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Michael Cohen: Trump’s fix-it guy and FBI raid subject, explained

Cohen is much more than just Trump’s lawyer.

Michael Cohen, personal lawyer for President Donald Trump, walks through the lobby at Trump Tower, January 12, 2017, in New York City.
Drew Angerer/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Michael Cohen — Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer and business associate, who’s now under federal investigation and reportedly thinking about striking a plea deal with prosecutors — doesn’t mince words.

“I’m the guy who protects the president and the family. I’m the guy who would take a bullet for the president.”

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

“I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?

Cohen is not a typical lawyer. He’s not even just someone who sent $130,000 in hush money to Stormy Daniels. He’s a man who’s made profane and violent threats to protect Donald Trump, and has called himself Trump’s “fix-it guy.”

But he’s much more than that. For nearly a decade, Cohen worked as a high-level executive in the Trump Organization. In that time, he pursued business deals in the former Soviet Union and even tried to get a Trump Tower Moscow built during the presidential campaign.

Cohen is also a wealthy investor in his own right, with taxi medallion holdings and an eyebrow-raising real estate portfolio. He has family and past financial ties to Ukrainian businesses. He’s the national deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee. And since last year, he’s been legally representing Trump personally.

Now Cohen is a guy who appears to be in very serious legal trouble of his own. The Justice Department and FBI made the incredibly unusual move in April of seizing documents from him even though he’s a lawyer — the president’s lawyer!

After the raid, Cohen filed suit in federal court to try to block the Justice Department from reviewing some of his records, claiming many would be protected by attorney-client privilege. But his suit hasn’t gone well so far — initial rulings of some batches of documents have held that almost none of it would be protected by attorney-client privilege. So he seems to be thinking about cutting a deal.

Because Cohen worked so closely with Trump for so long, the president could well be in major jeopardy from a Cohen plea. Indeed, President Trump responded to the news of the raids with fury, calling it an “attack on our country” and claiming that “many people have said” he should fire Mueller. But to understand why, we have to understand just who Michael Cohen is — and why he’s so important to Trump.

Who is Michael Cohen?

Michael Cohen
Mark Wilson/Getty

Cohen was born in 1966 in Long Island, New York, the son of an immigrant who escaped a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. He had unusual interests early on, later telling the New York Times that he helped import luxury cars into the US while attending college at American University. Afterward, he got a law degree from the little-known Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Michigan and was admitted to the New York bar in 1992. After a brief stint at a personal injury law firm, Cohen opened up a solo practice.

Around this time, Cohen’s personal life and business interests both became deeply enmeshed in a community of Ukrainian immigrants in New York City. Both Cohen and his brother Bryan married Ukrainian immigrants, and both did business with their wives’ fathers. Cohen and a Ukrainian partner began buying up taxi medallions (the expensive city-issued permits necessary to operate taxis).

Also, Cohen legally represented something called the Ukrainian Capital Growth Fund, he and two Ukrainian partners made failed investments in a gambling cruise business, and he tried to pitch US investors to fund a Ukrainian ethanol company controlled by an allegedly mob-connected oligarch.

All this seems to have made Cohen very rich — he co-owned a fleet of more than 200 taxis by 2003 and became a partner at the law firm Phillips Nizer a few years after that. He dabbled in politics, too: Though a longtime Democrat, he switched to the Republican Party and became the GOP nominee for a 2003 New York City Council race. (His Democratic opponent, future charter school CEO Eva Moskowitz, beat him by 52 percentage points.)

Yet the occasional strange incident occurred along the way. At one point in 1999, Cohen cashed a $350,000 check an NHL player wrote as a loan for a Russian woman. But the woman never got the money, and in a later deposition, Cohen was unable to explain what happened to it, as Anthony Cormier of BuzzFeed News (who, along with his colleagues, has done a lot of great work reporting on Cohen’s past business ties) reported last year.

Cohen has a decade-long history with Donald Trump

Michael Cohen gets into an elevator at Trump Tower, December 12, 2016, in New York City.
Drew Angerer/Getty

Cohen’s entrée into Trumpworld came because he’d used some of his newfound wealth to purchase Trump Organization properties — and encouraged his family and business associates to do the same, in the early 2000s. (“Trump properties are solid investments,” he told the New York Post.) Eventually, he became treasurer of the board of Trump World Tower in New York, which is how he got acquainted with Donald Trump Jr. and eventually his father.

Cohen was in the right place at the right time. A group of unhappy Trump World Tower owners had taken control of the board and accused Trump of financial chicanery. That’s when Cohen stepped in to help out the mogul. Together, Cohen and Trump orchestrated “a coup that culminated in a standoff between [Trump’s] security detail and private guards hired by the disgruntled owners,” the New York Times later reported. They won.

