Last June, after Michael Cohen pled guilty to a number of federal crimes, including paying hush money on behalf of the president of the United States, he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that he wanted to "do the right thing for his family." I wrote at the time that Cohen seemed to be contemplating becoming the John Dean of the Trump Russia scandal, quoting Vanity Fair's Emily Jane Fox reporting that people were coming up to Cohen on the street saying he could be a hero if he stepped up and told the truth.
No one really expected him to do that at the time. After all, Cohen had famously said he'd take a bullet for Trump. But it turned out that for all his loyalty, it wasn't reciprocated. Trump had a fit when the feds served their search warrant on Cohen's office but almost immediately turned on his old friend, behaving as if he hardly knew him. In truth, Trump had treated Cohen like a lackey for years, denying him respect and refusing to bring him into the White House despite Cohen's obvious wish to be treated like a member of the family.
Looking at years of jail time and the loss of all your property tends to focus the mind; Cohen wised up. He realized that he had been abandoned and would have to save himself. He hired an old Washington hand, Lanny Davis, and threw himself at special counsel Robert Mueller, practically begging him for a chance to tell everything he knew about Donald Trump's unethical and/or illegal activities. You can imagine it was a heady feeling to have that kind of power over the man he felt had betrayed him.
Mueller played hard to get. Cohen was not offered one of those cooperation agreements given to Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn. Indeed, prosecutors didn't seem very interested in what he might have to say. There were sporadic reports of Cohen talking to them, but it almost seemed as if they were indulging a desperate man. That was wrong. They were listening and biding their time. On Thursday, in a move that surprised everyone -- including the White House which only got a heads-up just before it happened -- Cohen appeared in court and pled guilty to lying to Congress about his dealings with Trump and Russia. This is the first time that Trump has been personally connected to the Russia conspiracy in a court of law.
It was first reported back in 2017 that Trump had been negotiating a Trump Tower deal in Moscow during the first few months of the Republican primary campaign. Trump signed a letter of intent in October of 2015, but and supposedly the deal fell through that December. Last spring Buzzfeed further reported that this negotiation had actually continued all the way through June 2016, after Trump had clinched the nomination. Cohen and Trump denied it and it seemed not to make much of an impression on the public, although it probably should have. On Thursday that story was confirmed.
It has been reported that the Trump Organization's partner in the deal, a fascinating character named Felix Sater, who is an old friend of both Trump's and Cohen, had bragged to Cohen that he could get to Putin. In one email, he told Cohen that “our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it.” That's an odd statement, to say the least. Until this week that was widely assumed to be just hyperbole between two buddies. As it turns out, Cohen actually dealt directly with the Kremlin, as well as with a former general with Russian military intelligence, even as his boss was cinching the Republicn presidential nomination. Cohen has now testified that he kept Trump and members of the family (assumed to be Don Jr. and Ivanka) apprised throughout the campaign about how the deal was going.
And that's not all. Buzzfeed reported on Thursday night that the Trumps had planned to offer Vladimir Putin a $50 million "gift" of a penthouse in the new Moscow building. It's unclear whether Trump was aware of that but you can bet they would never have followed through on such a thing without his OK. As it happens, the entire Moscow deal was abruptly canceled on the day the Democratic National Committee hack was publicly reported, just before Cohen was slated to fly to Russia, reportedly to prepare for Trump to make the same trip after the Republican convention in order to seal the deal.
Trump told the voters that he knew nothing of Russia. He said it over and over again. Yet his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was $20 million in debt to a Russian oligarch and his oldest buddy, Roger Stone, was allegedly plotting with Russian hackers and WikiLeaks to sabotage Hillary Clinton's campaign. Trump's chief foreign policy adviser, Michael Flynn, was on video cozying up to Putin, and was forced to resign after it was reported that he reassured the Russian ambassador that the Trump regime would lift sanctions imposed by the Obama administration over election interference. Two other Trump aides, Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, had strange ties and contacts with Russians during the campaign, and one of them is doing time in jail today for lying to the feds about it.
Now we know that Trump's personal lawyer was secretly negotiating with the Kremlin for a Moscow Trump Tower development, even as the candidate was fawning over Vladimir Putin on the campaign trail like a moonstruck schoolgirl.
Whether or not what Trump did was technically illegal is beside the point. Trump lied to the American people about all of it -- and the Kremlin knew he lied. It's easy to imagine that Trump's good friend Vladimir Putin may have reminded him about that in those private meetings they like so much. It's not as sexy as some of the other rumored kompromat, but it's got teeth.
Trump canceled his scheduled meeting with Putin at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires this weekend. The White House has said this was because of the recent skirmishes between Russia and Ukraine. More likely Trump just didn't want to face Putin. All this was supposed to be their little secret.
In Emily Jane Fox's latest story about Cohen, she describes him getting into his car outside the courthouse on Thursday as a skateboarder rides by and shouts, “Yo! That’s Michael Cohen. You’re gonna take down Trump!” Maybe if Trump had shown just a little more loyalty to his consigliere he wouldn't be in this position. No one with Trump's ethics should ever turn his lawyer into his enemy.
Heather Digby Parton
Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism. MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton
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