Every president exhausts some aides’ loyalty eventually, but it usually doesn’t happen before his first midterm election. In his second summer in office, however, Donald Trump is facing a wave of defections—including tantalizing comments by Michael Cohen, a former Trump Organization lieutenant and attorney, that suggest he might cooperate with prosecutors.
“My wife, my daughter, and my son have my first loyalty and always will,” Cohen told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in a new interview conducted over the weekend. “I put family and country first.”
As Stephanopoulos noted in the interview, that’s a shift from previous comments Cohen has made about his allegiances—saying he’d “take a bullet” for Trump, or that he’d rather jump from a building than turn on him. Cohen replied, “To be crystal clear, my wife, my daughter and my son, and this country have my first loyalty.”
Since the April raid on Cohen’s home and office, amid a probe into several business affairs, the relationship between Trump and his former aide has become the subject of scrutiny. Even as Cohen made supportive comments about Trump following the raid, the president began creating distance between them. After The New York Times reported in late April that Cohen’s resolve might be softening, Trump tweeted: “Most people will flip if the Government lets them out of trouble, even if it means lying or making up stories. Sorry, I don’t see Michael doing that despite the horrible Witch Hunt and the dishonest media!” But Trump also professed ignorance about what Cohen was doing and said he is no longer his lawyer. Trump’s denials have undermined Cohen’s account of his dealings with Stormy Daniels, with whom Cohen arranged a hush-money deal over an alleged affair. (Cohen has not been charged with any crimes.)
Now, Cohen is returning the favor. “I will not be a punching bag as part of anyone’s defense strategy,” he told Stephanopoulos. “I am not a villain of this story, and I will not allow others to try to depict me that way.”
As he has in past comments, Cohen broke with Trump and the president’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani by praising the FBI agents who raided him as professional. (This is, to be fair, probably tactically shrewd.) As for the broader investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Cohen said he doesn’t like the term “witch hunt,” the president’s favored epithet.
“As an American, I repudiate Russia’s or any other foreign government’s attempt to interfere or meddle in our democratic process, and I would call on all Americans to do the same,” he said. “Simply accepting the denial of Mr. Putin is unsustainable.”
Only Cohen, and perhaps his lawyers, know what is motivating these strong, implicit criticisms of his once-beloved former boss at this moment. Vanity Fair has reported that there were tensions between Cohen and the Trump camp over payment of Cohen’s legal bills. The Stephanopoulos interview could be a warning shot for the Trump team, grasping for leverage. With each move by anyone ensnared in the broader Russia case, there is speculation that they’re angling for a pardon, too. Or it could be that Cohen has just run out of patience with Trump. ABC also reports that once Cohen’s new lawyer, Guy Petrillo, takes over, he will end an information-sharing agreement with the president’s legal team.
Whatever his motivations, Cohen is learning the lesson that Trump confidants since at least Roy Cohn have all eventually learned: Trump demands loyalty, but he does not offer it in return. It doesn’t matter how many professions of bullet-taking one offers; the president will cut anyone off if it’s useful to him.
As Trump demonstrates his haste to throw over old pals, old pals are reciprocating. The president has seen a surprising number of former aides turn away from him in one way or another. This is clearest in the legal sphere. In addition to Cohen, former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents and is cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller. On a lower level, so did George Papadopoulos, a foreign-policy adviser to the campaign. Former deputy campaign chair Rick Gates agreed to cooperate, too, though only after having a second round of charges dropped on him. Sam Nunberg, a scorned former aide, testified to Mueller and has criticized Trump publicly. Now comes Cohen.
Outside the legal sphere, former strategist Steve Bannon has delivered occasionally harsh criticism of Trump and of his team, earning a rebuke from the president. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster have offered some veiled criticisms as well, though neither was ever close to Trump.
There are a few holdouts. Paul Manafort, a former campaign chair, faces a huge slate of charges and has refused to cooperate with Mueller, though his motivations are wholly mysterious. Corey Lewandowski, who ran Trump’s campaign before Manafort, has remained steadfast.
The betrayals are not unusual—just premature. Eventually, each president faces something like this. During his second term of scandal and impeachment, Bill Clinton saw aides exit in disgust and Democratic members of Congress openly, and harshly, criticize him. After winning reelection in 2004, George W. Bush came in for increasing criticism. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell began airing differences with the White House. In 2008, former Press Secretary Scott McClellan published a scathing memoir. Even the comparatively harmonious Obama team drew friendly fire, including sometimes-critical books by former Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta.
Each of these examples, however, came in presidents’ second terms. It’s the latest case where the Trump White House is ahead of the curve. Staff turnover has been ahead of schedule. So has the replacement of political appointees in Cabinet jobs with career functionaries, like Veterans Affairs nominee Robert Wilkie. Now, lapses in loyalty are coming in well ahead of expectations, too.
In a way, this phenomenon is part of the same norm-breaking spree that the Trump presidency has ushered in, though in this case it’s not the president who’s breaking it. And, of course, Trump has often seemed impervious to the ramifications of breaking those rules.
If Michael Cohen flipped, it could disrupt that pattern. As I have written, Cohen wasn’t really acting as a lawyer for Trump. He was a fixer, both in matters person (the Daniels deal, for example) and professional (such as a fraught plan to build a skyscraper in Azerbaijan). Cohen seems to have had little role in Trump’s campaign after the early stages, and he was frozen out of the White House. But he is thought to be highly knowledgeable about the Trump Organization’s business empire, and that could prove helpful in tracking down questions about tax payments, due diligence, and any violations of law at the business.
Only Trump, Cohen, and a scant few others know what Cohen knows, but Trump’s greatest eruptions of anger come when there are signs that law enforcement is peering into his business, not his presidency. Of all the desertions Trump has seen so far, a Cohen flip might produce the most agitation from the Oval Office.