Michael Cohen’s Revenge

It tells you something about the perpetual motion of Donald Trump’s never-ending scandals that Revenge: How Donald Trump Weaponized the US Department of Justice Against His Critics by Michael Cohen (his one-time fixer and bag man) was written during spring and summer in 2022, rushed into print in September, and now, in mid-October, the book is hot off the press and doesn’t mention a word about the purloined letters and classified national security documents that washed up in a Mar-a-Lago pool room.

In this book the scandal du jour is the $130,000 hush-money payment that Cohen made, on behalf of Trump, to the porn star and apprentice paramour Stormy Daniels (her non-stage name is Stephanie Cliffords) so that word of a Trump-Daniels romp at a 2006 golf tournament might not cloud voters’ judgments of candidate Trump during the 2016 presidential election (when the electorate was already weighing the pros and cons of pussy grabbing).

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Ever faithful to his patron—until he became The Trump Fall Guy and headed off to prison—Cohen went along with the spin doctoring and said that he had paid off Stormy from the goodness of his heart, using his own money, and that the hush payment had no connection to the Trump presidential campaign (which otherwise might be seen in violation of campaign finance laws, at least those that say how and where candidates can pay off a troublesome porn star).

During the 2016 presidential campaign, no word came out about the Daniels-Trump condom-less encounter. As Cohen writes in Revenge: “Donald Trump ran for the presidency seeking to make money. The campaign was designed to be the greatest infomercial in the history of politics and to increase the value of the Trump brand. I know. I was there. I helped orchestrate it.”

Then, against all odds, the cable guy was elected, and no sooner was he in office than his presidency turned into a bizarre sitcom and crime-scene investigation that mixed the genres of Dallas and The Americans, with dialogue that sounded like Archie Bunker or The Sopranos.

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In the first season (2017), Trump’s attorney general Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III recused himself from any Trump-in-Russia investigations and appointed as a Special Counsel Robert Mueller, an ex-FBI director and Dick Tracy look-a-like.

While rounding up the usual Trump suspects (Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, General Michael Flynn, etc.), Mueller came to the conclusion that after colluding with Russians and other lowlifes during the campaign, Trump obstructed justice and broke numerous laws, but that it was up to Congress to collar a sitting president.

Meanwhile, Trump fired Attorney General Sessions and replaced him with his own bought cop, William Barr, who read the Mueller Report with rose-colored glasses and—without a trial or sleepless night—cleared Trump of all its allegations (“Keep moving, folks. There’s nothing here to see…”).

At the same time, Mueller had come across kopromat about in-house Trump organization attorney and fix-it man Cohen, who in short order was sent up the river to a federal correctional institution in Otisville, New York, where he would be taught new life skills so that once out of prison he would stop spontaneously paying off his boss’s mistresses.

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Revenge is largely a memoir—of the federal and state charges brought against Cohen, his copping a plea deal, his unfair sentencing, his time in prison, and his encounters with the justice system (or as he would say, the “injustice” system that Donald Trump manipulated to silence one of his boys who was now singing to the feds and other gumshoes going after TrumpWorld).

Actually the “revenge” in the title refers not to Cohen’s vindictiveness toward his former boss, but to his perception that the Trump presidency and Justice Department operated to settle scores as if part of a mafia state. Cohen writes:

There are investigators inside the government who spoke with us for this book who believe the same thing. These investigators—who work in New York and Washington either for the State of New York or the U.S. Department of justice—all told me the exact same thing: (1) Donald Trump manipulated the system to go after me, and (2) he wouldn’t have had the success he had unless there was a pre-existing problem inside the Department of Justice.

Cohen tells the story of his fall from grace to illustrate the extent to which the Trump presidency weaponized the Justice Department to take down Donald’s enemies (Cohen among them), and he predicts that new Trump bodyguards (the sycophantic likes of representatives Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan) will fall into the same black hole that consumes anyone who thinks that they can put lipstick on the porcine Trump.

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Cohen also uses his own case to highlight the inequities in the criminal justice system (in particular, he thinks that the adjudication of plea deals is a sham, and plea deals are what resolve a large majority of criminal cases). In some instances his collaborator on this book interviews some of the prosecutors who put Cohen away.

While advancing criminal justice reforms, the overall narrative voice of Cohen’s text is that of an aggrieved New Yorker, telling his story in, say, a bowling ally, prone to using “shit”and “fuck” in his breathless, if engaging, account.

His tone isn’t exactly that of Marlon Bardo in On the Waterfront (“I coulda been a contender…”) or Robert De Niro playing Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas (“Look what this fucking mutt did to my shoes…”), but it doesn’t always match the style of a white paper on sentencing reform.

