Michael Cohen and the Manhattan DA’s Trump probe: It’s complicated.
- Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg can’t seem to get enough of Michael Cohen.
- Trump’s fixer-turned-critic has met weekly with prosecutors probing Trump’s finances.
- It wasn’t always so cozy. We track the ups and downs of Cohen’s 3-year relationship with the probe.
For at least a month, witnesses in New York’s criminal inquiry into the finances of Donald Trump have been quietly meeting with prosecutors, driving unseen in and out of a lower Manhattan office building through a guarded, gated service entrance.
But not Michael Cohen.
Cohen — once a senior Trump Organization executive, then Trump’s personal lawyer for his first year in the White House, and ever since a bitter, continual critic — uses the front door.
“I refuse to hide,” he told Insider. “I have nothing to hide from.”
There are no security guards or obscuring metal gates when Cohen arrives for his weekly Trump probe sit-downs — just a dozen or so news cameras.
How many sit-downs? Cohen has kept a running count since the DA’s inquiry began in 2019.
“Sixteen,” he told a small group of reporters outside the DA’s offices on a Thursday morning in mid-February, declaring, before anyone had asked, the precise number of times he has answered the call of the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
—Laura Italiano (@Italiano_Laura) February 16, 2023
“They are well versed, they are well informed,” Cohen said glowingly of the probe’s prosecutors, as the cameras clicked and flashed, and as Lanny Davis, his lawyer, stood by, wearing an amused expression.
“And we just will continue to cooperate” Cohen promised, before the two went inside. “Each and every time that they ask us.”
Michael Cohen and DANY — short for the office of the District Attorney, New York county — are very much a thing these days, hot and heavy and in the public eye.
Cohen has been touting his newly rekindled relationship — he’s been meeting weekly for a month with probe prosecutors — at every chance, including on his two podcasts, on Twitter, on cable news shows, and in these mini press confabs on the DA’s own doorstep.
It wasn’t always so cozy.
Just a year ago, Manhattan’s then new district attorney, Alvin Bragg, hit the brakes on the Trump probe he’d just inherited, saying he “could not see a world” in which prosecutors would ever call Cohen — an admitted Congressional perjurer and bank fraudster — to testify before a Manhattan jury.
Cohen, in turn, told The Daily Beast he was fed up with the balky Bragg and would never cooperate with him again.
“No,” Cohen told The Daily Beast last April. “I’m not interested in any further investment of my time.”
In a universal break-up gesture that likewise played out in public, Cohen demanded his boxes of stuff back from Bragg — all of the documents and other paperwork he’d given the probe under the prior district attorney, Cy Vance. (Insider subsequently learned that what DANY gave back were copies, keeping the originals.)
Twelve months after this nasty public breakup, Cohen and DANY are having a spotlit reunion.
DANY — understandably silent about a key witness who each week toggles between giving his press corps a sound bite and dashing inside to cooperate in an inquiry that could indict a former president — has only this to say about Cohen: “No comment.”
‘I don’t ignore their calls’
To be fair, the press is hungry for news of Trump’s criminal prospects. Cohen, the only probe insider doing any talking, is merely picking up his phone when CNN, MSNBC, and a host of other news outlets, including Insider, repeatedly seek him out.
“I don’t ignore their calls,” he told Insider on Friday.
“Because the American people want to have faith and confidence in justice,” he added. “They want transparency. So that people don’t lose all hope in the system.”
And to be clear, Cohen is not giving away the store.
He has confirmed that prosecutors are looking at Trump’s role in the 2016 Stormy Daniels “hush-money” payment, a matter he has always been in the middle of, first as self-described bag-man and now again as key witness.
But he scrupulously does not detail what evidence he has been discussing with Manhattan prosecutors over the past month.
There have been four such interviews since mid-January. (Cohen’s tally becomes 17 when he includes interviews he gave prosecutors in 2019 and again in 2021, when Bragg’s predecessor, Vance, was district attorney.)
He’s especially guarded against talking about the related grand jury now hearing evidence, also in lower Manhattan.
“All that would do is help Donald,” Cohen explains of not spilling investigation details. “I’m not here to help him. Those days are long over.”
Instead, Cohen spends time in the public eye plugging his popular podcasts and best-selling books, including his most recent: “Revenge: How Donald Trump Weaponized the Department of Justice Against His Critics.”
He takes frequent shots at Trump, and seems to enjoy teasing that he knows far, far more than he can say.
“I don’t think it looks good for the former guy at all,” he said, remaining vague, during his most recent MSNBC appearance, about the chance that Trump will be indicted.
“Soon,” he tweeted days later, when one of his 585,000 followers asked when an indictment will drop.
“I’m not teasing,” he told Insider Friday, his hackles up again. “I’m stating a fact, to the extent that I can without revealing anything that would cause pause to the DA.”
On, off, and on again
Above all, Cohen seems to be enjoying that his three-year, roller-coaster relationship with DANY has gotten serious once more, just like in its heady, early days, in the spring of 2019, after Cohen’s explosive, televised Congressional testimony against the then-sitting president.
Cohen called Trump a “conman” who routinely lied about his worth to banks. He implicated Trump in the hush money scheme. And he produced signed checks and other financial documents backing both claims.
“He asked me to pay off an adult film star with whom he had an affair,” Cohen told the House Oversight Committee, “and to lie about it to his wife, which I did,”
Cohen’s 2019 testimony launched a fleet of federal and New York subpoenas to Trump’s company, banks, and accountants.
Both the Manhattan DA’s office and New York Attorney General Letitia James have cited the testimony as the catalyst for their parallel Trump inquiries. Some 900,000 subpoenaed documents later, James’ probe has led to a massive financial fraud lawsuit, to be tried in October, that seeks to permanently bar the Trump family from doing business in New York.
Soon after Cohen’s testimony, then-DA Vance sent teams of prosecutors to interview him three times at his prison in upstate New York. The early probe was code-named “The Fixer” in homage to Cohen’s nickname and importance.
The relationship cooled for more than a year, as prosecutors battled in court with Trump’s lawyers over evidence subpoenas, and, in 2020, as a pandemic brought the inquiry to a near standstill.
But Cohen and DANY picked up where they’d left off in early 2021.
After 10 more interviews, and with corroborating documentation newly in hand, Vance decided that Cohen would make a compelling witness, as former prosecutor Mark Pomerantz revealed this month in his tell-all book, “People vs. Donald Trump,” his account of spending much of 2021 leading the probe.
“I thought Cohen was telling the truth, and what he told us had been corroborated,” Pomerantz wrote. “I thought Cohen had liabilities as a witness, but virtually all cooperators have liabilities.”
The perjury conviction was certainly a liability. Cohen had minimized Trump’s involvement during the 2016 campaign in a failed deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. But Cohen convincingly argued he’d only done so to protect Trump, and at Trump’s direction, Pomerantz wrote.
More of a liability, ultimately, was this: “Dealing with Cohen was like dealing with an explosive device,” Pomerantz wrote.
“He could go off at any moment. He had already proved that it was difficult, if not completely impossible, to get him to stop talking to the press.”
When Cohen came in for his first in-person interview with Pomerantz, on March 19, 2021, “the press was there,” he wrote, “waiting to take pictures of him arriving at our office.”
By Bragg’s third week on the job, Susan Hoffinger, the new investigations chief, interrupted Pomerantz as he started to detail Cohen’s potential financial fraud testimony against Trump.
Hoffinger brought out her phone, “to play a recording of one of Cohen’s recent media appearances,” Pomerantz recalled, in which he “crowed about his importance as a witness in the case.”
By Bragg’s sixth week on the job, the new DA, who’d never even met Cohen, told Pomerantz he “could not see a world” in which Cohen could be called as a DA witness.
But that was then. Cohen is now very much in Bragg’s world.
The DA appears to have come to terms, after all, with his cautiously garrulous key witness.
And Cohen has become Bragg’s biggest cheer leader, telling MSNBC’s Joy Reid, “We have to give the guy a little room.”
“Alvin Bragg is operating at Alvin Bragg’s pace,” Cohen told MSNBC on another appearance, after that 16th meeting.
“It’s his office. At the end of the day, he’s either going to get the accolades or the jeers.”
Next week’s tete-a-tete — not that he’s confirming — would be sit-down number 18.
“The district attorney, and the team, I find them to be incredibly, incredibly competent and decent people,” Cohen told Insider.
“And all they want is truth. And they want proper justice.”