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Michael Cohen and the Devil in the Details

What happens when you devote your life to a scoundrel dedicated to no one but himself

Michael Cohen

Michael Cohen, longtime personal lawyer and confidante for President Donald Trump, arrives at the United States District Court Southern District of New York on April 26, 2018 in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

My writer friend Gail, who lives in London but is fluent in all things American, has been closely following our daily travails. We’re in touch often, sharing our mutual, grim, and often bleakly funny stories about Trump here and Brexit there.

Wednesday, just before Michael Cohen began his testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, she messaged me that she had just realized what Cohen was. Summoning her expert command of Yiddish, she decided Cohen was a schnorrer. That’s a follower, a hanger on, a mooch whose neediness verges on pathetic.

He was Trump’s wannabe Mini-Me, a lawyer who was one of the big man’s mob enforcers, someone who told Congress he had made threats on Trump’s behalf  “probably” 500 times, bullying everyone from contractors to journalists to schools Trump attended—just in case their grade transcripts disproved that Trump wasn’t the brilliant student he claims to have been. In Trump’s case it gives a whole new meaning to “petty criminal.”

But then, for Cohen, it all fell apart. He was indicted for tax and campaign finance fraud, his files, tapes, and various ephemera were seized. He was sentenced to prison. And he began to spill the beans.

Lo, when the gavel came down Wednesday and Cohen spoke, the schnorrer became a truthteller. His motives may not have been 100 percent pure, but he came out swinging, describing Trump as a racist, con man, and cheat, and showing up with hard evidence—canceled checks, letters, and financial statements that put the lie to several of the president’s claims.

With every name Cohen uttered, a new avenue of investigation opened. He may not know much about Trump and Russia but as a former fixer he sure knows about many of the things forensic accountants are doubtless pursuing on behalf of both the Mueller probe and the investigations of the Southern District of New York. He even seemed to think there might not be a tax audit on Trump’s IRS returns, the excuse our dissembling president has used to avoid releasing his taxes and revealing various financial skullduggeries.

Cohen’s now a man with nothing to lose. And a lot to gain, especially when it comes to restoring some shred of dignity to a life ill led. He had tried to be a tough-talking wise guy emulating a scoundrel and in his calamitous fall discovered what happens when you devote your life to a man dedicated to no one but himself.

Cohen admitted that in the past he had lied to Congress but was now contrite, the former crumb now exhibit A for the potential of redemption. This, of course, drove the Republicans on the Oversight Committee crazy.

Led by Freedom Caucus leaders Mark Meadows (N.C.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio), the right-wing cohort frothed at the mouth, blew great clouds of smoke, and repeatedly maligned Cohen’s admittedly spotty character, behaving like gremlins tearing at the wings of an airplane in flight.

But as experienced prosecutors like to point out, crimes conceived in hell aren’t witnessed by angels. And as Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland said, thanking Cohen for maintaining his composure in the face of the Republican assault: “Our colleagues are not upset because you lied to Congress for the president. They’re upset because you stopped lying to Congress for the president.”

Nor could the GOP members muster any effective defense of their president or directly counter Cohen’s accusations. A “senior House Republican who requested anonymity to speak frankly” told Rachel Bade of the Washington Post: “Truthfully, it is tough to ignore some of the gross immoral behavior by the president. The reason there was no defense is because there is no defense.”

When it was all over Wednesday, Cohen no longer seemed a schnorrer. Instead, he oddly reminded me of Howard Prince, the not-so-nice, nebbish cashier and bookie played by Woody Allen in The Front, the great 1976 movie directed by Martin Ritt and written by my friend and colleague Walter Bernstein. 

Prince agrees to pose as a writer, fronting for a group of blacklisted TV scribes struggling to survive in the McCarthy era.  He’s an in-it-for-the-money, I-stick-my-neck-out for-nobody kind of guy who finally gets a conscience. Prince winds up telling the Freedom Caucus-like know-nothings on the House Un-American Activities Committee that he won’t recognize their right to ask him stupid questions, then suggests they do something I believe is anatomically impossible.

Like the fictional Prince, Cohen is headed for jail. And also like Prince, he got his back up at the GOP members of the committee and told Jim Jordan off. “Shame on you, Mr. Jordan,” Cohen said, when the congressman went after him yet again. “I made mistakes, I own them... I pled guilty and I am going to be going to prison.”

Then he warned the committee and the rest of us: “My loyalty to Mr. Trump has cost me everything,” Cohen said. “I will not sit back, say nothing and allow him to do the same to the country.”

“Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 that there will never be a peaceful transition of power, and this is why I agreed to appear before you today... I pray the country does not make the same mistakes I have made.”

Committee Chair Elijah Cummings (Md.) chose to look beyond Cohen’s crimes and declared his claims of contrition a cautionary tale. “I don’t know why this is happening for you,” Cummings said. “But it’s my hope that a small part of it is for our country to be better. If I hear you correctly, it sounds like you’re crying out for a new normal—for us getting back to normal. It sounds to me like you want to make sure that our democracy stays intact.”

Meanwhile, a world away in Hanoi, Donald Trump attacked Cohen as a liar. The president was in Vietnam meeting once again with his love letter-writing man crush, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

For once, Trump demonstrated that he actually could walk away from a bad deal, even one that was largely of his own making. But in the process he yet again repeatedly fawned over the murderous Kim, head of a country the U.N. has declared guilty of “systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations.” 

Trump said he would take “at his word” Kim’s claim that he had known nothing about the imprisonment and torture of American student Otto Warmbier who died of brain damage shortly after his return to the United States. He even called Kim “a great leader.”

Neediness verging on the pathetic. So who’s the schnorrer now?

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Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship

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