Trump was impressed, and not long afterward, in early 2007, he offered Cohen a job: executive vice president and special counsel for the Trump Organization. The job’s duties were varied. In his first few years, Cohen would be involved in matters ranging from a New Jersey development project to mixed martial arts live events. By 2011, he had taken a leading role in advising Trump on his growing political ambitions, launching a website called “Should Trump Run?” and flying to Iowa to meet with Republican operatives. (Trump didn’t end up running for president in 2012.)

Things were going well for Cohen. He took on an ever-larger role in the Trump Organization, helping to explore potential development projects in both Georgia and Kazakhstan. He then bought four New York City properties for a combined $11 million and within a few years had sold them to various LLCs for a combined $30 million (in transactions that McClatchy’s Peter Stone and Greg Gordon would later flag as oddly lucrative). In early 2015, Cohen shelled out a massive $58 million to purchase an Upper East Side rental building, saying he wanted to convert it into condominiums.

Cohen’s role in the early Trump presidential campaign

In June 2015, Trump began his ultimately successful run for president, and Cohen, still working for the Trump Organization, became a legal adviser to the campaign as well. Very quickly, he made headlines. In July, the Daily Beast prepared a story about an old Ivana Trump deposition in which she said Donald Trump had raped her. Asked to respond, Cohen (falsely) asserted that legally, “you cannot rape your spouse” under New York state law.

In an attempt to stop the story from being printed, he then went on to profanely threaten reporter Tim Mak:

“I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we’re in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know,” Cohen said. “So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?”

“You write a story that has Mr. Trump’s name in it, with the word ‘rape,’ and I’m going to mess your life up … for as long as you’re on this frickin’ planet … you’re going to have judgments against you, so much money, you’ll never know how to get out from underneath it,” he added.

The following month, in August, Ukrainian steel billionaire Victor Pinchuk reached out through an intermediary and asked presidential candidate Trump to speak at a conference he was hosting in Kiev. Trump accepted — but soon enough, Cohen sent word back that he’d require a $150,000 donation to the Trump Foundation in return for speaking. The payment has lately drawn scrutiny from special counsel Robert Mueller, the New York Times reported this week.

Then in the fall, Cohen began exploring the possibility of building a Trump Tower in Moscow, with the help of a longtime business associate, Russian-born developer Felix Sater. “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected,” Sater emailed Cohen. “Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins [sic] team to buy in on this.” (Cohen would later say Sater was just using “colorful language” and “salesmanship.”)

Trump’s company signed a letter of intent to build the Moscow tower in October. In December, the Times reports, Cohen saw a news story about Putin praising Trump and emailed his old friend (apparently Sater) “Now is the time ... Call me.”

Then in mid-January 2016, just weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Cohen even emailed Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov asking for help with the project. “I am hereby requesting your assistance,” Cohen wrote. “I respectfully request someone, preferably you, contact me so that I might discuss the specifics as well as arranging meetings with the appropriate individuals.”

Cohen has said he never got a response from Peskov and claimed the company abandoned the project soon afterward. However, BuzzFeed News’s Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold have documented that Cohen’s efforts to make Trump Tower Moscow happen continued through at least June 2016.

Cohen’s role in hush money payments

Stormy Daniels.
Getty Images

Over the rest of the campaign, Cohen’s most notorious public moment was his odd August 2016 TV appearance in which a CNN anchor pointed out Trump was behind in polls and Cohen repeatedly asked, “Says who?”

Yet it’s his apparent behind-the-scenes work for Trump that has now become so controversial — specifically, his role in arranging hush money payments to two women who said they had affairs with Trump.

On August 6, 2016, former Playboy model Karen McDougal signed a nondisclosure deal with American Media Inc., the National Enquirer’s parent company, in which she’d be paid $150,000 for her story — so the Enquirer could bury it. The company’s chair David Pecker is an ally of Trump’s, and Times has reported that Cohen was “apprised” of the McDougal negotiations as they were taking place.

Then in October 2016, as Election Day drew near, porn actress/director Stormy Daniels threatened to come forward with her story alleging a 2006 sexual encounter with Trump. Cohen had encountered her before — five years earlier, Daniels had told her story to In Touch magazine, but Cohen threatened a lawsuit and the magazine didn’t publish.

(Daniels now says it was around this time that a man threatened her while she was with her daughter in a parking lot. He told her to “Leave Trump alone,” saying, “That’s a beautiful little girl. It’d be a shame if something happened to her mom.”)

Cohen wanted to keep Daniels quiet. He created the shell company Essential Consultants LLC and on October 27, 2016, wired $130,000 to Daniels’s lawyers. The following day, Daniels and Cohen signed a nondisclosure agreement — the validity of which is now subject to a lawsuit. Daniels stayed quiet, and not long afterward, Trump won the presidential election. (And later, in 2017, Cohen arranged a $1.6 million settlement for another former Playboy model, supposedly on behalf of Trump donor Elliott Broidy.)

