Who is Michael Cohen?
Reader: Are you someone who is angry in an inchoate way at the Trump administration as an institution but who would prefer to focus your anger like a laser beam on specific individuals? We here at The Baffler are here to help! As a wise man once told my father while trying to sell him a program at a Knicks game, “They’re just a bunch of tall guys in shorts, without a program”—and so, too, the various hangers-on in the Trump orbit may seem to be just a bunch of transparent grifters and/or terrifying ideologues in suits unless you have a clear guide for who the players are. We plan to bring you the key stats and career highlights of all the best people in the administration, as well as those who are “too hot” for government service and end up bounced out to the 2020 campaign, various 501c3 scams, or who just end up on the semi-consensual receiving end of those rambling “executive time” phone calls. So here’s your thumbnail portrait of the man of the week’s big news (assuming we haven’t begun bombing Syria by press time): Michael Cohen, personal attorney for Donald Trump, and the guy who just had his office, home, and hotel crash pad raided by the FBI!
A special relationship. Michael Cohen first appears in the press as being in Trump’s orbit by way of a 2007 New York Post article extolling the value of an investment in Trump-branded real estate. But behind the scenes, he had already ingratiated himself into the Trumpian inner circle. The condo owners at one of the Trump properties had risen up in revolt and kicked Don Jr. off the board; Cohen helped orchestrate the counter-coup (it involved “a standoff between [Trump’s] security detail and private guards hired by the disgruntled owners“) that left the family back in control, and more to the point, got Cohen, who had a law degree from Thomas Cooley (literally the lowest-rated law school in the country) and previously specialized in personal injury law, a job as special counsel for the Trump Organization. But what had prepared him to scale to such heights?
A hanger-on’s origin story. The Cohen family is full of doctors and lawyers, and when Cohen told his grandmother he didn’t want to be the latter, she told him he had to or he wouldn’t inherit her money. Then, when he told her he didn’t think she had any money, she slapped him. Fun family! His rich uncle Morton Levine was a doctor who ran weight-loss camps for kids and a restaurant frequented by Italian and Russian mobsters, the New York Times informs us with a hilariously backpedaling-for-legal-purposes parenthetical: “(Dr. Levine was never charged with any wrongdoing.)”
Such antics launched a family tradition that young Michael would soon grandly extend: proximity to, though never solid evidence of participation in, all sorts of ethically or legally dubious behavior. Indeed, the same Times article notes that young Michael, while a mere college undergraduate, instead of doing the usual dumb college kid stuff like playing ultimate frisbee and smoking pot, instead “imported luxury cars.” He later “invested in a casino boat,” and “helped his family organize an ethanol business in Ukraine that failed.” Sure, that could all just mean that he came from money, but if you came from money couldn’t you do some stuff with it that didn’t sound sketchy as all hell? Invest in low-risk mutual funds, maybe?
But that’s not the Michael Cohen way. The Michael Cohen way is to be in as close proximity to sketchiness as possible without actually getting his homes and businesses raided by law enforcement, and it was a tightrope he walked with considerable aplomb until Monday of this week.
He doesn’t need Trump to be sketchy! While of course Cohen is in the news because of his relationship to America’s sketchiest president, he has an impressive portfolio of dubious dealings of his own to boast of, over and above his college shenanigans. A couple of our favorites:
- Cohen has owned hundreds of New York City taxi medallions, an asset that up until recently was a pretty good investment. The NYC taxi business is generally described as “rough-and-tumble,” but getting involved in it doesn’t necessarily make one sketchy—unless, that is, you do it the way Michael Cohen does it, which is to say through stakes in numerous companies with funny names like “Smoochie Cab Corp.,” while you fall tens of thousands of dollars behind on your taxes.
- In 2014, Cohen sold some New York apartment buildings he owned to a mysterious network of LLCs all managed by the same lawyer, and got more than double what he’d paid for them, in cash—even though the assessed value of the property had barely gone up since his initial purchase. After McClatchy broke this story last October, Cohen furiously explained how extremely legitimate the transactions were: he was just helping a century-old real estate family fund take advantage of Section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code, which permits tax deferrals in exchanges of “like” kinds of property. This was a perfectly legal maneuver demonstrating that in this case the sketchiness was built into the tax code itself. He attributed the sky-high price the buildings commanded to the “capital infusion I made after purchase.” Probably he put in some new kitchen cabinets?
But he’s been sketchy for Trump too! He loves doing that sort of thing! As The New Yorker puts it, Cohen’s duties at the Trump Organization weren’t exactly lawyer stuff, more like “use vague lawyer knowledge to do international deals“ stuff. The Trump Org’s international portfolio during this era was, of course, spectacularly dubious—a crystal tower in Azerbaijan that never opened and was probably a money-laundering operation for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, anyone? But it was during Trump’s rise to power that Cohen really came into his own in a series of extremely sketchy moves:
- In 2011 he launched the “Should Trump Run?” website astroturfing a presidential campaign that didn’t emerge in that cycle. (The URL now redirects to a Wi-Fi cryptocurrency site that we’re going to go ahead and say is probably not something you should invest in, or even click on.)
- In 2015, when allegations came out in the Daily Beast that Trump had sexually assaulted his first wife Ivana toward the end of their marriage, Cohen used his deep legal knowledge to assert that “By the very definition, you can’t rape your spouse” (you can) and that “there’s very clear case law” (there is, in the sense that the case law very much acknowledges that marital rape exists and is illegal).
- Later that year, Cohen solicited a $150,000 campaign donation, or maybe a speaking fee, from a Ukrainian oligarch, and in return Trump gave a twenty-minute speech via video hookup to a conference in Kiev. (That works out to more or less twice the hourly rate Hillary Clinton got for her speeches to Goldman Sachs. Sad!)
- Also in 2015, Cohen was on the receiving end of an extremely treason-y email from Trump hanger-on Felix Sater, in which Sater said “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it . . . I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”
- Hey, remember the Steele Dossier? The one with claims of a pee tape? It also claimed that Cohen maybe travelled to Prague to meet with some Russian agents, which prompted Cohen to show off all the stamps in his passport to prove he’d never been there, and then later sue BuzzFeed.
- He was also involved in paying off Stormy Daniels, in a story you might’ve heard a little bit about recently.
Anyway, after Trump’s election, he got his straightest job yet, as Deputy Finance Chair of the Republican Party (which is still, between us, kind of dubious). That’s the same RNC finance committee that was led until January by Steve Wynn, the casino mogul, who stepped down after the Wall Street Journal reported on sexual harassment allegations. Cohen may be at the cutting edge of a phenomenon that we suspect will become increasingly common in Trumpland: the guy who was sketchy-adjacent his whole life and probably would’ve gotten away with it forever if he hadn’t suddenly become an ancillary member of a presidential administration. It will be exciting to see what the future holds for him! No word yet on whether he has gotten his stuff back from the Feds.