It’s a disingenuous explanation — whenever someone says it’s not about the money, it’s definitely about the money — yet a familiar one, too. The opening lines of Trump’s 1987 memoir, “The Art of the Deal,” feature a remarkably similar rationale. “I don’t do it for the money,” Trump wrote. “I’ve got enough. . . . I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.” Cohen must recall the passage; he says he read the book twice as soon as it came out and considered it “a masterpiece.”
In “Disloyal,” Cohen promises to show readers “the real real Donald Trump — the man very, very, very few people know.” While he does proffer the eye-popping details and anecdotes required in any Trump tell-all, Cohen reveals little about Trump that is not already widely understood. “Disloyal” is an exercise in affirmation, not revelation. More than a portrait of Trump, this book is a self-portrait of the real real Michael Cohen, of a yes (sir) man who came to conflate himself with his Boss, who cannot bring himself to fully abandon him. Even as he assails the president as “a cheat, a liar, a fraud, a bully, a racist, a predator, a con man,”Cohen revels in how much they share in common, and still channels “The Art of the Deal.”
The book is getting attention for its criticisms of the president. But “Disloyal” doubles as Cohen’s unwitting homage to the ways of Donald Trump.
Cohen’s descriptions of Trump’s character will be familiar to anyone who has wallowed in the memoirs, biographies, investigations and insider tales of the Trumpian library. His assessment that Trump “has lived his entire life avoiding and evading taking responsibility for his actions” echoes Mary Trump’s recent memoir, in which the president’s niece explains how Trump has always been insulated from accountability. When Cohen recalls Trump’s mob-style language and attitudes, I remember similar accounts in James Comey’s “A Higher Loyalty” and the Mueller report. Cohen recounts cringy phone calls between Trump and sycophantic Fox News host Sean Hannity, a relationship that Brian Stelter details more deeply in “Hoax.” Cohen even suggests that Trump’s chronic dishonesty reflects a postmodernist logic, an argument explored at length in Michiko Kakutani’s “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump.” Cohen has authored a greatest-hits compilation of the Trump presidency.
Except “Disloyal” features a few more layers of grossness. In their 2018 book, “Russian Roulette,” Michael Isikoff and David Corn wrote that Trump spent an evening with Cohen and some business associates at The Act, a notorious Las Vegas nightclub where a popular performance featured two women simulating sex acts that involve urination. “There is no public record of which skits were performed the night Trump was present,” the authors wrote solemnly. Except now there is, thanks to Cohen, who reports that the act indeed took place and recalls Trump’s “disbelief and delight” at particular routines. And while Trump’s racist impulses are well known, Cohen offers a few choice additions to the canon, recalling, for instance, how Trump expressed admiration for “beautiful” apartheid-era South Africa. “Mandela f---ed the whole country up,” the Boss complained. “Now it’s a s---hole. F--- Mandela.”
Why keep working for a guy like that? Cohen paints himself as a “demented follower” who fell under a “trance-like spell” when in the Boss’s company. “Around Trump I felt excited, alive, like he possessed the urgent and only truth, the chance for my salvation and success in life,” Cohen writes. He recalls the first time he walked through the atrium of Trump Tower with his new Boss and how people thronged around Trump, seeking selfies and autographs and excitement. Trump winked at him and whispered, “This is what Trump is all about.”
Even when Cohen was helping Trump spread the birtherism lie about President Barack Obama, the lawyer says, he simply couldn’t stop himself. “That is what it feels like to lose control of your mind — you actually give up your common sense, sense of decency, sensitivity, even your grip on reality. . . . I was in a cult of personality. And I loved it.”
At the same time, Cohen insists he had agency in this relationship. “I made choices along the way — terrible, heartless, stupid, cruel, dishonest, destructive choices, but they were mine,” he writes. Those choices make up much of this book. How he lied before Congress to defend Trump. How he stiffed and berated contractors to whom Trump owed money. How he paid off or intimidated women who had information that could hurt Trump, actions Cohen now laments as “depraved.” How he lied constantly to Melania Trump about her husband’s extramarital activities, even though both of them knew the excuses were fake. (Cohen recalls an excruciating conference call in which Trump feigned shock at the Stormy Daniels story for Melania’s benefit: “Wait, are you telling me that you paid $130,000 from your own pocket?”) And how he happily made a living as Trump’s “designated thug,” a role that gave Cohen, a graduate of the University of Western Michigan’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School, the equivalent of a “postgraduate degree in sleaze.”
