Michael Cohen was Donald Trump’s personal lawyer for almost a decade and appears ready to unravel the president’s complex web of business dealings, porn star payoffs, Russian mob ties and possible collusion with the Kremlin during the 2016 campaign.
If he turns state’s evidence, as he appears to be doing, to assist Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, it spells big trouble for Trump and conceivably could doom his presidency.
Mueller, who has wide experience as a federal prosecutor, is reportedly conducting a “mob-style” roll-up investigation of Trump and his family. The process involves charging associates and low-level functionaries, who agree to provide information on higher ups, eventually leading to prosecution of the mob boss.
So far, Mueller has extracted guilty pleas from Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, George Papadopoulos, a former Trump foreign affairs campaign advisor, Richard Pinedo, who sold bank accounts to Russians meddling in U.S. elections and Alex Van Der ZWann, a Dutch lawyer who lied to investigators about his ties to Rick Gates.
Up until now, Gates, a former senior Trump campaign advisor and close associate of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, has been Mueller’s biggest catch. Gates became the fifth person to plead guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors.
But Cohen tops them all. Although the lawyer and reputed “fixer” once said he’d take a bullet for Trump, he’s given every indication in recent days that he is willing to lay bare all he knows about the Trump organization.
In a taste of what Cohen knows, his veteran Washington lawyer, Lanny Davis, released a tantalizing audio tape recorded by Cohen on the eve of the 2016 election.
Trump can be heard discussing a hush-money payoff to former Playboy model Karen McDougal to silence her about their 10-month affair in 2006-07. During the conversation, Trump clearly can be heard suggesting an all-cash payoff, which raises a host of legal issues.
While most media attention has focused on the salacious payoff discussion, the real value in the tape is its exposure of longtime Trump chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg. Cohen’s comments clearly suggested Weisselberg was involved in the discussion, opening the door for prosecutors to subpoena him.
In fact, Trump’s longtime financial gatekeeper has been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury in connection with the U.S. Attorney’s investigation of Cohen in the Southern District of New York.
Both Cohen and Weisselberg were a heartbeat away from Trump during many of his business dealings and activities during the campaign.
In one shocking revelation, Cohen has already said through his lawyer that Trump was aware of the Trump-Tower meeting between Russian agents, his son and others to discuss “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Trump was on Twitter this morning heatedly denying it.
But that is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Trump has a long history of corruption dating back to the early 1970s that defines his identity and his governing style.
The following are just some of the matters that Cohen and Weisselberg can potentially shed light on for Mueller’s probe.
During the 1980s Trump launched a number of shaky businesses fueled by bank loans and junk bonds. They included the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, the USFL New Jersey Generals, Trump Airlines, Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino and Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts, which included the Trump Taj Mahal hotel and casino.
During his tenure running the company, the casinos were repeatedly fined for breaking New Jersey casino operation regulations. In 2000, Trump was fined $250,000 for illegally lobbying against the construction of an Indian casino in the Catskills in upstate New York.
Within less than a decade every one of those ventures ended in bankruptcy. By the time it was over in the early 1990s, Trump was reportedly $900 million in debt and having a hard time borrowing money from U.S. banks.
Trump’s salvation reportedly came through a massive infusion of illicit cash provided by Russian mobsters and oligarchs with close ties to Vladimir Putin. Son Eric Trump bragged in 2014 that the Trump Organization no longer had to rely on U.S. banks because it had all the money it needed from Russia.
Golf Journalist James Dodson said Eric Trump made the comment to him during a Florida golf outing in 2014.
“He said, ‘Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.’ I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yeah. We’ve got some guys that really, really love golf, and they’re really invested in our programs. We just go there all the time.’ Now that was three years ago, so it was pretty interesting.”
Fully one third of units sold on floors 76 through 83 in Trump Tower in New York City involved people or limited liability companies connected to Russia and neighboring states, according to a Bloomberg investigation.
A 2013 article in The Nation described Miami as a major destination for “dirty money” flowing out of Russia and Eastern Europe. Trump was a major beneficiary.
Much of that money flowed through Elena Baronoff, a Russian-American socialite described on the cover of a Russian magazine as “The Russian Hand of Donald Trump. ” She operated a real-estate company catering to Eastern European buyers out of the lobby of the city’s Trump International Beach Resort.
The Trump Organization actively sought Russian buyers, according to another investigation by The New Republic. The area around Trump Sunny Isles in Florida became known as “Little Moscow.”
In the early 2000s, Trump tried to capitalize on his name with a number of quick-hit ventures. They included Trump Signature Collection clothes (2004); Trump Vodka, Trump Mortgage and luxury travel Web site Go.Trump.com in 2006 and Trump Magazine and Trump steaks the following year. All of the ventures ended in failure.
Another venture, Trump University, a qet-rich-quick education program based on Trump’s purported real estate savvy, collapsed amid fraud allegations and lawsuits. Trump finally settled the litigation by agreeing to pay $25 million.
In one alleged scam in 2005, Trump received $17 million in insurance payments for purported damage by Hurricane Wilma to his Florida estate and club Mar-a-Lago. But The Associated Press found little evidence of large scale damage. Even club members and Trump supporters in the Palm Beach area could not back up his claim.
Then, in 2009, he took another big hit.
Trump Entertainment Resorts, reconstituted out of his earlier casino bankruptcies, failed. Over the 15 years that Trump served as chairman of both Trump Hotels and Resorts and Trump Entertainment Resorts, the companies posted an unbroken string of net losses. Leveraged to the hilt, they collapsed under the weight of $1.7 billion in interest costs alone.
During that time, Trump developed an unparalleled reputation for ripping off his workers and contractors, reneging on promises and union busting. In one shady deal, Trump was accused of trying to dump 24 million gallons of raw sewage in the Hudson River.
All the while, he was allegedly bedding, bullying or outright assaulting a host of women through three marriages. At least 14 women have come forward detailing their encounters.
So far, porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal have confirmed receiving six-figure hush-money payments. A third Playboy model, Sarah Brechard also received $1.6 million in a Cohen-brokered deal to keep quiet about an affair, a pregnancy and an abortion.
The father was identified in media reports as long-time Trump pal Elliott Broidy, a deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee. He was forced to resign as a result of the scandal. But at least some circumstantial evidence suggests that Broidy may have been covering for Trump.
Throughout his business career, Trump has been associated with dirty money. He worked with reputed mobsters to get his Atlantic City casinos off the ground, and in 1992, a Senate subcommittee named then Trump Taj Mahal foreign marketing vice president Danny Leung as an associate of the Hong Kong-based organized crime group 14K Triad.
Cohen is in a position to unravel much of Trump’s activities. His statement that Trump had foreknowledge of the June 2016 Trump Tower Russia meeting is the first to tie him directly to Russia and campaign dirt.
Cohen alleges that he was present, along with several others, when Trump was informed by his son about the Russians’ offer and Trump gave his approval to go ahead with the meeting, according to CNN, citing an anonymous source.
An FBI raid on Cohen’s office in April retrieved a trove of documents and at least 100 tape recordings, many of which include conversations with Trump, according to various media reports.
Trump’s long sleazy history, well known to New Yorkers, quickly faded when he began hosting “The Apprentice” in 2004 and later “Celebrity Apprentice.” Initially, Trump promised real executive jobs to winners, but reneged and used them solely for publicity purposes.
The show portrayed him as a savvy, tough-talking businessman, and that’s how most of his supporters across the country came to know him. So far, that image has been virtually impenetrable.
But Cohen has the keys to the vault.