Here, for example, is what Cohen says about the Steele Dossier, the oppo research that the 2016 Clinton campaign sourced in Russia to prove that Trump was a Manchurian candidate. As it turned out, the bill of goods that Michael Steele sold to Hillary and the Democrats for $168,000 was a collection of half-baked innuendos and golden-shower rumors, nearly all of which Cohen says were false (while he says there was a lot of truth, which the feckless Steele overlooked, about how the Russians had other hooks into Trump’s soul).

Steele missed with Trump but he brought down Cohen, who writes:

As the shitstorm got underway, I simply couldn’t believe the questions and smarmy insinuations based on the Steele report that were thrown at me by reporters and journalists of every stripe. Did I travel to Prague? Did I meet with Russian oligarchs and act as a go-between for Putin in Russia and Trump in the United States? Did I hack the Clinton server? Did I hack the DNC computer? Did I pay off Russians to clean up Paul Manafort’s mess? Did my family own a dacha in Sochi directly next door to Vladimir Putin’s house?

It wasn’t just patently absurd; it was fucking ridiculous.

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Influenced partly by Steele’s rumor mongering, Special Counsel Robert Mueller tipped off Southern District federal prosecutors in New York that Cohen was a wiseguy who ought to be brought in for questioning.

In the next instant, the feds had raided his home and offices, audited the books of his taxi medallion company, and pushed him up against a metaphorical wall, saying they would indict Cohen and his wife in the next 48 hours if he didn’t plead guilty to a variety of charges, including tax evasion and making an excessive and illegal campaign contribution (to one Donald J. Trump, in the form having paid off his goomah).

Cohen describes the takedown from the inside:

When it was found out that I wasn’t the encyclopedia of Donald Trump and the raid the government conducted on my home, apartment, law office and safety deposit box came up with tens of thousands of pages of useless information—I was prosecuted anyway. It was inevitable for two reasons that led to the perfect storm: First, Donald Trump wanted it and, secondly, he used the Justice Department’s inherent flaws to make it happen.

Cohen continues:

Finally, as for the Russia stuff—as we now know by others who were in Trump’s orbit, including Stephanie Grisham—Trump was indeed Putin’s puppet. But I wasn’t. Never had been and wouldn’t be. And I never dreamed prosecutors would go after me for some of the things I was accused of doing. Sure, I paid off Stormy Daniels. But that doesn’t make me Sammy the Bull Gravano to Trump’s John Gotti. Trump isn’t that smart and I’m not Sammy. I dealt with campaign issues. We stiffed contractors. I fixed an CNBC poll to assuage Trump’s fragile ego. I paid off Stormy Daniels—for Donald Trump. So, yes, I paid off a porn star so my employer and Republican presidential candidate could avoid embarrassment and destroy the little hope everyone had in the general election. Those are the shitty things I did. Trump may have sold out his country, because Trump has no loyalty to anyone but himself. He doesn’t care what happens to any of us. I was stupid for hitching myself to that wagon—but it’s a far cry from messing over a bunch of contractors to being a traitor to your country.

Cohen also quotes a legal scholar on the obvious flaw in his prosecution:

Most will say, as did Mark Zaid, a nationally known attorney who deals with free speech constitutional claims and government accountability: “It is inconceivable to me that you would prosecute Michael Cohen for committing a crime and not prosecute the man who instructed him to do so.”

So far, however, Donald Trump has proved that it pays to suborn witnesses, obstruct justice, tamper with federal elections, sexually abuse women, defraud banks, cook corporate books, lie to Congress, shortchange the IRS, steal classified documents, and plot sedition.

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It’s probably a little rich to speak of Michael Cohen as a political prisoner, as one of his lawyers does; at the same time, it was in the service of presidential politics—not justice—that he was sentenced to three years in prison, just as it is thanks to the invisibility cloak of his political career that Donald Trump is not doing time in the big house for crimes ranging from sexual assault to high treason.

Nevertheless, the most evocative writing in Revenge concerns Cohen’s time in Otisville, a prison in upstate New York west of Newburgh, where one of his fellow inmates was Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino from the TV show Jersey Shore.

Comparing his own situation to that of “The Sitch,” Cohen writes:

“The Sitch” pled guilty to just one count of tax evasion. Three different years of tax returns for him yielded one charge. I had five different years that led to five charges. He didn’t pay taxes on $8.9 million in income. He didn’t even file tax returns. I filed, and on time, and paid what I was told by my accountant was due on my income. I just underpaid by $1.39 million.

He received an eight-month sentence. I received thirty-six.

