It's been clear for some time that Michael Cohen is the most irritating thorn in President's Trump's side. Even though he's suspected of colluding with the Russian government, his approval rating remains mired in the low 40s at best and he's facing the prospect of losing at least one house of congress by January of next year, he's always appeared to be most concerned about his former lawyer's legal predicament and what that means for him.
When the warrants to search Cohen's office and residence were first issued back in May, Trump flipped his lid in an infamous tirade for he TV cameras in front of the cabinet:
Trump on raid of Michael Cohen: "It's an attack on our country in a true sense. It's an attack on what we all stand for." pic.twitter.com/6aKs0A5Y3k
It was another of his frequent "l'etat c'est moi" moments in which he equates any actions against him personally with attacks on the United States of America. And ever since that happened Trump has seemed more off-balance than usual, bouncing frenetically all over the globe, trying desperately to change the subject whenever it comes up.
We don't know what Cohen really has on Trump but it's pretty clear that there is more to their relationship than what we'v e seen. And what we've seen is damning.
On Tuesday night Cohen's lawyer and PR adviser gave CNN a tape of Cohen and Trump discussion the payment of hush money in the case of Karen McDougal, one of the women who claims to have had an affair with Donald Trump shortly after his current wife Melania gave birth to their son Barron.(The other is adult film actress Stormy Daniels.) When Trump got the nomination for president McDougal decided to tell her story and Trump, through his fixer Cohen, apparently arranged to have his friend David Pecker publisher of the National Enquirer buy her story for six figures and never publish it. The tape reveals what sounds like Trump and Cohen talking about how to reimburse Pecker for his troubles .
Rudy Giuliani, Trump's lawyer, suggested to Fox News host Laura Ingraham on Tuesday night that Trump said, "Don’t pay with cash" and insisted, "I don't think anyone can suggest this [the recording] represents anything where the president did anything wrong." Cohen's lawyer Danis disagreed. He said, "listen to the tape, everyone. This is not a man shocked when Mr. Cohen said, we have to make payments."
The chatter in the aftermath was all about what was said and what was meant by the "cash vs check" part of the conversation. But the real issue is that statement by Davis. Trump was clearly not shocked by the subject of hush money being paid through a third party (allegedly American Media, the publisher of the National Enquirer) to one of his former mistresses. In years gone by this alone would have sounded the death knell for a presidency solely on political grounds but Trump's voters don't care at all about his womanizing ways or the fact that he paid money to keep his mistresses quiet. Perhaps they believe that's another example of his stable genius at work.
However, there are laws against someone paying hush money when they are running for office if they don't properly report the expenditure. And there are laws against evading banking reporting requirements such as those that caught up former House Speaker Dennis Hastert when he was paying hush money to a former student whom he abused when he was a high school wrestling coach. The tenor of the taped conversation between Trump and Cohen clearly indicated that they knew they were doing something that was not on the up and up.
As Amanda Marcotte pointed out back in January, the most obvious parallel to the Trump payoff scheme is the John Edwards case in which the former Senator and Vice Presidential candidate was tried on felony charges of making illegal, unreported campaign contributions through some wealthy donors to pay for his mistress during his presidential run in 2008. He was acquitted on one charge, the jury was unable to agree on five others and the Justice department decided not to retry the case. Cohen's lawyer Davis brought up the Edwards case himself to MSNBC's Katy Tur, so it's definitely something that's on Cohen's radar.
According to experts in campaign law, this case is much stronger than the Edwards case because of one thing: Michael Cohen. Ken Dilanian at NBC news spoke to Brett Kappel, a campaign finance expert with Akerman LLP. He said that he people who made the payments to Edwards' mistress, Rielle Hunter, over the course of two years all claimed that their motive was to spare Edwards' wife who was dying of cancer. The Trump payoff arrangements came much closer to the election. One of the participants appears to be ready to testify that that it was not about sparing personal embarrassment.There is at least one other woman who was paid off in the same period. And there are tapes.
Cohen seems poised to come clean. He is angry at Trump who, by all accounts, always treated him like a lackey and has been dismissive of him during his troubles, balking at paying legal fees and otherwise distancing himself publicly. More importantly, Cohen knows he is big trouble and that he going to have to save himself. It's quite obvious that he's going to cooperate.
It's unclear why he and Davis think it's in their best interest to go public but there seems to be a lot of maneuvering around the attorney client privilege issue so perhaps they know something we don't. Nonetheless this is looking like a big problem for Trump. And the fact that he's been acting even crazier than usual ever since Cohen was served with that search warrant lends credence to the idea that he knows Cohen has something very valuable to trade with the federal government.
Lanny Davis sent him a message on Tuesday night:
Cohen is trying to reset his life as not being Donald Trump's bullet-taker, or worse, a punching bag for Donald Trump's defense strategy where he takes the bullets. This is a turn for him. It's a new resolve to tell the truth no matter what, even if it endangers him. He has more truth to tell. It's unclear the impact of that truth but he has more to tell.
On Wednesday the White House took the unprecedented step of banning the reporter who was assigned to cover a Rose Garden event because she asked about the Cohen tapes. Trump must be very upset. I wonder why?