When I met Michael Cohen in New York two years ago, he was a man visibly crushed by what life had done to him. His whole face sagged: he could have defined the word ‘hangdog’, a beagle caught peeing on the Persian rug. We stood outside his apartment building, which was Trump Park Avenue, Trump’s name bearing down on Cohen’s head in gold letters three feet high. We’d already had a long lunch and I was trying to say goodbye but as he spoke about one injustice or humiliation he remembered another, a torrent of self-pity. Everyone had treated Donald Trump’s former lawyer and fixer unfairly: the Feds, Congress, the media, above all his former boss. ‘I go to jail because he gets his pecker pulled by a porn star?’
He was talking about Stormy Daniels. Cohen had given her $130,000 to keep quiet about having sex with Trump at a golf tournament in Utah in 2006. The money was paid six days before the presidential election, so he was charged with making an illegal campaign contribution. Cohen used a loan against his house to get the money, but hadn’t told the bank what it was for, so he was charged with fraud. Back in 2018, he told me that his wife’s signature was on the bank loan and the FBI had said she would go to jail if he didn’t plead guilty to everything. So he became inmate number 86067-054 at Otisville federal prison in upstate New York.
Cohen wrote a memoir at Otisville, Disloyal: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump. Stormy gets two chapters. He writes that both he and Trump ‘figured sleeping with the blonde bombshell porn star of Revenge of the Dildos wouldn’t help in the swing states’. The point of this story, he tells me now on the phone from Manhattan, is that her payment ‘was done at the direction of and for the benefit of Donald Trump’. If Cohen committed a felony by paying off Stormy, did Trump commit one by ordering the payment? That depends on whether Cohen is telling the truth about Trump’s involvement. The Department of Justice says a sitting president can’t be indicted, only impeached, but in principle Trump could be charged after he leaves office. Would Cohen give evidence? ‘If called, I would,’ he says, and leaves it at that, though satisfaction radiates from the phone. I picture him and the hangdog expression is gone.
Cohen writes that working for Trump was like being in a cult. ‘Whatever he wanted done, I would do, no matter how dishonest or dishonourable. Trump saved the crappiest jobs for me, a fact that I took pride in.’ After he talked to the Feds about what he’d done, in return for a lighter sentence, he appeared before Congress. It was a performance that gripped America, Cohen denouncing Trump as a conman, a racist and a cheat. It was also the moment, he writes, when he realised he had finally escaped the cult. ‘I started to cry, a flood of emotions overwhelming me: fear, anger, dread, anxiety, relief, terror. It felt something like when I was in the hospital awaiting the birth of my daughter and son… Only now, I was that child being born, and all of the pain and blood were part of the birth of my new life and identity.’
You would have to have a heart of stone to read this without laughing (as Oscar Wilde said) but it’s worth wading through passages like these to get to the terrifying eyewitness portraits of Trump the sociopath in his most unguarded moments. Disloyal shows Trump giving orders like a mafia don: nods, winks, hints, never anything that could be pinned on him. And he never cared about the damage he did, the lies he told, the lenders he stiffed, the small businesses he bankrupted, the ‘little people’ whose lives he ruined. Cohen tells me on the phone: ‘I believe that Donald Trump will do anything in order to protect himself and his position of power.’
Cohen predicts that if Trump loses the election he will bring a ‘multitude’ of lawsuits against individual states, claiming fraud at the polls. ‘Enablers’ like the attorney general, Bill Barr, would go to the ‘farthest depths imaginable’ to carry out a coup by manipulating the courts. If that doesn’t work, then Cohen expects Trump might resign the presidency during the 90 days he would have left and get Mike Pence to pardon him. During the Russian investigation, Trump said he had the power to pardon himself. Either way, a pardon would apply only to federal crimes. State prosecutors would still be free to act and Cohen says Trump has questions to answer about tax evasion and bank fraud. ‘Top members’ from the team of the Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance junior, visited him while he was in Otisville. ‘They were extremely appreciative of the information I provided.’
The White House — and Trump himself — have called Cohen a disbarred attorney and a convicted perjurer. That’s true — if only part of the story — and I ask Cohen why any evidence he might eventually give in court should be believed. Wouldn’t Trump’s defence lawyer be bound to say: ‘You lied before, aren’t you lying now?’ Cohen takes exception to this line of inquiry. ‘Why don’t you tell me what my lies were? Because if you can’t… this conversation is over, my friend.’
I point out that he admitted to a charge of perjury after lying to the House intelligence committee about trying to get a Trump building put up in Moscow, in Red Square, with the $50 million penthouse offered to Vladimir Putin. This was a far more consequential lie that the one about Stormy Daniels. Cohen replies: ‘My lies to Congress were not to my benefit; they were for the benefit of and at the direction of Donald J. Trump.’ I tell him that he concealed the Trump Tower Moscow discussions from Robert Mueller’s investigators the first time he spoke to them. ‘That’s not true. I didn’t lie to them. I didn’t give them the answer.’ Isn’t that the same thing, I ask, a lie by omission? ‘No, it’s not.’
Cohen challenges me to name other lies he has told. I am flabbergasted, as Cohen’s book is one long litany of the lies he told for Donald Trump. One story is about how Cohen paid a computer hacker to make sure Trump got into the top ten in a poll of the country’s most influential business leaders. Trump hadn’t even been in the top 100. ‘Fixing a poll doesn’t make me a liar, does it?’ To anybody with a normal moral compass it does, I say: he was a professional liar for Trump. ‘What the fuck kind of a question is that? Yes, I lied on behalf of Donald Trump. I bullied people. I brought lawsuits. Yes, I did. But does that make me a professional liar? Did I lie for my boss? Sure, I did. But that doesn’t make me a liar. I was doing my job.’
Cohen is shouting at me now and I’m getting a glimpse of the pitbull who used to work for The Donald. ‘Have you ever written something that you knew wasn’t accurate? Tell me you haven’t and I’m going to say “You’re a liar as well!”’ No, I don’t think I have, I say, not knowingly, not deliberately. Cohen shouts: ‘I say you’re a liar!’ I start to wonder if he really knows the difference between lying and telling the truth. One person who has spent a lot of time with Cohen told me: ‘He’s a sociopathic fantasist like Trump. They believe their lies even as they’re telling them.’ Did he leave the cult of Trump simply because he was caught? Only Michael Cohen can say for certain if his journey of redemption is real or if it’s just another play.
Cohen is so certain that Trump will lose the election he’s put a $10,000 dollar bet on it. (It was placed by a website called Guesser.com — mentioning that was a condition of our interview.) He says Trump knows he will be ‘putting on the bracelets’ as soon as he is out of office — and there will never be a peaceful transition of power. Cohen thinks that while the Republican party’s lawyers challenge the result, Trump will call armed MAGA supporters to the streets ‘to sow chaos and fear’. Then he will declare martial law. ‘In Trump’s mind, no autocracy has been established without some bloodshed.’ Trump himself has joked about staying in office whatever the result, of making himself president for life. Cohen says Trump jokes but he never really jokes — and, he says, he should know.