Clearly, on life’s Monopoly board, Palm Beach is worth more than the Jersey Shore.

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Although Otisville is branded as a minimum security prison, where escape is no more complicated than calling an Uber, Cohen’s description of his jail time is complete with prisoner disputes, terrible food, rats, and loneliness (he read 97 books in the year there), although nothing is more discouraging than his account of how the president takes his revenge when he learns that Cohen is soon to publish a memoir (Disloyal) about his years propping up the Trump house of cards.

At that point, in summer 2020, during the worst of the pandemic, Cohen had been released early to home confinement. Prisons such as Otisville were superspreader joints, and it was decided that Cohen could serve out the remainder of his stretch at home while wearing an ankle bracelet. But as soon as he was home and asked to come in for “a fitting”, the Trump Justice Department (William Barr, presiding) revoked Cohen’s get-out-of-jail card and threw him back into Otisville, this time in solitary confinement. Quoting one of his lawyers, Danya Perry, Cohen describes the situation:

“Very quickly I saw that the government had over-reached,” Danya told us for this book. “A first year law student could see it.” And Danya also saw the taint and stench of Donald Trump in the case. “At the end of the day I’m certain it went to the highest levels and given the open borders between the DOJ and the White House—Donald Trump went out of his way to threaten and ridicule Michael Cohen. It would surprise me if he weren’t aware of this.”

(By the way, she was right—I would later hear from reporters and others that members of Trump’s inner circle bragged about putting me back in prison.)

She filed a writ of habeas corpus and an emergency restraining order.

Cohen finally gets home, and concludes: “If you get nothing else from what I’m writing here, understand it plain and clear: Justice in the United States is an illusion unavailable to most of us.”

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It was while he was doing time in Otisville that Cohen began cooperating with a number of Trump criminal investigations—notably those of Mueller, the Manhattan District Attorney, and the New York State Attorney General—but none of these efforts resulted in Cohen earning credit toward an earlier release from his electronic ball and chain.

Throughout Revenge, one of the subtexts is that Cohen was railroaded (by the threat to indict his wife) into making a plea deal rather than fight the government at trial, even though he still insists his only crime was the campaign contribution violation of paying off Stormy Daniels (at the clear instruction of his don).

Instead of fighting that charge and others, most having to do with income tax, Cohen decided to fold his legal hand without knowing exactly how much time he would have to serve in prison. He writes: “Donald Trump once famously said ‘only suckers’ pay taxes. Is that justice? Can he get away with that while the rest of us are dealt with differently? Hell, when I was forced to sign a plea deal I had never even been served a letter from the IRS claiming I owed money. Worse, I wasn’t even told how much I owed when I pleaded. It was like signing a blank check and being forced into prison to boot.” (So why take that deal? As an attorney, Cohen seems on surer ground as an attack dog than a defense lawyer.)

Likewise, when Cohen copped his plea, he admitted that he had lied to Congress (what Trump official has not?) when he said that Trump had no business dealings in Russia during the 2016 election year.

Again, it was the candidate (not his made man) who didn’t want the election world to know that Trump had suggested making a gift of $50 million (in the form of a free penthouse) to Vladimir Putin if the Russian government were to give the Trump Organization sweetheart terms to build one of its gilded towers in Moscow.

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After repenting his sins of commission (in TrumpWorld they run to about thirty percent, plus expenses), Cohen would like us to believe that his was among the early voices equating Trump’s politics with a renewal of fascism. (The book ends: “We must recognize that Trumpism is fascism. We must destroy it and erase [it] from our body politic.”) Not being a political theorist, Cohen never goes into the finer points differentiating Trump’s primetime fascism from that of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, or Francisco Franco. From his descriptions, however, Trump sounds more like a Bensonhurst mob boss (waging turf wars and ordering hits) than the founder of a modern political ideology.

Beyond wanting to drive a stake through the heart of Trump’s MAGA political movement, Cohen does not speculate on the chances of a Trump resurgimiento (it works with the fascist angle) in 2024, or whether a 2023 Republican majority of election deniers in Congress would spell the end of American democracy. It’s worth consideration—maybe in another Cohen book, one perhaps entitled Doomsday?

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Trump was willing to launch an attack on the Capitol, lie under oath, threaten public officials with execution (“Hang Mike Pence!”), seditiously arm insurrectionists, watch passively while members of the D.C. Capitol Police were killed, and march a phalanx of counterfeit electors—all wearing Trump buttons passed around by Willard Hotel co-conspirators Roger Stone and Steve Bannon—into the Electoral College. Why should we expect any better of the Trump gang in 2024?

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.