April 11, 2018 10:13:33 AM
NEW YORK -- For more than a decade, Michael Cohen has been President Donald Trump's private attorney -- and so much more. Cohen is a street-wise New Yorker with a penchant for confrontation and a cultivated reputation as Trump's outside-the-courtroom problem-solver. He's Trump's image-protector. He also says he personally paid porn actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 to buy her silence about an alleged affair with his boss.
"I will always protect my POTUS," Cohen tweeted Sunday.
A day later, the FBI raided his office and hotel room, casting a bright spotlight on the man widely regarded as Trump's fixer.
Cohen, 51, first caught Trump's eye in the early 2000s when, as a member of the condo board at a Trump property, he took it upon himself to wade into a nasty dispute between Trump's management company and some residents at a skyscraper near the United Nations.
"So Trump said, 'Who is this guy? My lawyers that I give thousands of dollars to couldn't do it. I'd like to meet him,'" said Dr. Morton Levine, Cohen's uncle.
Eager to bring on a sharp-elbowed advocate like his former lawyer, the legendary Roy Cohn, Trump turned to Cohen -- who was never just an attorney for the real estate mogul and reality TV star.
He has long been a key power center in the Trump Organization and a fixture along the edges of Trump's nascent political life. In Cohen's own estimation, he is Trump's Ray Donovan, the bruising television character who takes whatever steps are needed to fix problems for the tycoon he serves.
Cohen has regularly threatened lawsuits against those who pose a challenge to Trump. He has berated reporters for writing an unflattering word about his boss. He has worked with tabloids, including the National Enquirer, to kill unfavorable stories about Trump. And, he has said, he used a home-equity loan to finance the payment to Daniels in the final days of the 2016 campaign and did so without Trump's knowledge.
Now, Trump is furious that the FBI "broke into" his lawyer's office, acting in part on a referral from the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, looking for information about the payment to Daniels, among other things.
Trump calls Cohen "a good man" and derides Mueller's investigation as "an attack on our country." His rage is tied to Mueller's decision to cross the president's "red line" -- moving to investigate the president's business and not just allegations of collusion with Russia -- and signaled the importance of Cohen's role as a Trump consigliere.
Stressing his loyalty, Cohen has steadfastly denied wrongdoing and defended Trump. But he has confided in associates in recent weeks that he is fearful of being a fall guy, according to a person familiar with his thinking but not authorized to speak publicly about private discussions.
Cohen told CNN on Tuesday that the FBI agents were "extremely professional, courteous and respectful" but acknowledged the experience was "upsetting to say the least."
Cohen didn't follow Trump to the White House after the election, instead leveraging his influence to include a partnership with a Washington law firm and a senior position with the Republican National Committee's finance team.
Cohen has long viewed his legal career through a pragmatic rather than high-minded lens, said former Cooley Law School classmate Greg Crockett, now an attorney in Okemos, Michigan.
"What do you call a lawyer who graduated with a 2.0?" Cohen would jokingly ask, according to Crockett. "Counselor."
In the early years, Cohen practiced personal injury law, made millions in real estate, failed in a run for New York City Council and partnered with his Ukraine-born father-in-law to own a fleet of vehicles in New York City's gritty taxi cab industry. And he was a dealmaker, emerging as a key figure in trying to establish Trump-branded properties overseas, including in Russia.
During the campaign, he was involved with a plan to help the Trump Organization build a tower in Moscow and in October 2016 brought Trump a letter of intent from a Russian developer. Later, he sent an email to Russian President Vladimir Putin's chief spokesman seeking help to advance the stalled project. He said he did not recall receiving a response.
Interest in his ties to Russia only intensified in February 2017, when it was revealed that Cohen had hand-delivered a Moscow-friendly plan to settle the dispute in Ukraine to Gen. Michael Flynn, then Trump's national security adviser. Cohen later testified to Congress about the proposal and denied wrongdoing.
Cohen never worked for Trump's campaign but aided his political efforts: He set up 2012 and 2016 "Draft Trump" endeavors, helped put together Trump's diversity coalition and, despite his long-standing registration as a Democrat, threw himself into Republican fundraising.
He also used his contacts in the media, particularly in entertainment and gossip, to help cultivate Trump's image.
When Trump previously considered a White House run, Cohen worked with the National Enquirer in 2010 to promote the website ShouldTrumpRun.com and encouraged the supermarket tabloid to pursue stories questioning President Barack Obama's U.S. citizenship, two former staffers of the publication told The Associated Press.
During the 2016 campaign, Cohen served as a liaison between Trump and the Enquirer as the tabloid paid for scandalous rumors and tips about Trump that it never published. The payments included $150,000 to former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal, who said she had a nine-month affair with the Republican nominee. The magazine never ran the story, saying it paid McDougal to write fitness columns instead.
It's Cohen's role in the Daniels story that has attracted the most legal scrutiny. In 2011, Cohen threatened the magazine In Touch with a lawsuit if it published a story about the affair, nearly six years before he made the $130,000 payment. The Federal Election Commission is now investigating that payment, a transaction that puts Trump, Cohen and the people who negotiated on the adult-film star's behalf in sensitive legal territory.
Daniels' attorney, Michael Avenatti, sent letters to the Trump Organization demanding the business preserve all its records relating to the $130,000 transaction. Avenatti also enclosed an email showing Cohen had used his Trump Organization email address in correspondence with the bank that helped facilitate the payment.
"Just because something isn't true doesn't mean that it can't cause you harm or damage," Cohen said earlier this year after the payment to Daniels came to national attention. "I will always protect Mr. Trump."
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