Even while doting on "Mr. Trump," as he called his boss, Michael Cohen was squarely focused on his own ambitions.
NEW YORK — At first, Michael Cohen appeared indifferent as he listened to the group of Republican leaders urge his boss to run for governor.
It was the fall of 2013, and Donald Trump was already fixated on “the big thing,” as he referred to running for president. But the Republicans knew they were getting somewhere when Trump signaled to his attorney that he wanted more talks.
“So Michael,” Trump would say, “you get us a date on the calendar.”
Soon enough, no one in the billionaire’s coterie was more enthusiastic than Cohen about the prospect of a Governor Trump. Albany, Cohen believed, was a great opportunity not only for his boss but also, as it happened, for himself.
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After the meetings, Cohen would adjourn to his office at Trump Tower to plan next steps with Michael Caputo, the Republican strategist plotting Trump’s gubernatorial campaign. But Cohen surprised Caputo by talking about his own political aspirations. He told Caputo he had always wanted to run for mayor of New York City, a race he said he could win if Trump was governor.
At one point, Cohen floated the idea of a Trump-Cohen statewide ticket, an idea Caputo considered as absurd as Cohen running for mayor. “He kept bringing it up,” Caputo said. “It went from Michael Cohen interested in running for mayor to, well, ‘I’ll run for lieutenant governor under Donald Trump.’ I didn’t want to disabuse him of it, because he was our liaison. I felt like, ‘Yeah, OK Michael.’ “
In his decade at the center of Trump’s inner circle, Cohen styled himself as the tycoon’s pugnacious man Friday, an indefatigable loyalist who aped his boss’ husky-voiced bluster. In Cohen, Trump found a fellow New Yorker who had also grown up at the city’s suburban edges, a one-man cheering section who hailed Trump as an infallible “patriarch” worthy of protection “at all costs.”
Yet, even while doting on “Mr. Trump,” as he called his boss, Cohen was squarely focused on his own ambitions. Trump was Cohen’s ticket to greater wealth, TV appearances and Page Six, the New York Post’s daily serving of intel about Manhattan’s jet set. Theirs was a relationship Cohen could boast about to anyone he encountered, including childhood friends from Long Island, some of whom said they did not expect him to amount to anything extraordinary.
Now, as he prepares to testify before two congressional committees this month and faces a three-year prison sentence beginning in March, Cohen finds himself repeatedly denigrated by the man he publicly revered. Trump was Cohen’s potential pathway to prestigious new titles: mayor, congressman, even White House chief of staff. After Trump’s election, as he waited for a Washington job that never came, Cohen sold himself to corporations as a direct line to the new president.
“He didn’t care about Trump,” said Evgeny “Gene” Freidman, who for a time managed Cohen’s 32 valuable taxi medallions. “Yes, he called him ‘Mr. Trump.’ But what he cared about was his business card that said, ‘Personal attorney to Donald Trump.’ “
Cohen, 52, who declined to be interviewed for this report, pleaded guilty last year to tax evasion, lying to Congress and violating campaign finance laws by making hush-money payments to two women who threatened to publicize their alleged affairs with Trump.
Cohen has said “blind loyalty” drove him to break the law and lie on President Trump’s behalf. Yet, when asked in an ABC News interview to explain the roots of his loyalty, he said, “I do not know the answer.”
The president’s allies have questioned the authenticity of Cohen’s fealty, as have federal prosecutors, who asserted in court papers that he was driven by “ambition and greed” and “relished the status of ultimate fixer.”
Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and now one of the president’s attorneys, said Cohen’s claim to loyalty is undermined by his decision to secretly record a phone call with Trump while serving as his lawyer.
“It’s almost like committing murder for a lawyer to violate the attorney-client privilege in such a blatant way,” said Giuliani, whose own credibility has been questioned after he made several misstatements in defense of the president. “Never heard of a lawyer doing that. That’s the part I find most shocking.”
Long before Cohen turned on the president, questions about his trustworthiness had percolated among Trump’s advisers. Before the first meeting about the New York governor’s race, Caputo said Roger Stone, then Trump’s political adviser, warned him that Cohen was “mercurial — you don’t want to get on his bad side. He can’t be trusted.”
Cohen’s talk of running for mayor roiled members of Trump’s inner circle. Sam Nunberg, another Trump adviser at the time, was angered to learn from a Republican operative that Cohen had raised the subject with Ed Cox, chairman of New York’s GOP.
