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Why does Michael Cohen keep publicly hinting that he’ll flip on Trump?

There have been some reports that Cohen wants Trump to pay his legal fees.

Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen
Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images
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 really, really wants everyone to know that he’s willing to flip on President Donald Trump.

That’s the early message Cohen is sending with his hire of Lanny Davis, a longtime friend of the Clinton family and “legal crisis manager,” last week. Even before that, Cohen and people close to him have recently been sending hints along these lines. But on Monday morning, Davis made the subtext text by outright attacking Trump on Twitter.

Soon afterward, “two sources familiar with Cohen’s thinking” spoke to CNN to send the message that Cohen has “hit the reset button” and that “the truth” that Cohen might tell would not be Trump or [former New York Mayor Rudy] Giuliani’s “friend.”

These sources suggested that Cohen has important information about the infamous Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian delegation in June 2016 — hinting that Cohen could be crucial to Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation, were he to flip on the president and tell what he knows.

But there’s something strange about Team Cohen’s public performance — they seem to be spending their time talking to the press, rather than to the prosecutors who could actually work out a plea deal.

When Michael Flynn was thinking of flipping, he didn’t hire a PR person to start attacking Trump in the press. Neither did Rick Gates. They kept quiet, talked to prosecutors, and worked out their deals.

Yet there is still no word of Cohen and his lawyers even speaking to prosecutors from the Manhattan-based US attorney’s office (which approved the raids on Cohen’s residence and office in April) or special counsel Robert Mueller’s team (which would handle Trump-Russia matters).

Perhaps plea deal discussions will come soon enough. The court-ordered process for Cohen to assert attorney-client privilege over documents seized from his office is wrapping up. An indictment, or discussions about a plea deal, could kick off after that, once prosecutors have a clearer idea of how much leverage they have over Cohen.

Still, even if Cohen really is thinking about flipping and has something on Trump with which to flip, the constant leaking and hinting to the press from Cohen’s team could have another purpose: to get Trump’s attention and scare him enough to pay Cohen’s hefty legal bills, in exchange for his silence.

A timeline of sources close to Michael Cohen who hinting he might flip, while also saying he wants Trump to pay his legal bills

Michael Cohen’s legal jeopardy became dire on April 9, when the FBI raided his residence and office. The raids were part of an investigation “referred” to the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) by special counsel Robert Mueller. The search warrant reportedly targeted information on sex-scandal hush-money payments arranged by Cohen, as well as his holdings of taxi medallions.

Almost immediately, there was ample speculation in the press and among Trump’s allies that Cohen would likely try to cut a plea deal, even if it meant “flipping” and providing information on Trump himself (whom Cohen had previously said he’d “take a bullet for”).

Still, at the time, Cohen quickly filed suit in federal court to try to get a chance to assert attorney-client privilege over some of the documents the government seized — a move that could have prevented some damning documents from being used by prosecutors against him. So on April 26, a New York judge appointed a special master to handle Cohen’s claims.

That process has stretched on for nearly three months, but it’s now close to wrapping up. And since early June, indications have been that very few of the millions of seized documents qualified for privilege — meaning Cohen’s gambit seems to have for the most part failed, and prosecutors will be able to use the vast majority of what the FBI took from him to make a case.

That’s when the media frenzy about Cohen possibly flipping, driven by leaks from people close to him, began in earnest:

  • On June 13, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos reported that Cohen was changing his legal team, that he was “likely to cooperate” with prosecutors, and that this cooperation was “believed to be imminent.” However, other outlets were less certain about what was going on, reporting that Cohen hadn’t made up his mind on flipping, hadn’t even met with prosecutors, and that he was splitting with his lawyers primarily because of money.
  • Then, on June 19, a friend of Cohen’s told CNN that Cohen “knows a lot of things about the President and he’s not averse to talking,” adding, “If they want information on Trump, he’s willing to give it.”
  • But that same day, the Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus and Rebecca Davis O’Brien reported that Cohen “has told associates” he wants President Trump “to pay his legal fees” for his new lawyer Guy Petrillo, which seems to suggest he hadn’t made up his mind to flip just yet.
  • On June 20, Cohen resigned from his position as deputy finance chair of the RNC, and used his resignation letter to sharply criticize the Trump administration’s family separation policy — a surprising move, since he’d been such a die-hard Trump loyalist for so long. Shortly afterward, Cohen posed for a photo with actor and Trump critic Tom Arnold.
  • But on June 26, “a source close to Cohen suggested” to the Washington Examiner’s Gabby Morrongiello that (in Morrongiello’s words) Cohen “could stonewall the special counsel for the right price.”
  • At the beginning of last week, Cohen decided to go public in an interview with Stephanopoulos that aired July 2. Cohen didn’t attack President Trump directly but he unmistakably hinted that he was considering flipping, and that his main “loyalty” was to his family. The report also cited an anonymous source claiming Cohen would soon exit his joint defense agreement with President Trump, through which their lawyers have been coordinating.
  • A few days later, on July 5, Cohen made waves by hiring Clinton ally and PR bulldog Lanny Davis.
  • And now, today, Davis is outright attacking Trump. And sources close to Cohen are telling CNN that the truth would not be Trump’s “friend” here, and that Cohen might know information about Don Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting with a Russian delegation.

Through all this we are still yet to receive any indication that Cohen’s lawyers have spoken with prosecutors either from SDNY or Mueller’s office. So why all this leaking and hinting in the press from Cohen’s side, when the usual legal advice for someone like him is to say as little as possible?

One interpretation, put forth by sources close to Cohen to Vanity Fair’s Emily Jane Fox in a series of recent posts, is that Cohen is sick of his bad PR and wants to “change his narrative.” Maybe he wants to get out ahead of expected attacks from Trumpworld. Maybe he wants his own pugnacious Michael Avenatti-like figure in the press for him, and that’s why he hired Davis.

Still, a suspicious mind could also interpret all this public signaling as something like a shakedown instead. Anonymous Cohen pals keep telling reporters that Cohen wants Trump to pay his legal bills. Meanwhile, Cohen and his allies keep trying to send the message that he’s really serious about flipping, and that what he knows could really damage Trump.

Why, after all, would “sources familiar with Cohen’s thinking” tell CNN, rather than prosecutors, that ‘Giuliani is wading into dangerous territory when he asks Cohen to “tell the truth” about the Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and Russian meddling in the election’? It almost reads like a warning — or a threat.

I emailed Lanny Davis this morning to ask if Cohen was still interested in getting President Trump’s help paying his legal bills, or if he was willing to close off that possibility. So far, he hasn’t responded. I’ll update this post if he does.