Michael Cohen Sends A Shot Across Trump’s Bow
In a new interview, former Trump attorney and 'fixer' Michael Cohen gives the strongest signal yet that he's ready to cooperate with investigators.
In the strongest signal yet that he’s looking to make a deal with prosecutors that could prove to be a huge headache for the White House, President Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen sat down with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos and made it clear that his loyalties no longer lie with the man behind the Resolute Desk:
President Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen signaled in a new interview a willingness to cooperate with federal prosecutors, even if doing so undercuts the interests of the president.
“My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will,” Cohen told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, according to a story posted Monday morning on the network’s website.
Stephanopoulos, who described the 45-minute off-camera interview on “Good Morning America,” said he pointed out to Cohen that he was not repeating past vows to “take a bullet” or “do anything” to protect the president.
“To be crystal clear, my wife, my daughter and my son, and this country have my first loyalty,” Cohen said during the interview, which took place Saturday at a Manhattan hotel.
Cohen is under intensifying scrutiny from federal prosecutors in Manhattan who are examining his business practices, as well as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is continuing to investigate episodes involving Cohen as part of his probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In New York, federal investigators are scrutinizing Cohen for 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 allegations of an affair by adult-film actress Stormy Daniels.
In Washington, Mueller has been examining Cohen’s role in at least two episodes involving Russian interests.
Stephanopoulos said that Cohen, who has not been charged in connection with either probe, came across “as his own man” during the interview and said he will “not be a punching bag” if Trump’s team tries to discredit him as part of a legal strategy.
During the interview, Cohen declined to discuss specifics of particular cases and offered circumspect responses to some questions.
Stephanopoulos, for example, said he asked Cohen if Trump had directed him to make a $130,000 payment to Daniels in exchange for her silence. Cohen has previously said he acted on his own, with out guidance from Trump.
“I want to answer. One day I will answer,” Cohen told Stephanopoulos on Saturday. “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 Russia interference in the 2016 election 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.
Cohen also declined to criticize FBI agents who searched his home, hotel room and office in New York, 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.”
More from Talking Points Memo:
In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos Monday, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen repeatedly distanced himself from President Donald Trump, broke with the President explicitly and hinted that he would one day soon air Trump’s damaging dirty laundry.
Again and again, Cohen refused declare fealty to Trump. “My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will—I put family and country first,” he said, repeating the refrain in different ways twice more. This is a far cry from his emotional promises to ”take a bullet” for the President less than a year ago.
When confronted with the reality that Trump and his legal team would put a target on Cohen’s back if they perceive him to be a threat, Cohen “stiffened his spine.” “I will not be a punching bag as part of anyone’s defense strategy, I am not a villain in any story and won’t allow others to try to depict me in that way,” he told Stephanopoulos.
He even went so far as to candidly break with the President’s position on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, saying “I don’t like the term ‘witch-hunt.’ As an American, I repudiate any foreign government’s attempt to interfere in our democratic process and I would call on all Americans to do the same.”
“Simply accepting Putin’s denial is unsustainable,” he continued. “I choose to believe our intelligence agencies.”
With regard to two issues that have dogged Trump for months now, Cohen seemed to hint that he has something relevant to share regarding those instances, and perhaps other aspects of President Trump’s business dealings and ties with Russia that pre-date his time as a Presidential candidate.
Cohen was most closely involved, of course, with the negotiation of an agreement with adult film star Stormy Daniels on the eve of the 2016 General Election under which Daniels was paid $130,000 for his silence regarding an alleged relationship with Trump some ten years earlier. Initially, of course, the President specifically denied that he knew anything about Cohen’s dealings with Daniels, that he knew nothing about the payment to Daniels, and that he did not reimburse Cohen for the payment. The line from the White House and the Trump legal team mirrored what the President was saying. As for Cohen, before he stopped speaking to the press after his office and home were searched by the F.B.I., Cohen was stating that Trump knew nothing about the payment to Daniels and that he made the payment on his own without the expectation of reimbursement, and that he was in fact never reimbursed. In May, though, newly hired Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani revealed that Trump had in fact reimbursed Cohen for the payment, suggesting that he did know about Cohen’s payment to the actress despite his previous denials. Subsequently, the President has filed a financial disclosure acknowledging the fact that he reimbursedCohen after all. As noted above, while Cohen didn’t go into details about the Stormy Daniels affair, his response certainly seems to hint that he knows more than what’s been made public, and that could be of interest to prosecutors.
In addition to that incident, though, Cohen also hinted that he may have information regarding the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort and Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian attorney linked to the Russian government who has since admitted to being a Russian government informant. Initially, both the White House and Trump Jr. claimed that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss issues relating to adoptions of Russian children by Americans and sanctions imposed after the Russian seizure of Crimea, but it quickly became clear that this was not true. Just days after the meeting became news, for example, Trump Jr. released a string of emails between himself and other campaign officials regarding the meeting which made it clear that the purported purpose of the meeting was based on the claim that the Kremlin-linked lawyer could deliver allegedly damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Later, Veselnitskaya said in interviews that Trump Jr. offered a quid pro quo in exchange for information about Clinton. In other words, the initial explanation for the meeting provided by the White House was a fabrication. This is significant because we learned soon after news of the meeting broke that the President himself participated in drafting that initial statement on the way home from a trip to Europe on Air Force One. It’s unclear exactly what Cohen may know about that meeting, but his response to Stephanopoulos certainly indicates that he knows something, and that’s likely to be of interest to Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team of investigators.
As Aaron Blake puts it, today’s interview makes it clear that Cohen is sending a signal to his former boss:
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 very ready to leap.
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 never really 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 preceed a more antagonistic relationship. Michael Flynn’s lawyers stopped sharing info with Trump’s lawyers, for example, shortly before he flipped.
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.
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 joint defense agreement is crossing a very clear line in this whole saga.
Here’s Blake’s tweet regarding the news that Cohen had ended his joint defense agreement with the Trump team:
This may be the most significant Cohen news of all pic.twitter.com/Uzn7Hn4vzk
— Aaron Blake (@AaronBlake) July 2, 2018
As Blake notes, this isn’t the first signal that Cohen may be likely to flip and becoming a cooperating witness. Within weeks after the F.B.I. search of Cohen’s home and office, there were signs that the President was clearly worried that his former attorney might cooperate with investigators and that, generally speaking, he was more worried about the Cohen investigation than the Mueller investigation. Those reports resurfaced last month, and now this interview, and the news about the end of the joint defense agreement, all of which point to the possibility that the man who reportedly knows all of Donald Trump’s secrets might be about to become a cooperating witness. If true, that could be the most significant development of all in this entire investigation.