According to Nunberg, Cox was flabbergasted that Cohen had spoken of his own political aspirations at the start of a discussion meant to be about Trump’s gubernatorial campaign. Cox declined to comment on what he called a private conversation.
“Cohen was always trying to use Trump to better himself,” Nunberg said. “Cohen was about Cohen.”
On their senior yearbook pages, Cohen’s classmates at Woodmere Academy, an exclusive Long Island private school, quoted luminaries such as Joni Mitchell, Garry Trudeau and Langston Hughes.
Cohen, unsmiling in his portrait, chose a passage by Henry David Thoreau. “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” it began. Cohen did not credit the author.
Cohen grew up in Lawrence, New York, surrounded by prosperous lawyers, doctors and business executives. His mother, Sondra, was a nurse. His father, Maurice, a surgeon, was born in Poland in 1935 and survived the “gulags of Siberia,” according to a letter he wrote to the judge who sentenced his son.
The parking lot at Woodmere Academy resembled a “foreign-car dealership” because so many students drove imports, said Aron Yagoda, a student at the time. Cohen’s classmates remember him as an average student who was gregarious and worked as a DJ at parties.
Classmate Brian Levenstein described Cohen’s clique as the “upper echelon of Woodmere.”
“To be friends with him, you had to be like him, you had to dress like him,” he said.
As a teen, Cohen worked at Camp Stanley, a weight-loss retreat in the Catskill Mountains north of New York City. Cohen also was a lifeguard at the El Caribe Country Club in south Brooklyn. The camp and club were owned by Cohen’s uncle, Morty Levine.
On a Tuesday afternoon in late January, Levine, 84, sat in a chair in the waiting room of the Brooklyn office where he has practiced medicine since the 1970s. Ever since the mess with his nephew started, Levine said, he has struggled to sleep through the night.
“People look at me and ask, ‘Is everything OK?’ It has taken a toll on all of us,” Levine said, meaning Cohen’s parents, three siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins.
Until Cohen settled into adulthood, Levine loomed large in the life of his nephew, who, in a brief text to a reporter, described the doctor as “more like a brother than an uncle.”
“I was somebody everyone wanted to be,” said Levine, the brother of Cohen’s mother. “I was well built, very handsome, athletic and extremely smart. He had someone to emulate.”
Levine owned hotels, restaurants, real estate, summer camps and a fleet of cars that included a Bentley, a Lexus and Cadillacs. It was a lifestyle — wealth, an appetite for luxury and a predilection for self-promotion — that Cohen would later find on a larger scale in Trump.
“Meet Dr. Morton W. Levine — Your secret weapon against fat!” boasted an ad featuring the smiling doctor that appeared in newspapers and magazines in the early 1980s. The promotion was for a diet formula that Levine claimed “worked for over 10,000 of my patients.” (He now acknowledges his math may have been driven more by salesmanship than fact).
“Wherever his Uncle Morty was, that’s where you’d find Michael,” said Chris Sabatino, who worked at Camp Stanley and the El Caribe. He described the teenage Cohen as a “smartass with a twinkle in his eye. The same guy you see on television. Nothing has changed.”
Over the years, the El Caribe has hosted a cross section of New York life — families from Brooklyn, high-school proms, Democratic and Republican organizations, a panoply of religious groups, and Italian and Russian mobsters, some of whom were also Levine’s patients.
“I was ‘il dottore de tutti de capos,’ ” Levine said. “I was in a neighborhood with a lot of Italian families. You treat the mother, the father. They recommend you.”
One patient, he said, was Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso, a Lucchese crime-family underboss whose bomb-resistant waterfront mansion the doctor briefly owned in the early 1990s. And mob boss John Gotti, Levine said, hosted a huge Christmas bash in 1988 at the El Caribe. “Gotti was a great guy,” Levine said. “So was ‘Gaspipe.’ “
Levine said he did not know whether his nephew interacted with mobsters at the El Caribe. But Cohen’s friends say he emulated the gangsters’ style, even into adulthood. “He wished he was in ‘Goodfellas,’ ” said Greg Ehrlich, whose wedding Cohen attended in the early 2000s. “I’d say: ‘You’re Jewish. Why are you wearing a pinkie ring like a gangster?’ “
Cohen saw less of his uncle after moving to Washington to attend American University, though Levine said he helped him start a foreign-car importing business at the time. After college, Cohen enrolled at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, which the National Advisory Council for Law School Transparency has ranked as among the country’s least selective. A classmate, Greg Crockett, said Cohen drove a “beautiful Jaguar convertible” — a gift from his uncle — and helped friends “through the worst of times by telling a joke.”
“He’d say, ‘What do you call the lawyer with a 2.0 grade-point average?’ ” Crockett said. “You call them ‘counselor’ because they’re a lawyer. Who cares what their GPA is?”
By the mid-1990s, Cohen was back in New York and engaged to Laura Shusterman, who grew up in Queens, daughter of a wealthy Ukrainian businessman who in 1993 pleaded guilty to fraud.
In 1994, Cohen’s uncle attended their wedding at the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue. By then, Levine said he no longer spoke regularly with his nephew, who was working as a personal-injury lawyer and juggling “five phones.”
“Every time I’d call, he was too busy to talk,” Levine said. “Once he became involved with Trump, Trump became his mentor.”
Real estate and Trump
One day in late 2012, Tom Allon, then an owner of Avenue Magazine, a glossy chronicle of the ever-fabulous, answered his telephone and heard a familiar voice, thick and nasal:
“Mr. Trump is really mad at you.”
Cohen was calling to inform Allon that his boss did not appreciate being excluded from Avenue’s list of the 200 most influential New Yorkers. Nor was Trump pleased that his wife, Melania, was not included among the city’s 25 sexiest women.
As Trump’s special counsel, Cohen had a diverse portfolio. One day he was pushing a Trump golf-course deal in California. On another, he was flying to Iowa on a Trump jet to float the boss’s name as a presidential possibility. Every day was another opportunity to make a public show of his loyalty.
“If somebody does something Mr. Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr. Trump’s benefit,” Cohen told ABC News in 2011. “If you do something wrong, I’m going to come at you, grab you by the neck and I’m not going to let you go until I’m finished.”
Cohen loved to show off his ties to Trump — even at one of his son’s baseball games, where he ran into Melissa Solomon, an elementary-school classmate.
Cohen told her that he was working for Trump and that Trump had attended his son’s bar mitzvah. He flipped through the photos on his phone to show her one of himself posing with contestants at a Trump beauty pageant.
“He was very proud,” Solomon said.
In the decade before he worked for the tycoon, Cohen built his law practice and invested in myriad business ventures, including taxi medallions and, like Trump, legalized gambling. He put up $1.5 million to join a partnership that purchased a Florida casino boat. It failed.
Cohen dove into New York’s real-estate market. He bought a $1 million condo in Trump World Tower near the United Nations, where his parents and in-laws also purchased apartments. Four years later, he spent $5 million to buy into Trump Park Avenue, where Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, owned condos. In 2014, Cohen sold four Manhattan buildings for $32 million, three times what he had paid several years earlier.
But Cohen also wanted a public platform. In 2003, he ran for the New York City Council as a Republican, pitching himself as a casino-owning “community activist.” He lost by more than 40 percentage points.
The next year, he attended a fundraiser for then-Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Democrat, in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Cohen posed for a photo with Kennedy and another attendee, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, a picture he would later show off in a tweet: “#tbt being received by two great Americans.”
“It was an opportunity to say he went to the Kennedy compound,” said Ehrlich, who co-chaired the fundraiser. “And he loved the Clintons. They were like rock stars. Michael was always a climber. He wanted to be the guy.”
A couple of years later, Cohen gloated over new photos — of himself and Donald Trump, whom he had gotten to know by defending the developer during a fight for control of the condominium board at Trump World Tower.
“Check out the attachment of me with the ‘Donald,’ ” Cohen wrote in a 2006 email to Gene Freidman, who managed his taxi medallions. The following year, Trump hired Cohen as a $500,000-a-year in-house counsel.
Freidman’s control of hundreds of medallions, the permits required to operate cabs, earned him the nickname “Taxi King.” He pleaded guilty last year to a reduced charge of tax fraud. Freidman declined to comment on speculation that he cooperated with prosecutors probing Cohen.
Freidman, in an interview over steaks at an Upper East Side tavern, declined to say what he told prosecutors about Cohen, whom he described as “one of the sweetest people you’d ever meet.”
Recounting their years as friends and business associates, he said Cohen was the image of a swashbuckling high-roller, driving around Manhattan in a Bentley, frequenting trendy restaurants with as much as $10,000 in cash in his pocket and a permitted pistol strapped to his ankle.
Freidman described Cohen as a man of quirks, such as obsessively wiping down his silverware at restaurants for fear of germs. He recalled Cohen often referring to himself as an “orphan” because of a distant relationship with his parents. And Freidman said Cohen was prone to moments of unrestrained boastfulness, such as when he tweeted a photo of his oldest child in black lingerie and wrote, “So proud of my Ivy League daughter … brains and beauty channeling her inner Edie Sedgwick.”
