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‘I’m not going to be a punching bag anymore’: Inside Michael Cohen’s break with Trump

President Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen says Trump directed him to make illegal payments, after months of Trump and his advisers claiming ignorance. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

For the past decade, Michael Cohen worked as Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer. He was an eager supplicant, executing the wishes of his celebrity boss and forever seeking his attaboy affection. He said he would take a bullet for Trump, and, even after the president passed him over for a White House job, Cohen still professed his eternal loyalty.

But in Trump’s world, eternity has limits.

By releasing audio of his covertly recorded conversation with Trump about purchasing the rights to a Playboy centerfold’s story of an extramarital affair, Cohen made a decisive break from his longtime client. The move punctuates the steady deterioration of a relationship between Cohen and Trump and raises concerns in the White House that the former could spill secrets about the latter to the FBI.

In the nearly four months since FBI agents raided his office, home and hotel room, Cohen has felt wounded and abandoned by Trump, waiting for calls or even a signal of support that never came. Cohen got frustrated when Trump started talking about him in the past tense, panicked last month when he thought the president no longer cared about his plight, and became furious when Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani contradicted some of his accounts, according to his associates.

After telling viewers the word “cash” in the Trump-Cohen recording doesn’t matter, cable news proceeded to cover said word for hours on end. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

In Cohen’s gravest hour, as one associate described it, Trump was “leaving him out in the wilderness.”

The result is open warfare between attorney and former client. Cohen has chosen to morph from Trump’s pugnacious defender to a truth-teller without regard for any possible political or legal ramifications for the president, according to Lanny Davis, one of Cohen’s attorneys.

“He had to hit a reset button,” Davis said in an interview. “He had to say he respected the FBI. He had to say he believed the intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the election. He had to describe the Trump Tower meeting as extremely poor judgment at best. And, ultimately, he said, ‘I’m not going to be a punching bag anymore,’ which he had been when he said, ‘I’ll take a bullet.’”

Cohen’s actions appear to be driven more by his outrage over the president’s indifference and feelings of betrayal — coupled with the personal and financial weight of the criminal case being assembled by federal prosecutors — than by a legal strategy to help his case.

Tuesday’s public release of the Trump-Cohen audio came as a surprise to prosecutors handling the Cohen case in the Southern District of New York, according to people familiar with the matter. Current and former law enforcement officials questioned why Cohen — someone seen as angling for a plea deal — would choose to make potential evidence public. That kind of maneuver generally angers investigators and can make it harder to cut a deal, these officials said.

As part of their inquiry into campaign finance issues involving Cohen, federal investigators have recently expressed interest in what Cohen’s interactions with the Trump campaign were, including his role in handling the accusations of sexual impropriety from various women. They also are trying to discern if anyone other than Cohen had prior knowledge about two such women, Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, before they were named in news inquiries and reports.

In their search warrant, federal investigators asked Cohen to turn over any communications the two men or campaign aides had about a 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape that captured Trump boasting about grabbing women’s body parts, according to a person familiar with the investigation.

Federal investigators sought Trump’s communications with his lawyer about ‘Access Hollywood’ tape

Inside the White House, Trump raged about the release of his and Cohen’s September 2016 conversation about financing the deal with McDougal, a former Playboy model, to sell the rights to her story of an alleged 10-month affair with Trump to American Media Inc., the owner of the National Enquirer, which never published her account.

The president is angry that his personal attorney was recording him without his knowledge, though he had known before this week that the audio file existed, according to people familiar with his thinking.

“What kind of lawyer would tape a client?” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. “So sad!”

The government has seized more than 100 recordings that Cohen made of his conversations with people discussing matters that could relate to Trump and his businesses and with Trump himself talking, according to two people familiar with the recordings. Cohen appeared to make some recordings with an iPhone — without telling anyone he was taping them.

A significant portion of the recordings is Cohen surreptitiously recording reporters who met with or questioned Cohen about Trump during the campaign and after Trump’s election, the people said.

Trump’s voice is on several of the recordings, but only in snippets — typically when he is returning a call from Cohen or asking Cohen on a voice-mail message to call him back, the people said. The only recording in which Trump and Cohen have a substantive conversation is the one that Davis released Tuesday, according to these people.

“Michael Cohen had the habit of using his phone to record conversations instead of taking notes,” Davis said. “He never intended to make use of the recordings and certainly didn’t intend to be deceptive.”

Trump’s advisers are privately debating whether they need to seek a ruling from the court overseeing these recordings on Cohen’s indiscriminate release of material or whether they should release tapes that they describe as unflattering to Cohen, according to two Trump allies.

Trump has been asking outside advisers about Cohen’s business interests and work outside Trump Tower. The president views Cohen as a turncoat who profited off his association with Trump, associates said. One of them described Trump’s attitude as: “Who is this guy to betray me? He would be nobody were it not for his relationship with me.”

Another factor that worries Trump is the impact the latest disclosures will have on his marriage, as it thrusts allegations of his infidelity back into global headlines, according to a Republican operative in frequent touch with the White House who spoke anonymously to share private details. The timing of McDougal’s alleged affair was shortly after Trump’s marriage to his third wife, Melania, and the birth of their son, Barron, in 2006.

Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s spokeswoman, issued a statement Wednesday saying it was “kind of silly” of reporters to worry “if she heard some recording on the news,” and instead should focus on other issues, such as neonatal abstinence syndrome or bullying — issues the first lady has focused on.

Within Trump’s political orbit, the uncertainty about what other damaging information Cohen may possess — and if he plans to weaponize it against the president, as now seems possible if not likely — has allies worried.