Things have taken a turn for Cohen in recent months

Cohen after finding out the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing at which he was to appear was canceled, on September 19, 2017, in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty

The publication of Christopher Steele’s Trump-Russia dossier by BuzzFeed News in January 2017 returned Cohen to the national spotlight. The dossier alleged a conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government to interfere with the 2016 election and claimed Cohen played a key role in it.

However, Steele’s sources’ claims about Cohen remain completely uncorroborated. Furthermore, Cohen furiously denied its most specific claim about him — that he’d traveled to Prague in August 2016 to meet with Russian officials — and has shown his passport to reporters to back up his denials, at least for that time frame. He’s also sued BuzzFeed and Fusion GPS (the company paid by the Clinton campaign and DNC to compile the dossier) for defamation damages.

Cohen announced later in January 2017 that he would leave the Trump Organization but continue to work as Trump’s personal attorney, in what some observers saw as an effort to hold on to his attorney-client privilege with the new president. He made a “strategic alliance” with the law and lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs, and the RNC named him national deputy finance chair.

Meanwhile, Cohen used the same shell company he set up for the Stormy Daniels payment — Essential Consultants — to rake in cash from companies such as AT&T ($600,000), Novartis ($1.2 million), and Korea Aerospace Industries (at least $150,000). Cohen also developed a relationship with Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg — a US affiliate of Vekselberg’s company (run by his cousin) paid Essential Consultants at least $500,000. It is not clear what Cohen did in return for this cash or whether he should have registered as a lobbyist or representative of a foreign entity.

But shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Cohen made headlines again, on a matter of international intrigue. On January 27, 2017, Cohen and his business associate Felix Sater had met with Andrii Artemenko, a pro-Russian Ukrainian lawmaker whom Cohen had known for years. Artemenko gave them a purported proposal for a peace deal between Ukraine and Russia — paired with alleged evidence of corruption that he said could be used to discredit Ukraine’s president. There have been conflicting reports on whether Cohen then delivered this document to the White House and then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. (Reporting by the Atlantic’s Natasha Bertrand suggests Viktor Vekselberg was involved in the “peace plan” effort.)

And signs of trouble for Cohen soon emerged. The value of his New York City taxi medallion holdings plummeted due to competition from Uber and Lyft (the price dropped from $1.3 million apiece in 2014 to below $200,000). The New York Daily News reported that Cohen and his wife owed more than $37,000 in unpaid taxi taxes. Meanwhile, and apparently separately, Russia probe investigators in both Congress and the executive branch dug into his activities.

Then, on January 12, 2018, the Wall Street Journal’s Michael Rothfeld and Joe Palazzolo broke the news that Cohen had arranged the $130,000 payment to Daniels — which opened up a whole new world of trouble for him, as he struggled to get his story straight about what exactly happened and what Trump knew about it. As all this was unfolding, Robert Mueller’s investigators were quizzing witnesses on Cohen’s role in the Trump Organization’s overseas business deals.

The biggest turning point, though, was the FBI’s raid of Cohen’s office and residence this April, which signaled he was in imminent legal jeopardy. Cohen filed suit in federal court soon afterward, attempting to argue that some seized documents should be protected through attorney-client privilege. The lawsuit became a bit of a circus, as Cohen was forced to disclose the identities of all his legal clients in 2017 (just President Trump, businessman Elliott Broidy, and Fox host Sean Hannity). But Cohen’s effort to shield his documents from review seems, from preliminary rulings, to largely be failing.

What does Cohen’s legal trouble mean for Trump?

The full specifics of why the Justice Department raided Cohen’s properties aren’t yet known. It is said to have been prompted by a “referral” from Mueller to the US attorney’s office based in Manhattan, and ultimately approved by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

The Times reports that agents were looking for records about the hush money payments to Daniels and McDougal. The Washington Post reports that Cohen is “under federal investigation for possible bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations.” Meanwhile, CNN reports that the warrant even targeted Cohen’s documents related to his taxi medallions.

All this could well be entirely unrelated to the investigation of Russian collusion. On the other hand, if the search should turn up relevant evidence on that front, the Justice Department could turn it over to Mueller’s team. And if Cohen does eventually face charges or cut a plea deal on unrelated matters, it’s at least possible that he’d flip and offer up incriminating information on Trump, should he have any (though he’s emphatically denied that he’d ever do such a thing).

What’s already clear though, is that a raid to seize documents from a lawyer — the president’s lawyer, no less — is incredibly unusual. High-level Justice Department officials and a magistrate judge had to conclude there was probable cause that Cohen had evidence of a federal crime, that he could not be trusted to hand over evidence voluntarily, and that there was reason to believe Cohen had voided his attorney-client privilege by “engaging in crime or fraud,” attorney Ken White writes.

Cohen’s team says that communications between Cohen and Trump were seized. And, accordingly, Trump has responded with panic and alarm — suggesting he is incredibly disturbed by the focus on Cohen, and making what comes next very uncertain indeed.

For more on Michael Cohen’s many scandals, please listen to this recent episode of The Weeds: