America truly is a great country. A land of endless opportunity. Where else could a confessed shyster like Michael Cohen be transformed into a defender of our democracy and a hero, or at least a prophet, of our fourth turning?
To say nothing of becoming a podcaster.
In his previous book, Disloyal—and his various testimonies and appearances—Cohen sought to warn us about the “narcissistic, insane” Donald Trump, his former law client, and how the country should not make the mistake he made of following him until it was too late.
We didn’t listen, he notes, and got the January 6 insurrection. So now, in his new book, Revenge, he takes up a larger mission: to show how Trump was able to bend and corrupt the institutions of government because they were already rotting from the inside.
Cohen’s is one of several new books from inside the administration that capture the centrality of Trump to all manner of disaster and dysfunction—a conclusion that also prompted the January 6th committee on Thursday to subpoena Trump to explain his role in the insurrection. “None of this would have happened without him,” explained the vice chair, Liz Cheney of Wyoming. “He was personally and substantially involved in all of it.”
To which Michael Cohen’s book has more or less already said, I told you so. His specific illustration is, as his book’s subtitle explains, “how Donald Trump weaponized the U.S. Department of Justice against his critics,” most particularly one Michael Cohen.
Having pleaded guilty to funneling hush money to the porn star Stormy Daniels, Cohen could be seen as an unreliable witness. But here he argues that this was precisely Trump’s intention: to paint him as unreliable so all he knew from more than 10 years of working with Trump and the Trump Organization would be discounted.
Indeed, one reason the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, has declined to prosecute Trump for his business practices is his concern that Cohen would be a problematic witness. “I have testified, before Congress, about the danger Donald Trump represents. It was ignored,” Cohen writes. “I am again sounding the warning alarm, this time about the Department of Justice. I beg you to listen while there is still time to save our democracy.”
The heart of Cohen’s claim is that Trump’s Justice Department first prosecuted him with excessive zeal and then kept him locked up far longer than others who had committed similar offenses. Cohen brought in a journalist, Brian Karem, and filed reams of Freedom of Information Act requests to try to find the strings he believes Trump was pulling. “According to our sources at the DOJ Trump was preparing to toss me under the bus months before my office and home were raided,” he writes. “And I was culled from the Trump herd in order to spare the corrupt leader.”
Where else but America could a confessed shyster like Michael Cohen be transformed into a defender of our democracy and a prophet of our fourth turning?
Cohen is hardly the first to observe that the normal operations of justice put enormous power in the hands of prosecutors. He describes how they broke him by giving him 48 hours to agree to a plea deal or face indictment with his wife, who had signed their tax returns. To avoid implicating his wife, he admitted to tax evasion, which he still insists he did not commit, joining a long list of people, disproportionately those of color, who say they have been unduly pressured into guilty pleas by the justice system.
Cohen acknowledges that it is hard to distinguish Trump-inspired persecution from the work of zealous prosecutors who believed they were doing their jobs and wanted to “flip” him against Trump. But when the pressure continued after he did flip, he says he saw the hand of Trump clearly. “After I began my government cooperation, his campaign of disinformation turned on me,” he writes, “because I knew the truth about him and he knew I wouldn’t hesitate to tell everybody the deepest truth; our way of life is threatened by Donald Trump.”
When the pandemic swept through the prison system, Cohen was given early release to home confinement. But then the Federal Bureau of Prisons asked him to sign an agreement promising not to publish his book (which, of course, was about Trump) or go on social media, both things he was doing. When he didn’t immediately sign, they threw him back in Otisville until a judge ordered his release, saying that in all his years on the bench he had never seen a confinement agreement like the one Cohen was pressured to sign.
It would be easy to dismiss Cohen as a man made mad and paranoid by excessive exposure to the Trump phenomenon. Easy, but likely wrong—because his claims bear such resemblance to the tales told by two others who passed through the Trump whirlwind.
The first is the man who brought the prosecution against Cohen, Geoffrey Berman, formerly the United States attorney in Manhattan. In his newly published memoir, Holding the Line, Berman writes that the Justice Department was constantly pressuring him and his staff to bring cases for political purposes. Berman did not include the handling of the Cohen case in this list. Cohen argues it fits.
Michael Cohen’s claims bear resemblance to the tales told by two others who passed through the Trump whirlwind.
Equally resonant is the story of Gordon Sondland, a hotelier who spent years as a Republican donor and bundler in hope of getting the ambassadorship that, at long last, Trump gave him. In The Envoy, Sondland admits he had qualms about this pact with the, well, you know who. He was a Jeb Bush kind of guy, not a Donald Trump kind of guy, he says. But he plunged ahead as Trump’s ambassador to the E.U., only to get caught up in an out-of-channels effort by Trump to use the State Department to pressure Ukraine for political ends.
Sondland became a key witness to a “quid pro quo” in which the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, would get already approved military aid and an invite to the White House in exchange for an investigation into why a Ukrainian energy company gave a board seat to Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
Democrats impeached Trump for this, but Republicans in the Senate refused to convict him. Two days later, Sondland was booted. “I got fired for testifying truthfully at Trump’s impeachment hearing,” Sondland writes. He quotes Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, as telling him something along the lines of: “People around here aren’t too happy about what you did.”
Sondland describes the same miasma as Cohen does in identifying exactly which people Kushner was referring to. The president told a senator it was actually the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who fired Sondland. Sondland wonders if Trump told him to, or even if Kushner told Trump that Sondland should be fired.
In the end, neither Cohen nor Sondland can find that smoking gun in the hands of Trump himself. But what they both convincingly capture is how, under Trump, two of the oldest departments of the government, State and Justice, were deformed from their proper process to serve the president’s political needs.
Oh, and by the way, Cohen’s podcast is called Mea Culpa. It pleases him that it shares his initials. Only in America, to paraphrase Cindy Adams. Only in America.
To hear Michael Oreskes reveal more about his story, listen to him on AIR MAIL’s Morning Meeting podcast
Michael Oreskes is a co-author of The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country—and Why It Can Again