“The general feeling inside and outside the building is that if there was anything, this would be the guy who would know it and now give it up,” said the operative close to the White House.

Trump’s legal team considers Cohen’s chess move inexplicable, arguing that the release of the recording does not hurt the president and questioning what Cohen may be trying to accomplish.

Some Trump loyalists believe Cohen betrayed the president by hiring Davis, a fiercely partisan Democrat who for decades has been a friend and adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton. (In February, Hillary Clinton attended a party in Georgetown celebrating Davis’s book “The Unmaking of the President 2016: How FBI Director James Comey Cost Hillary Clinton the Presidency.”)

Early Wednesday, Trump aides and allies exchanged grousing text messages about the Cohen-Davis relationship, while hosts of “Fox and Friends,” the pro-Trump morning show on Fox News Channel, voiced sharp criticisms of Cohen on their broadcast.

“We all think he’s being used by Lanny, who has a vendetta,” said former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg, who worked with Cohen for years. Referencing Roger Stone, another former Trump adviser and a self-described master of political dark arts, Nunberg said, “I’m still a Stone-ite, and we eat Clintons for breakfast.”

Giuliani, the former New York mayor who is now one of Trump’s personal attorneys, has been punching at Cohen for, as he put it in a Wednesday tweet, “leaking falsely privileged and confidential information. So much for ethics!”

Davis said Cohen feels isolated and is “suffering” and “sees himself as alone against the president of the United States, Rudy Giuliani and the whole administration.”

Cohen’s feud with Trump could make him an unlikely hero of the resistance movement. Davis recalled walking through New York’s Pennsylvania Station on Wednesday following his interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and people slapped him on the back and said, “Please tell Michael Cohen, ‘Thank you for telling the truth.’ All of a sudden, millions of people have invested their hopes in Michael Cohen.”

In the search warrant served on him in the FBI’s April 9 raids, Cohen learned he was under federal investigation for bank fraud as well as possible campaign finance violations as part of his informal role in Trump’s campaign. FBI agents were scrutinizing whether Cohen had lied on bank and loan forms or had seized evidence that he had vastly inflated the value of his taxi medallion business to seek additional financing. Cohen told friends in the early summer he expected he could be arrested any day.

In the immediate aftermath of the raid, Cohen expressed an interest in talking directly to Trump, but lawyers repeatedly and strenuously worked to block such a conversation out of fear it would appear Cohen was seeking to shape his story in talking to the president. Trump’s attorneys stressed that the president faced a similar but larger political risk of being accused of comparing notes with a witness who had potentially embarrassing information about him.

Trump did call Cohen four days after the raid for a brief check-in, which was first reported by the New York Times, but the two men have not spoken since.

Cohen got what he considered a strong signal in June that Trump had turned a cold shoulder on his legal jeopardy, according to two people familiar with his account. After the raid, the Trump Organization and Cohen had agreed to an arrangement under which Trump’s business would pay for a portion of the legal work to determine which documents seized from Cohen’s home and business were protected by attorney-client privilege and should not be shared with investigators.

But after several months, Trump Organization officials began complaining about — and later balking at paying — what they considered unusually high legal fees from Cohen’s law firm to review the records. There remains a dispute between the two sides about whether Trump Organization stopped payment or simply threatened to. Cohen complained to friends about his mounting legal bills and feared he was being cut off from Trump’s world.

An attorney for the Trump Organization, Alan Futerfas, declined on Wednesday to answer questions about the Trump Organization’s payment arrangement with Cohen. He had previously told the New York Times that any suggestion “that people stopped payment, that is not true.” Davis did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the payment dispute.

Some have argued Cohen has been seeking a back-channel commitment from Trump that he would pardon him if he faced criminal charges. But Davis has said in media interviews that his client is not currently seeking a pardon, and Giuliani told The Washington Post on Tuesday night that discussing a pardon would be “extremely inappropriate at this point.”

“I’m certain there are no talks about pardons for” Cohen, Giuliani said. “Any pardon is up to the president.”

During his decade in Trump’s employ — first as a lawyer for the Trump Organization and then as his personal attorney — Cohen professed and displayed his fealty. This is in part because of the nature of his work for Trump, which was not of the typical legal counselor. Cohen described his approach as akin to that of Ray Donovan, the fictional fixer in the Showtime series of that name who makes the problems of Hollywood stars disappear.

But the respect and allegiance was not always mutual, according to Tim O’Brien, author of the biography “TrumpNation.”

“He always treated Michael like a lap dog, as somebody who would perform tasks for him, but not someone he considered a peer or ever really treated with professional respect,” O’Brien said. “You constantly get this impression that Michael is trying to please the paterfamilias, and Trump is barking quick requests about what he wants to get done.”

Cohen’s loyalty to Trump began to fray in recent months as he felt neglected by his longtime patron.

Last week, Cohen invited the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights advocate who has been at loggerheads with Trump, to meet for breakfast at the Regency Hotel, where Cohen has been staying. Cohen chose a table in the middle of the see-and-be-seen restaurant, Sharpton recalled.

“He’s totally turned on him,” Sharpton said. “It was clear to me in our conversation that Michael felt betrayed. He kept saying, ‘I’m going to do what’s right for my country.’ He clearly wanted me to know he was not Team Trump anymore.”

Sharpton added, “He was hurt, and the hurt has turned into bitterness. He said, ‘Look at what I’m going through. Why me? Nobody is helping me.’”

Devlin Barrett, Robert Costa, Josh Dawsey, Alice Crites and Mary Jordan contributed to this report.