IT ALL BEGAN with a sign. In 2007 Michael Cohen was living in a Trump-branded property in New York. The building’s board of directors wanted to remove the Trump name from the tower. Mr Cohen organised his fellow residents into a resistance movement. The directors were ousted, the Trump branding stayed, and Mr Cohen, then a lowly lawyer at the Trump Organisation on a salary of $75,000 a year, was made an offer he could not refuse. Would he like to become an executive vice-president and special counsel to Donald Trump, with a salary of $500,000 a year? Yes he would.
That decision led Mr Cohen to become personal lawyer to the president of the United States and, ultimately, to be sentenced to three years in prison on December 12th, for crimes ranging from tax evasion to lying to Congress. It would have been longer had Mr Cohen not proved helpful to the special counsel, Robert Mueller, in his investigation into links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Mr Cohen’s tale reads like the American dream as told by a Russian novelist. His father, Maurice, was thrown in a Soviet gulag and, after he was released, emigrated to Canada, where he became a surgeon. His father-in-law also emigrated from the Soviet Union to begin a new life in the West. Mr Cohen junior’s entanglement with the Russian state was of a different nature.
Throughout the 2016 Republican primaries he was trying to negotiate the building of a Trump Tower in Moscow, even swapping messages, through an intermediary, with Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. He lied about this to give the impression that the project died before the Iowa caucuses in February 2016, when actually it continued until shortly before the nominating convention in Cleveland. And Mr Cohen did so, under oath and before Congress, to protect his boss and patron.
He lied about other things too, for more self-interested reasons. Court documents revealed that he understated his income by $4m between 2012 and 2016. Much of that came from hustles made possible by his salary boost from the Trump Organisation. He bought taxi medallions on credit and leased them out. His cost of borrowing was 5% a year; he collected at 12%. He made a $30,000 turn on a rare French handbag (The Economist speculates that it was a Birkin). The IRS was kept in the dark. While Mr Cohen was lowballing the feds, he was exaggerating his wealth on loan applications to banks, disclosing his income but not all his debts, which is another crime.
Mr Cohen’s loyalty to Mr Trump also led him to break campaign-finance law. Faced with the prospect of several women going public with stories about affairs with the candidate in 2016, Mr Cohen organised payments and favourable deals to buy their silence. Because this was done to help Mr Trump with the Republican Party’s “values” voters, prosecutors argued that the payments amounted to an undisclosed campaign donation. When it all came out, Mr Cohen insisted that he had done it on his own initiative, a fib that Mr Trump later exposed. Such betrayal helps explain why Mr Cohen turned witness.
At his zenith, Mr Cohen was not just the president’s personal lawyer but a deputy national finance chairman of the Republican National Committee. He dabbled in political consultancy, promising insight into, and access to, the president. He raked in millions of dollars; the clients got little in return, other than a feeling of being near power. It had taken him ten years from accepting that first, unmissable, offer from Mr Trump to get there. It all turned to dust in a little over ten months.