted, to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
Trump publicly insisted he had no business dealings in Russia, but as Cohen would later testify, “Mr. Trump knew of and directed the Trump-Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it.”
After Trump was elected, Cohen would himself lie to Congress on Trump’s behalf about the Moscow deal, to which he later pleaded guilty. Explaining the scheme in 2019, Cohen said: “Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates."
Much like a mob boss who says “Joey Knuckles is getting to be a problem,” Trump doesn’t have to explicitly order the crime, since his underlings know what they’re supposed to do.
Also like some mid-level mobsters, Cohen took steps to protect himself, including taping potentially incriminating conversations. In one, he and candidate Trump discussed arrangements to buy the silence of Karen McDougal, a Playboy model who said she had an affair with Trump years earlier.
And, of course, it was Cohen who arranged the $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels to buy her silence as well. When that payment was revealed in 2018, Trump lied and claimed he knew nothing about it.
Once Trump was elected, Cohen went to work parlaying his connection to the president into cash. Using a shell company, he started cashing six-figure checks from corporations like AT&T, Novartis and Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd, all of whom were willing to pay for his “insights” into the new president. The companies soon realized he had nothing to offer them.
After Cohen was arrested and came clean, Trump responded like a true mob boss, saying of Cohen’s betrayal, “It’s called flipping and it almost ought to be illegal.” And now Cohen is writing a book, which he says “will provide graphic and unflattering details about the President’s behavior behind closed doors.”
Those details will surely surprise no one — are you going to be shocked to learn that Trump made “virulently racist remarks against such Black leaders as President Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela”? Of course not.
But all along, Cohen has been there only to give specificity to what eventually became undeniable about Trump. Cohen was hired to enable Trump’s malfeasance, and wound up embodying it in miniature. He dreamed of becoming a version of Trump, and nearly succeeded.
And now he is willing to reveal the sordid details that make Trump who he is. We can thank Cohen, for his own journey was a tour of Trump’s character. But at this point, we know all we need to.
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