Fixer turns foe: Michael Cohen once said he’d take a bullet for Donald Trump. Now his finger may be on the trigger
Cohen, a one-time personal injury lawyer from a low-ranked law school, rose to become Donald Trump’s trusted fixer, occupying the office next to the billionaire in Trump Tower
One year ago Michael Cohen, the long-time lawyer and fixer to Donald Trump pledged he “would take a bullet for the president.”
On Tuesday that once-deep loyalty melted away when Cohen stunningly implicated the US president in two felony crimes as he pleaded guilty to charges of bank fraud, tax fraud and campaign finance violations. If Cohen is guilty, so too is Trump, said Cohen’s lawyer afterwards – suggesting that Trump’s fate may rest on exactly what Cohen tells prosecutors about his former boss’ activities, and whether he can back it up.
It was a huge takedown for the brash New Yorker, who tied the last decade of his career personally to Trump.
Cohen, 51, a one-time personal injury lawyer who accumulated a small fortune in Manhattan’s shady taxi badge industry, bought real estate in a Trump building and eventually worked his way into an office right next to the billionaire’s in his eponymous 5th Avenue skyscraper.
As personal lawyer to one of New York’s richest property magnates and an executive vice-president of the Trump Organization, he handled numerous business deals inside and outside the United States for his boss, as well as fixing some of the future president’s more seamy problems.
Left on the wayside when Trump moved triumphantly into the White House, Cohen made a business out of his personal contact in the Oval Office and swore his allegiance, fighting to protect Trump’s reputation.
“I’m the guy who stops the leaks. I’m the guy who protects the president and the family. I’m the guy who would take a bullet for the president,” he told Vanity Fair in September 2017.
Cohen grew up on Long Island and earned his law degree from Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School, one of the lowest-ranked law schools in the country.
In 1994, he married Laura Shusterman, the daughter of a Soviet émigré who was in the notoriously rough-and-tumble taxi business in the Big Apple.
Cohen began buying and selling taxi medallions, once worth as much as US$1 million each, which allow a driver to operate a yellow cab.
As a property investor working with his Russian and Ukrainian contacts, Cohen’s name was attached to multiple deals worth tens of millions of dollars.
But, the New York Times reported, he could flip property so quickly that it raised eyebrows over what and who was really behind the trades.
One year before the election, even as Trump was already on the campaign trail, he took the lead in an effort to seal a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, tapping connections close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But the deal – one sought by Trump since the 1990s – never gelled.
It was during the campaign that he showed his other value to the president-to-be: buying the silence of women who threatened to reveal to the public their alleged affairs with the Republican candidate.
Just days before the election, Cohen paid US$130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about her past with Trump.
He also was involved in buying for US$150,000 the rights to the story of Playboy model Karen McDougal about her alleged affair with Trump.
Those actions, which involved shell companies and offshore entities controlled by Cohen, got him into legal trouble over banking, tax and campaign finance laws.
Cohen initially said he used his own money to pay Daniels and was not reimbursed. Trump, who first denied knowing anything about the payment, has since conceded that Cohen was paid back.
But Cohen’s case became an embarrassment and a threat to Trump. Trump declared early on that the investigation was all about Cohen’s private business, with nothing to do with him.
It also emerged that after Trump became president, Cohen actively marketed his access to the president. He earned some US$2 million from companies like AT&T and Novartis, while pitching himself as “Personal Counsel to President Donald J. Trump.”
“I’m crushing it,” the Washington Post reported he told an associate in mid-2017.
He further angered Trump in July when, according to reports, he told investigators that the US president knew in advance of a June 2016 meeting in which Russians were expected to share dirt on then-election rival Hillary Clinton.
Trump denied in a tweet that he knew of the meeting, which is at the centre of the investigation into possible collusion with Russians.
“Sounds to me like someone is trying to make up stories in order to get himself out of an unrelated jam,” Trump said.