The New York Times is out with a front-page story today on Michael Cohen, Trump’s consigliere and personal attorney.
The article makes the point that Cohen has been sidelined because he’s been caught up in the Russia inquiry. He apparently was expecting to land a senior administration post in the White House, but nothing ever came of it.
But the article raises another point: What did Michael Cohen do at the Trump Organization?
He has declined to discuss the details of what he did at the company, and the Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment. Some people who worked with him also declined to describe Mr. Cohen’s tenure, with several of them saying they feared being sued.
Whatever Cohen did, he wasn’t just reviewing contracts and documents. If you fear being sued for discussing Cohen’s job at the Trump Organization, something else was going on.
From May 2007 to the present, Cohen served as an executive vice president and special counsel to the Trump Organization, according to his LinkedIn profile. He was and is unquestioningly loyal to his boss. Despite the attention he attracts from the Russia inquiry, Cohen remains Trump’s personal attorney.
Cohen is slated to appear before the House intelligence committee in its investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia. Cohen’s name appeared in a dossier prepared by former British MI6 officer Christopher Steele. The dossier stated that Cohen served as an intermediary between Trump and Russian operatives and Kremlin officials. Cohen has denied these links.
While the dossier may have gotten the details of Cohen’s meetings in Prague wrong, it may have struck upon a deeper truth: namely, that Cohen did serve as an intermediary between Trump and the unsavory characters the Donald encountered in his business.
Before joining forces with Trump, Cohen was involved in the New York City taxi business, set up businesses in the Ukraine, invested in a gambling cruise with a pair of Ukrainians, and he once deposited a $350,000 check from a Russian hockey player that he can’t explain and doesn’t remember receiving.
These ventures, reported by Buzzfeed’s Anthony Cormier who has been doggedly investigating Cohen, all have an unsavory element. When asked about them, Cohen offers blanket denials, which he walks back when confronted with documents. But the unsavory elements in Cohen’s past obviously did not prevent him from getting a job with Trump; instead they may have helped him land it.
Every Mafia family has a consigliere. He (and it’s always a he) is a counselor to the boss, advising him on political relationships. He is traditionally not a member of the family and his role as an outsider is seen as allowing him to provide objective advice. Cohen may have played a similar role in the Trump Organization.
A search of news archives shows that Cohen appears mostly in the press as a Trump spokesman. In the 2012 campaign, Cohen launched a “Should Donald Run?” campaign. He later defended Trump in the press from charges that he had fraudulently bilked students out of thousands of dollars in the scam known as Trump University. He is known for threatening reporters with lawsuits.
A few instances, however, offer a clue as to what Cohen’s job involved.
After he joined up with Trump, Cohen’s name first surfaced in a batch of articles about EnCap, a plan to build a golf course on New Jersey landfill. One article about an EnCap contractor arrested on money laundering charges references Cohen trying to get an attorney removed from the project. (See “EnCap contractor hauled away; Arrested in unrelated money-laundering case,” The Record, 26 January 2008)
Nothing ever came of EnCap. The state pulled the plug on the project and EnCap filed for bankruptcy the next day. Trump kept a hand in the project, nevertheless.
The U.S. Attorney’s office, then led by future New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, subpoenaed EnCap’s records. Cohen told a reporter the Trump Organization had not received a subpoena but he seemed to have insight into what exactly what interested investigators. (See “Feds Subpoena EnCap; Billing Records Sought,” The Record, 19 June 2008)
Cohen said those investigators appear to be focusing, in part, on the critical time frame from 2000 to 2005, when he said many key decisions were being negotiated.
“That’s when all the deals were cut,” he said, referring in part to the favorable loans from the Department of Environmental Protection and the Environmental Infrastructure Trust.
Another set of articles involve Cohen’s 2010 visit to Adjara in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. “Cohen has come to Adjara as he is interested in the investment climate in the region,” an article in the Black Sea Press. “Namely, Michael Cohen paid his attention to the ‘Project of Future’ which envisaged construction of comfortable hotels, entertaining complexes, modern buildings in Batumi.”
Trump signed up for a $250 million deal to build a 47-story residential tower in the Georgian Black Sea resort of Batumi, Work halted when Georgia’s then President Mikheil Saakashvili was ousted and fled in exile. His successor, Bidzina Ivanishvili, told reporters, “Trump did not invest in Georgia. It was kind of like a trick. They gave him money and they both played along, Saakashvili and Trump.” Construction eventually resumed, but Trump formally pulled out of the project shortly after his election to avoid what the Trump Organization said were conflicts of interest.
Trump pursued these kinds of deals with shady characters, whether in New Jersey or further away in places like Georgia or Azerbaijan. The potential rewards were huge. So were the risks. He needed a tough, loyal outsider like Cohen to figure out who the players were, what were the risks, and how exposed Trump would be if the whole thing went sideways.
That’s a consigliere.