Michael Cohen suggests he could flip on Trump: “I put family and country first”

Donald Trump's former lawyer just gave an interview that has ominous implications for the president

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published July 2, 2018 11:51AM (EDT)

Robert Mueller; Michael Cohen; Donald Trump (Getty/Alex Wong/AP/Andrew Harnik/Evan Vucci)
Robert Mueller; Michael Cohen; Donald Trump (Getty/Alex Wong/AP/Andrew Harnik/Evan Vucci)

If President Donald Trump's ongoing Russia scandal is reading a bit like a crime story, then Michael Cohen may be about to have his Henry Hill moment.

Hill, you may recall, was the main character of the 1990 classic "Goodfellas," a real-life mobster turned FBI informant. Cohen, though not a mob figure, is well-known to have served as Trump's so-called "fixer" for many years. It was his job to quash stories that could damage the future president, whether they were about alleged affairs or rape accusations from his former wife, and it is widely assumed that if he has firsthand knowledge of criminal activity from the president and discloses that to law enforcement, it could be catastrophic for the Trump administration.

Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post explained why this would be the case, quite neatly on Monday:

The range of topics on which Cohen could offer prosecutors is potentially jaw-dropping. We know about the Stormy Daniels settlement, but we can speculate about topics which might, if substantiated by facts (and the president enjoys the presumption of innocence in court), prove harmful for Trump:

  • Any other settlements with other women, and details about those affairs, including possible violations of campaign-finance or other laws.
  • Any financial dealings by Trump that might have violated state or federal laws, relating to Russia or otherwise.
  • Trump’s financial dealings (which he has denied) with Russia.
  • Any Trump meetings with Russians, or meetings that Cohen took at Trump’s behest.
  • Any campaign contacts with Russians about which Cohen had knowledge or discussed with Trump.

In light of this, the comments made by Cohen during his recent interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos are quite ominous for Trump and his political supporters. For one thing, he made it clear during the interview that his primary loyalty is not to the president but to his family and nation.

"My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will. I put family and country first," Cohen told Stephanopoulos.

He later reiterated, "To be crystal clear, my wife, my daughter and my son, and this country have my first loyalty."

Cohen also emphasized that he would stand up for himself if Trump and his surrogates decided to attack him in order to discredit anything that Cohen may say about him.

"I will not be a punching bag as part of anyone’s defense strategy. I am not a villain of this story, and I will not allow others to try to depict me that way," Cohen told Stephanopoulos.

The lawyer also defended the law enforcement institutions that Trump has attacked, from the prosecutors investigating him to the intelligence agencies that have concluded that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election.

"I respect the prosecutors. I respect the process. I would not do or say anything that might be perceived as interfering with their professional review of the evidence and the facts," he said. "I don’t agree with those who demonize or vilify the FBI. I respect the FBI as an institution, as well as their agents. When they searched my hotel room and my home, it was obviously upsetting to me and my family. Nonetheless, the agents were respectful, courteous and professional. I thanked them for their service and as they left, we shook hands."

Although Cohen declined to say whether he knew if Trump had been aware of the infamous June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower between his top campaign officials, including Donald Trump Jr., and a Kremlin-connected lawyer, he unequivocally condemned the meeting itself.

"I believe it was a mistake by those from the Trump campaign who did participate. It was simply an example of poor judgment," Cohen told Stephanopoulos.

"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 added: "Simply accepting the denial of Mr. Putin is unsustainable.  I respect our nation’s intelligence agencies’. . . unanimous conclusions."

Finally, Cohen made it clear that he was going to defer to his lawyer Guy Petrillo when it comes to how he will proceed with the case. As Stephanopoulos noted in his report, Petrillo is "a highly regarded former federal prosecutor who once led the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan — the very same office currently conducting the criminal investigation of Cohen."

This is quite a change from the Michael Cohen who was described thusly by a piece in The Guardian in May:

Cohen’s official title in the Trump Organization, which he left after the election to continue to advise Trump on a personal basis, was executive vice-president and special counsel to Trump. In practice, Cohen’s duties were both idiosyncratic and expansive, ranging from putting together foreign real estate deals to telling off reporters to buying the silence of women linked romantically to Trump.

“If somebody does something Mr Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr Trump’s benefit,” Cohen told ABC News in 2011. “If you do something wrong, I’m going to come at you, grab you by the neck, and I’m not going to let you go until I’m finished.”

If someone as loyal to the president as Cohen is preparing to turn on him, it is likely that Trump will fight back by trying to discredit what Cohen has to say.

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Donald Trump George Stephanopoulos Michael Cohen