WASHINGTON >> The hiring of a Washington insider to be a public attack dog. Tantalizing leaks to the media. Puzzling allegations of actions that could fell a president. Talk of more to come.
What is Michael Cohen up to?
President Donald Trump’s ex-lawyer has largely stayed out of the spotlight in the months since federal agents raided his office and hotel room and seized scores of records about his work for Trump. But this week, he has taken a sharply more aggressive and public turn, seeming to wage open warfare with the White House while weighing whether to cooperate with investigators. The moves suggest Cohen is looking for a way out of looming trouble. But his behavior doesn’t quite line up with a clear strategy, legal experts say. And if his signals are aimed at Trump, they’ve largely served to infuriate the president.
Three days after Cohen’s new lawyer, Lanny Davis, released a tape of Cohen and Trump talking about paying for Playboy model Karen McDougal’s silence, the relationship splintered further Friday. That was after a CNN report that Cohen was willing to tell special counsel Robert Mueller that Trump knew in advance of a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in which the Republican candidate’s eldest son sought damaging information from a Russian lawyer about Hillary Clinton.
Trump on Friday vehemently repeated his denial that he knew about the meeting, which is at the center of Mueller’s probe, tweeting “NO,” he “did NOT know of the meeting with my son, Don jr.”
CNN cited anonymous sources saying Cohen was willing to share his information with Mueller, who is investigating possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Cohen does not have any evidence such as audiotapes verifying his claims, CNN’s sources said.
Cohen’s camp has denied being the source of the CNN report, the basic substance of which The Associated Press independently confirmed.
The specter of the potentially damaging information, which would run counter to months of denials and point toward a willingness to collude with a foreign power by Trump himself, again raised the possibility of what Cohen could deliver to prosecutors if he decides to cooperate.
Cohen has not yet decided to work with the federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York, according to two people familiar with his thinking but not authorized to discuss private conversations.
The Justice Department has been investigating Cohen for months, raiding his home, office and hotel room in April in search of documents related to a $130,000 payment the attorney facilitated before the 2016 election to Stormy Daniels, an adult-film actress who says she had sex with Trump in 2006. If Cohen, who specialized in making deals and making Trump’s problems go away, were to cut a deal, he would do so with an eye toward eliminating or cutting his potential punishment.
His lawyer, Davis, a Democrat once known as a fierce defender of President Bill Clinton, would not comment on whether Cohen was fishing for a deal.
“My observation is that it was an evolution that caused him to decide once Donald Trump was president that he had to tell truth and change his life,” Davis told the AP. “He hit the reset button on his life and what he had done previously.”
Those close to Cohen describe the lawyer, who has been holed up in a Manhattan hotel after a pipe burst in his apartment, as bewildered at the fast-moving events around him as he tries to look out for his family and make decisions about their future. Cohen has also been badly hurt by the president’s public anger and is determined to hit back, according to two people familiar with this thinking.
There has been some speculation that Cohen may be angling for a pardon from Trump, who has begun wielding — and discussing — the presidential power frequently of late. But a person close to Cohen downplayed the possibility.
Most people in comparable legal peril would be encouraged to stay out of the spotlight and communicate directly with prosecutors, not through the press, experts said.
Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice, said Cohen “seems to be taking a page out of President Trump’s playbook by having his lawyers aggressively respond in the media to attacks on his credibility and reputation.” It’s a “high stakes gambit” that could backfire if he’s angling to become a cooperator, Mintz said.
“Prosecutors prefer to strike cooperation deals quietly and in private because they want to save the impact of any valuable testimony and information that a cooperating witness can offer until trial,” he said.
Moreover, should Cohen choose to cooperate with investigators, including Mueller, it’s not clear what information he has that they could not gather for themselves or have not already learned on their own.
The Mueller team has been at work for 14 months. Defendants looking for lenient deals through their cooperation usually have better luck if they come through the government’s door earlier in an investigation.
Additionally, Cohen has made no public mention of Trump’s knowledge of the Trump Tower meeting. If he mentioned the crucial detail to House investigators it was not included in their massive report on the matter.
That inconsistency was seized upon by Rudy Giuliani, the president’s attorney. Giuliani, who called Cohen “an honest, honorable lawyer” as recently as May, has made a sport out of bashing Cohen in recent days. On Friday he called Cohen “an incredible liar who’s got a tremendous motive to lie now because he’s got nothing to give.”
Cohen frequently recorded his conversations, and prosecutors are believed to have dozens of them, including discussions with journalists, according to Davis.
Trump has been seething at Cohen since the recent tape’s release, raging to confidants that he could not believe he was being betrayed by someone he worked with for a decade, according to a person familiar with the situation but not authorized to discuss private conversations.
The president publicly aired his grievances with a Friday tweet about Cohen, though he did not name him:
“Sounds to me like someone is trying to make up stories in order to get himself out of an unrelated jam (Taxi cabs maybe?). He even retained Bill and Crooked Hillary’s lawyer. Gee, I wonder if they helped him make the choice!”
Cohen says on the tape with Trump that he’s already spoken about the McDougal-story payment with the Trump Organization’s finance chief, Allen Weisselberg, on “how to set the whole thing up.” The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Weisselberg, who had intimate knowledge of the president’s finances, has been issued a subpoena.
When asked about that and other matters, the normally press-friendly Davis on Friday did an abrupt about-face and told the AP he was now “completely barred from talking to the media.”