Michael Cohen: Who is Trump’s former lawyer and fixer - and why is he being sentenced?

Long-serving, fiercely loyal advocate to be sentenced for financial crimes carried out on behalf of boss he once said he would 'take a bullet for'

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 12 December 2018 16:43 GMT
Donald Trump denies involvement in Moscow project claiming Michael Cohen 'lying'

Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s lawyer and confidant of more than 12 years, has been sentenced to three years in jail by a US District Court in New York after pleading guilty to a number of financial crimes.

Part of a plea deal with federal prosecutors to secure a more lenient sentence, Mr Cohen admitted to two campaign finance violations, five instances of tax fraud and one of making false statements to a financial institution back in August.

In addition, he admitted to lying to a US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in November over his part in meetings to discuss the possible construction of a new Trump Tower in Moscow.

The first two charges relate to Mr Cohen’s attempts to buy the silence of former Playboy bunny Karen McDougal and adult film actress Stormy Daniels on behalf of President Trump after the women alleged they had had affairs with the billionaire property tycoon prior to his candidacy.

The lawyer is the fourth member of the Trump camp to face charges as a result of FBI special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible election meddling in collusion with Russia.

Paul Manafort, Mr Trump’s ex-campaign manager, was also convicted on eight counts of bank and tax fraud on Tuesday by a court in Virginia as a result of financial irregularities dredged up by Mr Mueller’s team.

Previously, Mr Trump’s ex-national security chief Michael Flynn and aide George Papadopoulos had both admitted lying to the FBI in relationship to the Trump camp’s associations with Russia.

For Michael Cohen, a man who once said he would “take a bullet” for Mr Trump, this latest turn of events marks a bitter end to what had been a beautiful friendship.

The shifting state of his allegiance towards his former boss became all too apparent when he appeared on Good Morning America in July to explain his own lawyer, Lanny Davis, releasing a secret audio recording in which President Trump appeared to admit knowledge of the $130,000 (£100,000) hush money paid to Ms Daniels to conceal their alleged 2006 relationship.

“I put family and country first,” he said. “To be crystal clear, my wife, my daughter and my son, and this country, have my first loyalty.”

The attorney, 52, grew up in Lawrence, Long Island, the son of a Polish surgeon who had survived the Holocaust and a nurse.

He attended college at American University in Washington, DC, where he started a business importing luxury cars and drew attention to himself rolling around campus in a Porsche.

After graduating, he set up a personal injury law practice near the 59th Street Bridge in Queens, New York City, specialising in bringing negligence lawsuits on behalf of the victims of car accidents, according to Rolling Stone.

It was here that he became involved in the taxi business, sharing office space with a cab company before entering the game himself when he married Laura Shusterman in 1994, daughter of a local car fleet operator from Ukraine.

Mr and Mrs Cohen acquired dozens of taxi medallions (operating permits) in New York and Chicago, becoming involved with “taxi king” Evgeny Freidman, a Russian businessman later charged with tax evasion who agreed to cooperate with prosecutors to escape jail, forcing Mr Cohen to distance himself from their partnership.

Among a string of other ventures, Mr Cohen invested in a riverboat gambling business operating out of Miami, Florida, with two Ukrainian associates, as well as two medical practices and an acupuncture clinic.

He also owned a minority stake in his uncle Morton Levine’s Brooklyn nightclub El Caribe, a favourite haunt of Russian mob boss Evsei Argon until his assassination in 1985. Mr Levine had previously been a doctor who had administered medical aid to members of the Lucchese crime family, according to The New York Times.

Mr Cohen never forgot his tough immigrant roots and enjoys presenting himself as something of a wise guy.

He first encountered Donald Trump in 2006 when he took the real estate magnate’s side in a legal dispute with the condo board at Trump World Tower in Manhattan.

Michael Cohen owned at least three apartments in Trump-branded luxury properties at the time and the pair bonded over the tycoon’s ghost-written business manual The Art of the Deal (1987), which Mr Cohen said he had read twice. Mr Trump had heard enough. He was hired.

President Trump brandishing his favourite book
President Trump brandishing his favourite book (AP)

Mr Cohen served as the Trump Organisation’s executive vice-president and special counsel, in practice handling The Donald’s most sensitive personal errands, from foreign real estate deals in Russia, Georgia and Kazakhstan to promoting his mixed martial arts venture Affliction Entertainment and fending off nosy reporters.

“If somebody does something Mr Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr Trump’s benefit,” he told ABC News in 2011.

“If you do something wrong, I’m going to come at you, grab you by the neck, and I’m not going to let you go until I’m finished.”

Such fierce loyalty was not always reciprocated. His beloved “Mr T” turned up late to his son’s bar mitzvah in 2012 and then joked in a speech that the lawyer had begged him to attend, Trump aide Sam Nunberg told The New York Times.

The same newspaper also published a telling quote from flamboyant political strategist and Trump ally Roger Stone: “Donald goes out of his way to treat [Michael Cohen] like garbage.”

After the election, Michael Cohen was reportedly upset to miss out on a White House post with his boss, having hoped to be made chief of staff, but got his own back by allowing paparazzi to photograph him having lunch with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, an outspoken Trump critic.

“I think he does it to piss off Trump when Trump is ignoring him,” Mr Cuban said.

President Donald Trump speaks to the news media about the federal conviction of his former presidential campaign chairman Paul Manafort as he arrives for a campaign event in Charleston on 21 August 2018 (Leah Millis/Reuters)
President Donald Trump speaks to the news media about the federal conviction of his former presidential campaign chairman Paul Manafort as he arrives for a campaign event in Charleston on 21 August 2018 (Leah Millis/Reuters) (Reuters)

Mr Cohen nevertheless enjoyed the benefits of his employer’s win, setting up the real estate venture Essential Consultants in 2016, attracting lucrative investment from multinationals, and pushing himself among lobbyists as a gatekeeper with access to the president. The likes of telecoms giant AT&T and the drug company Novartis are understood to have backed away from Mr Cohen’s services after initial meetings.

Mr Cohen’s loyalty was tested to breaking point on 9 April 2018 when federal agents obtained a search warrant for his office, home and hotel room as part of Mr Mueller’s investigation, seizing more than 4 million items.

“Attorney-client privilege is dead,” Mr Trump griped on Twitter, while his new lawyer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, complained of “storm troopers” breaking down doors.

The names of two lenders, Sterling National Bank and Melrose Credit Union, were cited in the warrant. Claims that Mr Cohen misrepresented the value of his taxi medallion assets to fraudulently obtain $20m (£15m) in bank loans from them provided the basis for the case against him.

But the biggest revelation heard in the Manhattan courtroom this August was Mr Cohen’s confession that he arranged to make payments to Ms McDougal and Ms Daniels “for [the] principal purpose of influencing the election... at the direction of the candidate” for federal office in 2016. He did not give the candidate’s name, although he was working for Mr Trump at the time.

As Lanny Davis put it afterwards in a statement outside the courthouse: “Today [Michael Cohen] stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election.

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“If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”

Mr Davis insists his client “wants to tell the truth about Mr Trump” and further revelations of a similar calibre could be enough to bring down his presidency, the ultimate revenge for a friendship taken for granted.

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