Why is Michael Cohen scared to testify? Because he flipped on the boss — wouldn't you be?

Cohen is on his way to federal prison. Trump and Giuliani have threatened him repeatedly. Just do the math

By Heather Digby Parton


Published January 27, 2019 6:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump; Michael Cohen (AP/Getty/Photo montage by Salon)
Donald Trump; Michael Cohen (AP/Getty/Photo montage by Salon)

Another week ended with yet another indictment of a close Donald Trump associate. I'm not sure what number we're up to by now, but the way it's going we'll be in double digits before too long.

Roger Stone has been a close friend and confidant of the current president for decades. He's been known as a master of dirty tricks for even longer than that, having been involved in nefarious Republican political activities since the 1970s. With his arrest on Friday for obstruction of justice, witness tampering and lying to the authorities about his possible coordination with WikiLeaks, Stone provides the direct through-line between the corruption of Richard Nixon and the presidency of Donald Trump.

I wouldn't expect him to "flip," as mobsters and the president call it. You can be sure that Stone seeks to be the G. Gordon Liddy of the Russia scandal -- the loyalist who never broke omertà. Liddy ended up doing more time than anyone.

Former Trump Organization executive vice president Michael Cohen, on the other hand, is doing everything he can to reinvent himself as this scandal's John Dean, and it's tying him up in knots. Nixon may have talked like a mob boss at times in private. But Trump's background suggests that he is much closer to actually being one.

Cohen's saga took yet another turn this past week as the president's onetime personal lawyer withdrew his offer to testify before the House Oversight Committee as planned. He had reportedly been troubled by the veiled threats coming from the White House that "someone" should "look into" Cohen's wife and her father, but then Cohen's family became very upset after a CNN appearance by Rudy Giuliani, Trump's current lawyer, last Sunday in which he came right out and claimed that Cohen's father-in-law is a criminal.

Giuliani went on to claim that Cohen himself was involved with his father-in-law's alleged crimes, apparently not realizing that if this were true it would cast some doubt on his own client's business dealings. After all, Cohen worked right down the hall from Donald Trump for more than 10 years as a high-ranking executive in his company.

Most former prosecutors were appalled by Giuliani's comments (and well as various others this week), since they seemed to provide yet another obvious example of obstruction of justice. Giuliani's story about Cohen being afraid to testify about his father-in-law sounded like another way of telling Cohen to keep his mouth shut if he doesn't want something to happen to his family. These suspicions of witness intimidation were not allayed by the president, who said this on Wednesday that Cohen has "been threatened by the truth. He doesn't want to tell the truth from me or other of his clients. I assume he has other clients than me."

Unless he's talking about Sean Hannity and Elliott Broidy -- who, according to the federal court, were Cohen's only other clients -- Trump is clearly suggesting that these "other clients" are the alleged organized crime figures associated with Cohen's wife and in-laws.

Most of the analysis of these exchanges has indicated that Cohen was rattled by these threats because it sounded as if Trump were issuing an order to the Department of Justice, or perhaps his minions in the Senate, to go after Cohen's family. Since Trump's Attorney General-designate, William Barr, is on record saying he thinks it's fine for a president to ask for investigations -- and new Senate Judiciary Committee chair Lindsey Graham is champing at the bit to deliver some blowback on his patron's behalf -- that's probably a legitimate worry.

Cohen's attorney, Lanny Davis, said late last week that he also fears vigilante justice, citing the August 2017 violence in Charlottesville as an example of the kind of people who might take it upon themselves to hurt Cohen or his family. I suspect that thought goes through the mind of anyone who is perceived as a threat to Trump, especially after all those mail bombs were sent to news organizations, Democratic politicians and liberal celebrities last fall.

Davis brought up something else that I suspect is much more real, and which one can assume Cohen would take seriously. This was Thursday morning on MSNBC:

When the president of the United States, and it's amazing I'm about to say this, calls somebody who tells the truth a "rat" and then praises people who are refusing to tell the truth, you are sending a signal of lawlessness from the highest office in our country. So Mr. Cohen is concerned that when you're labeled a rat, and you're in federal prison, there could be some danger from other people.

We have recently seen a high-profile example of that very thing happening to notorious mobster Whitey Bulger, who was beaten to death in prison because he was an FBI informant -- that is, a "rat" -- for decades. Plenty of people in federal prison might want to make a name for themselves by doing harm to Trump's No. 1 enemy. More important, there are probably people in organized crime who might think that getting rid of Cohen would be doing a Trump a solid. Trump himself has done business with the mob for years, after all, both domestic and foreign. He's practically one of them.

Trump famously said that he turned down reality-show opportunities for years before producers devised the game-show format for "The Apprentice":

I don’t want to have cameras all over my office, dealing with contractors, politicians, mobsters and everyone else I have to deal with in my business. You know, mobsters don’t like, as they’re talking to me, having cameras all over the room. It would play well on television, but it doesn’t play well with them.

This might be one of those rare cases where Donald Trump is telling the truth.

There may well be forthcoming information about Russian organized crime connections in the Mueller report, but it has always surprised me that more attention isn't paid to this aspect of Trump's past. It's pretty clear that he's been connected to organized crime since at least the 1970s when he hooked up with his infamous mentor Roy Cohn, who at the time was representing leaders of the Genovese crime family during a federal racketeering investigation.

It's well documented that Trump was "connected" both as a builder in New York, where many of the construction trades were infiltrated by the mob, and then in Atlantic City, where he ran casinos. In more recent years his real estate ventures have resembled vast money laundering operations, mostly for the benefit of criminals with foreign origins.

There's a lot there. The late journalist Wayne Barrett wrote a book called "The Deals and the Downfall" that delved into this in detail. Journalists David Cay Johnston, Chris Frates of CNN and Jeff Stein of Newsweek, among others, have all done in-depth reporting on the issue.  Politifact even did a fact check on this when Ted Cruz accused Trump of having mafia links -- and rated the claim "true."

We don't know exactly why Cohen is suddenly balking at testifying. It might have nothing to do with these threats and relate to some other aspect of his defense strategy. But he will end up before Congress anyway. On Thursday, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued him a subpoena and his lawyer says he has accepted it. House committees have suggested they will follow suit. Whether any of this testimony will happen in public, before the cameras, remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Cohen is getting ready to go to prison in March. Whether or not Trump and Giuliani were actually threatening him, Cohen has good reason to be looking over his shoulder. His fellow inmates may not realize that these two powerful men who talk like a couple of made guys on TV were just speaking metaphorically.  Somebody who doesn't know better might just take them at their word.

By 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.

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