Michael Cohen, Trump’s faithful squire who turned against him

The attorney at the heart of the Stormy Daniels case has gone from being the former president’s most loyal ally to exposing the ‘dirty deeds’ he tried to sweep under the rug

Michael Cohen and Donald Trump, at an election campaign event in September 2016 in Cleveland Heights (Ohio).
Michael Cohen and Donald Trump, at an election campaign event in September 2016 in Cleveland Heights (Ohio).Jonathan Ernst (REUTERS)

Of all the characters involved in the indictment of Donald Trump, the most complex from a dramatic point of view is Michael Cohen, who in just two years went from being his key ally and squire to being the prosecution’s main witness against him. Trump has not forgiven him for this turnabout and has called him a snitch, and worse. The big mystery is why Cohen — who idolized Trump to the point of saying he would take a bullet for him — turned against him by deciding to cooperate with the justice system. Perhaps it was the pressure of jail, where he spent more than a year after being found guilty in 2018 of paying porn actress Stormy Daniels to stay quiet about her alleged affair with the former president, or maybe he was angry at having allowed himself to be dragged into the mud by a misplaced sense of loyalty. “I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds,” he told judges in 2018.

Since then, the 56-year-old — who is the son of a Holocaust survivor — has practically made it his mission to expose what Trump has tried to sweep under the rug. He testified before Congress in 2019, when he described Trump as a liar and a cheat who makes racist comments; to Special Counsel Robert Mueller during his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election; and to New York prosecutors investigating the Trump Organization, which was fined $1.6 million for tax fraud.

And now Cohen is the main witness against Trump in the Stormy Daniels case. Although the specific charges are not yet known, they are tied to Trump’s role in the payment of $130,000 in the weeks before the 2016 election that took him to the White House, to buy the silence of the porn actress about an alleged extramarital affair 10 years earlier. Cohen spent 13 months in prison and another year under house arrest after deciding to betray his boss. After his time in prison, the lawyer got back on his feet thanks to a memoir and podcast titled Mea Culpa. Now, the Stormy Daniels case has thrust him back into the spotlight, turning him into a bigger protagonist than Daniels herself.

Cohen caught Trump’s attention in 2006 — the same year as his alleged affair with Daniels — when he ardently defended the tycoon’s interests at a community meeting of owners of units in one of his condominiums. He was immediately hired by the Trump Organization, where he became responsible for some of its companies. According to sources, Cohen’s strong personality — he is described by some as a self-confessed liar and by others as an opportunist (if not both) — impressed the magnate. Similarly, Cohen — who ran for the New York City Council in 2003 — has also impressed prosecutors with the consistency of his testimony.

While working for Trump, part of Cohen’s job was to anticipate his employer’s whims and interpret the instructions he gave him — what Cohen would later describe as “code.” In other words, his job was to wash Trump’s dirty laundry, and he had no qualms about using unorthodox methods to do so.

In 2015, with Barack Obama about to leave the White House, Trump redoubled his efforts to run for the presidency — a goal he first outlined back in 2011. But to have a shot at winning, he needed a clean record. Cohen and David Pecker, editor of the tabloid The National Enquirer and Trump’s personal friend, took charge of this. In preparing the election campaign, both received instructions on what to do. Pecker began by cleaning up Trump’s image, publishing positive stories about him and negative stories about his rivals.

In October 2016, while visiting his daughter in London, Cohen received a call from The National Enquirer informing him that a porn actress had offered them an exclusive about her alleged affair with Trump. Three days later — less than two weeks before Trump won the 2016 election — Cohen reached an agreement with Daniels’ lawyer in the parking lot of a porn film set in Calabasas, California. But the hush money was delayed, due to the doubts raised over how to record it, and Daniels began to get worried. To ease her concern, Cohen made the payment himself, transferring the money through a shell company in Delaware to Daniels’ lawyer. Once in the White House, Trump signed several checks to reimburse Cohen for the payment, which was recorded by the Trump Organization as legal expenses. This accounting entry is at the heart of Trump’s indictment, the first ever of a U.S. president.

When Trump won the 2016 elections, Cohen remained in New York in a prestigious law firm, with a notable portfolio of corporate clients thanks to his close relationship to Trump. At the time, Cohen continued to present himself as Trump’s personal attorney.

But things began to change in January 2018, when as a result of a complaint made by a pro-transparency group called Common Cause to the Federal Election Commission regarding the payment to Daniels, which allegedly violated campaign finance rules, Cohen had to start providing explanations. First, he exonerated Trump and assured the electoral board that he had made the payment on his own, even lying before Congress and Mueller. In April 2018, FBI agents searched Cohen’s home, and what they found regarding the Stormy Daniels hush money set off a political bombshell. During this period, Trump called Cohen and asked him to stay strong. But as Cohen’s legal bills mounted, the Trump Organization refused to pay more for his defense, and this allegedly led to the rupture.

After his break with the tycoon, Cohen hired a well-known Democrat as his defense attorney and this lawyer advised him to tell the truth. In August 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance rules and pointed the finger at Trump. He was sentenced to three years in prison. Cohen’s lawyer advised him to redeem his image by sharing his story, and in February 2019, he appeared before a special committee of Congress, where he compared Trump to a “mobster.” “Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power,” Cohen said during his closing remarks before the House of Representatives Oversight Committee. After losing to Democrat Joe Biden, Trump refused to accept defeat and instigated the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Once in jail, Cohen began meeting with lawyers from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. And once released, he went almost weekly to their office in Lower Manhattan. Although the prosecutor’s office can’t stand his constant media appearances on cable TV shows, he is considered a reliable witness who tells the truth.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS