Michael Cohen was sending a very clear message from the moment he hopped out of a black SUV in front of the New York courthouse where he was to be sentenced for a series of crimes he pleaded guilty to earlier this year: I’m the real victim here.
Cohen, somber, walked into the courthouse surrounded by his family — including his daughter, who was using a crutch after a recent surgery. Guy Petrillo, Cohen’s lawyer, said that his client “had the misfortune to have been counsel to the President.”
Last month, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal counts including tax fraud, false statements to a bank and breaking campaign finance law in coordinating with President Donald Trump to keep secret a set of hush money payments in the run-up to the 2016 election to two women for alleging they had affairs with Trump.
And when Cohen had a chance to address the sentencing judge personally, he sought to drive home the idea that he had been personally victimized by Trump. “This may seem hard to believe, but today is one of the most meaningful days of my life,” Cohen said. “I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the day that I accepted the offer to work for a real estate mogul whose business acumen that I deeply admired.”
Later, he added that “it was my blind loyalty to this man that led me to take a path of darkness instead of light. I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds.”
Here’s the thing: Up until this summer — Cohen copped a plea deal in August — he has been among this least sympathetic of all the figures in this story. Cohen was the toughest-talking, most aggressive Trump defender at any cost out there.
“They say I’m Mr. Trump’s pit bull, that I’m his right-hand man,” Cohen said back in 2011. “I’ve been called many different things around [The Trump Organization]. What I am is a loyal employee. I like the man. A lot.”
“I will do anything to protect Mr. Trump,” he pledged in 2017.
“I’m the guy who would take a bullet for the President,” he once told Vanity Fair. “I’d never walk away.”
Cohen’s about-face during his trial was explained by a very simple human response: Survival. He had watched as his home, office and hotel were raided by federal agents in the spring. Thousands of texts, emails and other documents had been collected in those raids.
Trump, sensing danger, tried to send Cohen a message to stay strong via a series of tweets:
“The New York Times and a third rate reporter named Maggie Haberman, known as a Crooked H flunkie who I don’t speak to and have nothing to do with, are going out of their way to destroy Michael Cohen and his relationship with me in the hope that he will ‘flip,’ ” Trump tweeted. ‘They use non-existent ‘sources’ and a drunk/drugged up loser who hates Michael, a fine person with a wonderful family. Michael is a businessman for his own account/lawyer who I have always liked & respected. Most people will flip if the Government lets them out of trouble, even if it means lying or making up stories. Sorry, I don’t see Michael doing that despite the horrible Witch Hunt and the dishonest media!”
And for a time, it worked! Cohen stayed quiet. But as spring turned to summer, it became very clear — to Cohen, at least — that the feds had him red-handed.
Suddenly, Cohen was a totally changed man. He hired Lanny Davis, a onetime confidant of the Clintons, to represent him. Davis cast Cohen’s change of heart as a “declaration of independence” from Trump. (Cohen made his first comments suggesting that he was no longer Trump’s most loyal foot soldier in a July 2 interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.)
That attempt to spin Cohen as a well-meaning stooge of a man who manipulated him for sport might have made the former Trump fixer a more sympathetic figure for those who loathe the President.
But it left Judge William Pauley cold.
Pauley was blunt on Wednesday, saying, “Mr. Cohen pled guilty to a veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct.” And then he sentenced Cohen to three years in prison.
Cohen is the fourth person to be sentenced to jail as a result of the special counsel investigation led by Robert Mueller. (Mueller referred the Cohen case to the Southern District of New York.) The broad conclusion from those four cases is that the judicial system is not willing to accept the idea that everyone was a hapless victim here, or that no one really knew that they were doing anything but following orders.
All of which should send a chilling message to those still under Mueller’s gaze as he — presumably — enters the final stages of issuing his report.