Once, during a dinner with Cohen and his wife, Laura, Freidman said Cohen bragged that he had pushed aside the doctor during their son’s birth and delivered the baby himself, a claim that Laura, at the table that night, dismissed as untrue.
“And he says, ‘Shut up — you weren’t even there,’ ” Freidman said. “That’s Michael.”
There are, Freidman said, “two Michaels.” One is extraordinarily generous to friends, the kind of guy who not only recommends a doctor or lawyer but who would “schedule the appointment and drive you there.”
When Freidman’s marriage was breaking up, he said, Cohen helped him sublet a $15,000-a-month apartment that Ivanka Trump and Kushner owned in the same Park Avenue building where Cohen lived.
The “other Michael,” Freidman said, would sometimes scream at people with such force “it was like he had Tourette’s … He’d put my secretaries and my lawyers in tears. I’d have to apologize to them for him and say he wasn’t really that way. He gets in that role, like he’s impersonating tough guys he saw in a movie.”
In September 2017, Michael Caputo was in Miami when he read an interview with Cohen, who by then was at the center of the federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
“I’m the guy who would take a bullet for the president,” Cohen told Vanity Fair. “I’d never walk away.”
Caputo showed the article to his friend Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney in Florida, who recalled replying: “This guy is going to be one of the first guys who rolls over and turns on President Trump. [Cohen] doth protest too much.”
The prospect of Cohen betraying Trump seemed unthinkable during the presidential race, when he served as a reliably combative surrogate. Cohen pushed back, for example, when reporters challenged Trump’s claim that “thousands” of Muslims had cheered the World Trade Center’s collapse.
“Mr. Trump’s memory is fantastic,” Cohen told CNN in 2015. “I have never come across a situation where Mr. Trump has said something that’s not accurate.”
But by the next summer, Giuliani said, Cohen “seemed like the odd man out.” Trump’s top political advisers agreed “that Michael shouldn’t be part of it.”
“Each one of them went to Donald and said, ‘We’ve got to keep this guy off television,’ ” Giuliani said. “Every time he goes on, it looks like we have a gangster working for us.”
At the time, Cohen still had notions of becoming New York’s mayor, as he told Allon, the magazine owner. He also made no secret that he hoped to get a White House appointment.
The president never offered him a position.
Nunberg said Trump’s decision to exclude Cohen helped guarantee that he would turn against the president. “Why didn’t he give Michael a stupid job at the EOB [Eisenhower Executive Office Building] and let him twiddle his thumbs?” Nunberg asked. “You’re not going to get undying loyalty if you’re not loyal yourself.”
Last April, the FBI raided Cohen’s office, apartment and hotel room. Three months later, he told ABC News that his family had his “first loyalty and always will.” Later that month, he released the recording he had secretly made of Trump discussing hush-money payments.
“What kind of lawyer would tape a client?” Trump tweeted from the White House. “So sad!”
‘The way he was’
The afternoon light fading outside his office window, Levine thought about his nephew, about “the way he was.”
“The old Michael, not the new Michael,” he said. “Friendly. Reasonable. Humble. Athletic. Would do anybody a favor. Wasn’t a braggart. That’s the one I remember.”
The doctor recalled sitting at the same table as Trump at the bar mitzvah of Michael’s son, Jake. Trump posed for photographs and signed autographs. At one point, he picked up Levine’s granddaughter and danced with her.
It’s part of the reason Levine felt good about voting for Trump in 2016.
“He’s a fantastic individual; he’s very warmhearted,” Levine said. “I should hate him because he screwed my nephew. Of course he did. But that’s part of life. I’d still vote for him.”
His nephew, he said, “should have said, ‘I know nothing.’ “
Across town, Cohen prepared for his prison term, which begins March 6. He remains largely secluded but for occasional sightings, dutifully reported by Page Six — at the restaurant Le Bilboquet, after pleading guilty; at Elio’s, where diners gave him a standing ovation.
“One hope I have,” he told ABC in December, “I will be remembered in history as helping to bring this country together.”
A business executive who ate breakfast with him a few weeks earlier said that Cohen’s eyes were “glazed” and that he seemed “downcast.”
Cohen said he was keeping two journals, according to the executive, who declined to be named to discuss a private conversation.
One journal was to document his experience. The other, his dreams.
“You have a book in you,” the executive said.
“Not one book,” Cohen replied. “Two books.”