He tested the presidential waters for Donald Trump and then served as a campaign guard dog, threatening a reporter that he would “mess your life up.” Before long, he was swept up in the questions swirling around the administration and Russia.
Michael Cohen, an integral part of Trump world for a decade, says he’s preparing to testify before the House intelligence committee on Sept. 5 about its investigation into Moscow’s interference in the U.S. election -- and he’s already fighting back.
“The liberal media has painfully learned that they cannot get under the skin of Donald Trump,” he said in an interview. “To continue this fake Russian narrative, they attack anyone and everyone who is close to the president who knows someone who has a connection to or is involved in any way shape or form to someone from the former Soviet Union. I still cannot figure out why they are obsessing over my relationships that existed in the Ukraine when the Ukraine and Russia are two separate countries who presently don’t even get along.”
For those who suspect that the Trump campaign and the Kremlin colluded, Cohen offers an alluring target. New York business filings list him as an officer of two family financial companies in Ukraine incorporated in 1998, and he and his younger brother were directors of International Ethanol of Ukraine, according to 2006 filings. Cohen visited Georgia in 2010 with the aim of building either a Trump hotel or residential tower on the Black Sea. His wife of 23 years is of Ukrainian extraction, he was long involved with a Ukrainian businessman in the rough-and-tumble New York City taxicab business and he was named in an uncorroborated dossier about Russian interference compiled by a former British spy.
Read more: Unwinding the Twists, Turns in Trump-Russia Probe: QuickTake Q&A
Cohen has been quick and absolute in his denial of any inappropriate activity. He said his role in all three companies was to file legal paperwork for family members; none of the businesses got off the ground. And after the spy dossier was published, including a claim he had gone to Prague to meet a Russian, he tweeted a photo of his passport and said he’d never been to Prague.
Cohen, 50, resembles his boss with his in-your-face style, legions of Twitter followers and real estate deal-making history (he says he personally owns 115 apartments in New York City). For years, he held the title of special counsel to Trump. Today, he’s Trump’s “personal lawyer,” separate from White House counsel and from attorneys, including Marc Kasowitz, Trump has hired to handle Russia inquiries. To those who know the Trump cast of characters, Cohen fits a pattern.
“There’s a definite type that Trump has been drawn to through the years, and they’re people who share his kind of street sensibility,” said Marc Fisher, co-author of the recent biography “Trump Revealed” and senior editor at the Washington Post. “He likes tough guys, he likes people who he thinks shoot from the gut and are direct and don’t hold back in any way.”
Family Ties to Ukraine
Cohen grew up on Long Island and has the accent to prove it; after American University in Washington, and law school at Western Michigan University, he returned to New York to practice law. He married into a Ukrainian family and began buying taxi medallions. By 2003, campaigning for New York City Council, Cohen listed his occupation as “Businessman, Attorney and Community Activist” and ran a fleet of more than 200 taxis, according to a voter guide. (He lost.)
Cabs were a good investment: Legal filings in a contractual dispute with his long-time partner, a polo-playing Ukrainian émigré named Simon Garber, show that he and his wife were pulling in $90,000 a month from their medallions in 2011. Other ventures weren’t as lucrative, like an unsuccessful $1.5 million investment in a Miami gambling cruise boat.
His enthusiasm for high-end real estate brought him to Trump. Over the years, Cohen and his family have owned apartments in Trump World Tower near the United Nations, as well as in Trump Palace on 69th Street and Trump Park Avenue. Trump’s oldest son, Donald Jr., recommended Cohen to his father after getting to know him through his investments, Cohen told The Real Deal in February.
Cohen joined Trump on the upswing, as “The Apprentice” was turning the developer of troubled Atlantic City casinos into a world-wide reality TV phenomenon. His title at the Trump Organization was executive vice president and special counsel, and he served on the boards of the Miss Universe Organization and Trump Productions, as well as the Eric Trump Foundation. His legal work in-house hasn’t left much of a trace in the public record. But he has played a very public role in promoting Trump as a politician.
Cohen scouted in Iowa for Trump in 2011, and started a website to drum up interest in yet another makeover for the political candidate. He defended even his boss’s most controversial utterances in the 2016 race, including the suggestion that Mexicans crossing the border were “rapists.” Cohen called that “potentially and partially true.”
Not long after, he threatened a Daily Beast reporter trying to get a comment for a story about rape allegations Trump’s first wife, Ivana, made during their divorce and later retracted: “You write a story that has Mr. Trump’s name in it, with the word ‘rape,’ and I’m going to mess your life up ... for as long as you’re on this frickin’ planet ... you’re going to have judgments against you, so much money, you’ll never know how to get out from underneath it,” the Daily Beast quoted him as saying.
Cohen later partially apologized. In the interview with Bloomberg, he elaborated: “I apologized for my inarticulate statement, but I didn’t apologize for my reaction to a query that is disgraceful. I have tremendous admiration and affection for Mr. Trump and the family. To accuse him of such a heinous act was nothing more than a feeble attempt to malign his good name, reputation and thwart his presidential ambition. Clearly, it did not work.”
In February, The New York Times linked Cohen to a proposed peace plan for Ukraine aimed at getting the U.S. to lift sanctions against Moscow. The plan involved leasing Crimea to Russia for 100 years and was developed by Trump business associate Felix Sater and Ukrainian legislator Andrii Artemenko. The paper said Cohen delivered the proposal to the office of Michael Flynn’s, days before the former national security adviser was forced to resign over his own Russia contacts. Cohen says this account is wrong. He said he suggested in a brief encounter with Artemenko that Flynn might be an appropriate conduit, but he himself never read the proposal or delivered it to anyone.
At the end of May, he said House and Senate investigators requested that he voluntarily provide information to Congress on Russia. He refused, saying the whole issue was fake. After he was subpoenaed, he said he would cooperate.
The Russia cloud has not prevented Cohen from capitalizing on his Trump ties. In April, the law firm Squire Patton Boggs announced a strategic alliance with Michael D. Cohen & Associates, to continue building a “pre-eminent global public-policy offering.” Also in April, the Republican National Committee announced Cohen’s appointment as one of three new national deputy finance chairmen.
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