President Donald Trump and his outside advisers are increasingly worried that his longtime personal attorney might be susceptible to cooperating with federal prosecutors.
Two sources close to the president said people in Trump’s inner circle have in recent days been actively discussing the possibility that Michael Cohen — long seen as one of Trump’s most loyal personal allies — might flip if he faces serious charges as a result of his work on behalf of Trump.
Story Continued Below
“That’s what they’ll threaten him with: life imprisonment,” said Alan Dershowitz, the liberal lawyer and frequent Trump defender who met with the president and his staff over two days at the White House last week. “They’re going to threaten him with a long prison term and try to turn him into a canary that sings.”
FBI agents overseen by federal prosecutors in New York last week raided Cohen’s office and apartment, as well as a hotel room he’d been using. The Trump lawyer is a figure in the ongoing Russia investigation overseen by special counsel Robert Mueller in Washington, but Manhattan-based government attorneys said in court that he is also under separate investigation for his business dealings.
Cohen, who has not been publicly charged with any crimes, owns New York City taxi medallions. He has also been deeply involved in the $130,000 payment made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who has accused Trump of trying to cover up an affair she says the two had in 2006.
In an interview with CNN last week, Cohen called the raid “unsettling to say the least.” But he also said in the same interview that the federal agents were “extremely professional, courteous and respectful” — a dramatic departure from his usual combative style.
Those comments raised eyebrows among some in Trump’s inner circle, who noted that one of the president’s most ferocious attack dogs seemed unusually taciturn.
“When anybody is faced with spending a long time in jail, they start to re-evaluate their priorities, and cooperation can’t be ruled out,” said one Trump ally who knows Cohen.
Since the raid, the president and his advisers have been singularly focused on the risk of a potential federal prosecution of Cohen, which they view as a much bigger existential threat to the presidency than former FBI Director James Comey, whose book “A Higher Loyalty” has dominated headlines and even Trump’s Twitter feed even before its Tuesday release.
Trump has regularly ranted to friends and advisers about the investigation into Cohen, according to two other people familiar with the conversations. He believes strongly that the FBI raid has pushed the boundaries of attorney-client privilege, telling friends that he and his associates are being unfairly targeted.
“He’s not happy about it,” said one White House official.
The White House appears to be creating some distance from Cohen. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters earlier this week that though Trump and Cohen have “still got some ongoing things,” the president “has a large number of attorneys, as you know.”
Trump said Wednesday during a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he wants the Mueller investigation “over with, done with.” He added that his administration is “giving tremendous amounts of paper” to investigators.
A White House spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
In a court filing last week, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York explained the FBI raid was “the result of a months-long investigation” into the president’s lawyer and that prosecutors were looking for evidence of crimes related to his business dealings.
Trump and his allies fear that documents and recordings that the FBI swept up from Cohen’s home and office could come back to haunt the president, whose lawyers have joined Cohen’s in New York in asserting attorney-client privilege and are asking a federal judge to approve an independent review of the material.
“Who knows what Cohen has in those files,” said a person close to the White House.
But their concerns go beyond Cohen’s voluminous files. Increasingly, Trump’s outside advisers are worried about the risk posed by Cohen himself.
“I think for two years or four years or five years, Michael Cohen would be a stand-up guy. I think he’d tell them go piss up a rope. But depending on dollars involved, which can be a big driver, or if they look at him and say it’s not two to four years, it’s 18 to 22, then how loyal is he?” said one defense lawyer who represents a senior Trump aide in Mueller’s Russia investigation.
“Is he two years loyal? Is he 10 years loyal? Is he 15 years loyal?” the attorney added. “That’s the currency. It’s not measured in inches. It’s measured in years.”
Jay Goldberg, a longtime Trump lawyer, told The Wall Street Journal that he spoke with Trump on Friday about Cohen and warned the president against trusting Cohen if he is facing criminal charges. Goldberg said he warned the president that Cohen “isn’t even a 1” on a scale of 1 to 100, where 100 was remaining fully loyal to the president, the newspaper reported.
But others in Trump’s circle believe Cohen will remain loyal to the president, pointing to Cohen’s long, well-documented history of publicly defending the president, whether in business or politics.
Appearing on MSNBC on Wednesday, former Trump White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci said Cohen was not a risk to turn on Trump. “If you said to me and I had to flip a coin, is he going to turn on President Trump or turn on other people? I would say adamantly no,” he said.
Cohen and Trump’s relationship dates back a dozen years. He was one of the earliest backers of the president’s political ambitions, and during the 2016 campaign served as a prominent adviser and spokesman, despite disagreements with others on the campaign.
The two men reportedly had dinner together last month at the president’s Mar-a-Lago retreat in South Florida. They also spoke by phone last Friday as their lawyers were working together to try to shield materials seized in the FBI raid.
The fallout from the FBI raid continued Wednesday for Cohen, who dropped two much-publicized libel lawsuits against BuzzFeed and the private investigation firm Fusion GPS over publication of the so-called dossier detailing alleged ties between Trump and Russia.
Cohen’s attorney, David Schwartz, told the court the voluntary decision to drop the lawsuits was needed “given the events that have unfolded, and the time, attention, and resources needed to prosecute these matters, we have dismissed the matters, despite their merits.”
Cohen and his attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Experts tracking the case say indictments against Cohen are possible for bank and wire fraud. He could also end up becoming a target in Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Mueller has already shown a willingness to play hardball. Former Trump aides Michael Flynn, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos have all pleaded guilty to various criminal charges and are cooperating. Onetime campaign manager Paul Manafort has pleaded not guilty to bank fraud and tax evasion charges and is set to face trial starting in July.
Legal experts noted that federal authorities face an uphill climb in turning lawyers against their clients. “It’s a bit of a moonshot if that’s what they are trying to do,” warned a second defense lawyer working on the Russia probe.
The prospect of years or even decades in prison might be easier to swallow if Cohen believes a presidential pardon is possible. White House officials and others close to the president insist that last week’s decision to pardon former Vice President Dick Cheney’s senior aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby on perjury charges dating to his service in the George W. Bush administration was not intended to send a message to Cohen — but it nonetheless could go a long way toward reassuring the president’s lawyer.
“They’re going to squeeze him like a grape. I think in the end he’ll pop unless Trump pardons him,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow at the nonprofit R Street Institute and a former senior counsel during independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation into President Bill Clinton.
Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic consultant who has worked with both Cohen and Trump, said the ties binding the attorney and the president will go a long way. But he, too, wouldn’t rule out how the pressure of prosecution would influence Cohen.
“Here’s a guy who appears to be very tough, very loyal and has said publicly about how he feels about Mr. Trump. That shouldn’t change, but who knows what the future holds,” he said. “People change when pressure is put on them. He’s very loyal. He’s very stand-up. It’d be a difficult decision for him to make.”
Cohen flipping “would be Trump’s worst nightmare,” said John Dean, the former White House counsel whose cooperation with Watergate prosecutors helped lead to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
“It would be as stunning and life-disrupting a surprise as his winning the presidency,” Dean added. “And if there is any prosecutor’s office in the USA that can flip Cohen, it is the Southern District of New York.”