The whole thing is written as a lament — but it’s really a lament that it’s over, a lament that he got caught. Trump didn’t turn Cohen into a lawbreaker; Cohen fantasized about being a mobster long before he met his Boss, even seeing himself as a young Henry Hill from “Goodfellas,” the 1990 wiseguys classic. His eventual decision to study law was just preparation to break it. “I would practice law, I determined as a kid, but I’d practice it like a gangster.”
Cohen had the time of his life working for Trump, and he would be there still enjoying himself, qualms-free, if the FBI had not come knocking on his door. He emulated the Boss whenever possible, seeing himself reflected in Trump. “One of the reasons he and I got along so well: we both have a shark-like cunning that is constantly in motion.” Once Trump launched his presidential campaign, Cohen reported an even deeper mind-meld. “I started to feel myself change,” he writes. “There was a new variety of shamelessness that was emerging. . . . In short, I was becoming Trump.”
Throughout his book, Cohen is more eloquent about his sense of belonging with Trump than about any subsequent break, discernment or redemption.
There is plenty of petty score-settling in “Disloyal,” as befits any political memoir. Cohen makes clear his disdain for Michael Avenatti, the publicity-magnet lawyer for Stormy Daniels. He despises Roger Stone and Corey Lewandowski, competing with them for Trump’s favor. (In a tacky move, Cohen includes a photograph in the book of a supposedly drunk Lewandowski falling asleep at a restaurant.) Cohen calls Rudy Giuliani and William Barr “Trump’s new wannabe fixers, sycophants willing to distort the truth and break the law in the service of the Boss.” He’d know the type.
When it comes to the Trump family, Cohen is slightly more guarded. Yes, he is dismissive of Jared Kushner — “an aristocratic man-child . . . the simpering boy with the voice of Alvin Chipmunk” — and refers to the three elder Trump kids, Ivanka, Don. Jr. and Eric, as “jackals” in their business dealings. But he also recalls a more sympathetic Ivanka before she married Kushner, and he paints Don Jr. as a tragically pathetic figure, always seeking his father’s approval and always failing to get it. (For readers of Mary Trump’s memoir: Donald seems to treat Don Jr. nearly as harshly as his father, Fred Trump, treated Donald’s brother Freddy.)
When it comes to the Boss himself, Cohen mocks his hair, his weight and his obsession with Obama, yet he never entirely disavows him. “Here is the thing: I care for Donald Trump, even to this day, and I had and still have a lot of affection for him,” he writes. Such devotion endures after Trump ogles Cohen’s then-15-year-old daughter. (“When did she get so hot?”) It endures after Trump promises to help Cohen when the FBI raids his home and office, but then never calls him again and stops contributing to his legal defense. It endures after Cohen sees the Boss “corner pretty women in his office and forcibly kiss them.” It endures even after Cohen concludes that Trump, fearful of losing the legal protections of the presidency, will “never leave office peacefully.” The only time Cohen seemed on the verge of resigning was when his 2016 bonus was too small (merely $50,000), but he still stayed. He just can’t quit Trump, even though Trump long ago quit him.
Cohen says that everything about Trump — the campaign, the presidency, the fawning over Vladimir Putin — centered on promoting Trump-branded properties, nudging along new projects, keeping options open. “Trump saw politics as an opportunity to make money,” he explains. And that’s where Trump and Cohen do blend together. The lawyer did everything possible to cash in on his relationship with the new president (“What would you do?” he asks readers, assuming the answer is obvious), and he saw the presidency in entirely utilitarian terms. “Trump was suddenly in charge of the largest favor factory in the history of the world and I was the person charged with keeping track of exactly who was owed what and why.” The possibilities were so vast — “I’m going to be huuugggeeeee,” he told himself, “effing huuuuggggeeee” — that Cohen came to see himself in delusional terms. “I really was an incredibly, unbelievably, insanely powerful attorney and fixer, on an intergalactic plane of existence.”
Until he wasn’t. Until he had to write portions of this book from the Otisville federal prison in Upstate New York. Until Cohen, like so many others, realized he’d been had.
That is what Trump is all about, too.
Carlos Lozada is the Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era,” which will be published October 6. Follow him on Twitter and read his latest book reviews, including: