That was itself a surprise, because Cohen had a reputation for fierce loyalty to Trump. He joined the Trump Organization in 2006, reportedly coming to Trump’s attention for his bare-knuckle tactics during a condo board dispute at one of Trump’s properties, where Cohen lived. Though he is an attorney, Cohen seemed to be more of a troubleshooter and fixer than a brief-slinger. He was deeply involved in failed attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, a dubious construction project in Azerbaijan, and other deals.
Cohen achieved notoriety in 2015 when he threatened Daily Beast reporters over an article about Trump’s divorce from Ivana Trump. As recently as April, Cohen reportedly said he’d rather jump off a building than turn on Trump. The president tweeted that he didn’t think Cohen would ever flip.
Yet as Cohen’s legal troubles deepened, he seemed to be having a change of heart. “My wife, my daughter, and my son have my first loyalty and always will,” Cohen told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “I put family and country first.” He spoke out against Russian meddling and reportedly said the president was aware of a controversial June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between campaign officials and Russians. (On Tuesday afternoon, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee announced that Cohen had reaffirmed earlier testimony saying he personally was unaware of the meeting before it happened.) Cohen hired Lanny Davis, the former confidant to the Clintons, as his lawyer, and Davis in turn invoked John Dean, the White House counsel who testified against Richard Nixon and helped end his presidency.
Was Cohen simply bluffing? Was it a method of grabbing attention? Is Cohen hoping for a pardon from the president? Was he trying to pressure the White House? Or did he just not have the goods to convince prosecutors to offer him a deal for cooperation? The answers to these questions aren’t yet clear.
In addition to the campaign-finance violations, prosecutors said Cohen lied to a bank when applying for a home-equity line of credit, and evaded taxes between 2012 and 2016, depriving the federal government of $1.4 million he owed it.
Under the terms of the deal, Cohen could reportedly serve three to five years in prison. That’s a substantial sentence for a man who just two years ago had dreams of running for New York City mayor or snagging a coveted job in his mentor’s White House. In 2015, he taunted Hillary Clinton on Twitter, tweeting, “when you go to prison for defrauding America and perjury, your room and board will be free!” Clinton lost the election, but she walks free, while Cohen appears to be headed for the penitentiary.
The harsh treatment for Cohen points to the bleak big picture for Trump. His former trusted lieutenant is headed to prison. At the same time that Cohen was in court in Manhattan, a jury in Alexandria, Virginia, delivered guilty verdicts on several of the 18 criminal counts against Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. (Jurors deadlocked on others.) One of the witnesses in that trial was Trump’s former deputy campaign manager, Rick Gates, who also pleaded guilty to federal crimes. Trump’s first national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, and a campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, have both pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents. It has become banal to point out that almost any of these would have constituted a monumental scandal under any other president, but it remains true and important.
Nor are these troubles likely to dissipate any time soon. No matter how many times Giuliani calls for it, there’s little indication that Mueller will wrap up his investigation by September 1. The Senate Intelligence Committee continues its work as well. The Cohen plea could have been much worse for Trump, but there’s little relief for the president in sight.