Though Michael Cohen is often described as Trump’s personal attorney, his work for the president is far closer to that of a “fixer” than an actual legal adviser. From negotiating with corrupt bureaucrats and businesspeople in Eastern Europe to paying off porn stars with whom Trump has had affairs to keep them from revealing his infidelities to the public, Cohen has skirted ethical and legal boundaries on a variety of fronts.
In the 1990s, Cohen partnered with the New York-based Ukrainian “taxi king” Simon V. Garber, who faced millions of dollars in fines for improper business practices, and convicted of assault and criminal mischief charges. He also worked with Evgeny Freidman, another New York-based taxi baron, who also has a history of run-ins with the law. According to BuzzFeed, Freidman “was charged in 2017 with stealing $5 million that should have been paid to New York state,” an allegation he has denied. He was also accused of threatening to kill the family of one of his business partners (the judge issued a protective order in this case). The cases did not result in any convictions.
Cohen has longstanding ties to Ukraine. His father-in-law, Fima Shusterman, is a naturalized citizen from Ukraine with a long-reported history of criminal dealings. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the IRS in the 1990s. In 1993, he was convicted on charges related to money laundering along with two of his business partners. Shusterman also had ties to the Trump Organization that predate Cohen’s, reportedly “funneling money into Trump ventures” in the 1990s. In addition to two businesses incorporated in Ukraine in 1998, Cohen developed additional business ties to Ukraine through his brother, Bryan Cohen, who also married a Ukrainian woman. Both Cohen brothers worked with Bryan’s father-in-law, prominent Ukrainian businessman Alex Oronov. In February 2006, Cohen was listed as an executive of International Ethanol of Ukraine, Ltd., alongside Oronov. The company appears to have been set up in part to help secure American investments for an energy company Oronov co-owned with the Ukrainian politician and oligarch Viktor Topolov, who has close connections to organized crime. When shown the paperwork listing Cohen as a director of International Ethanol of Ukraine, he insisted he had played only a small role, had only met Topolov once on his 2006 trip to Ukraine, and did not know the details of Oronov’s connections to Topolov. Topolov has denied links to organized crime.
Topolov is not Cohen’s only connection to the Russian mob. Cohen’s uncle, Morton Levine, reportedly ran El Caribe, a Brooklyn social club and known hangout for Italian and Russian mobsters. Cohen reportedly owned a stake in this club until Trump was elected, at which time he “gave up his stake.” (Levine has denied any wrongdoing.)
Cohen continued his work on the fringes of legality when he joined the Trump Organization in 2006. He played a central role in at least three attempts to build Trump properties in the former Soviet Union. Cohen was reportedly the main force behind the Trump Organization’s now-derailed attempt to construct a tower in Batumi, Georgia, through his “dear friend” Giorgi Rtskhiladze, the head of the Silk Road Transatlantic Alliance. This organization was an offshoot of the Georgian investment fund Silk Road Group; the Silk Road Group had multiple red flags that, according to The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson, would have discouraged most American real-estate companies from partnering with it for fear of violating anti-corruption laws. Rtskhiladze and Cohen also began promoting a plan for a deal in Astana, Kazakhstan, at one point reportedly meeting with the country’s prime minister.
Perhaps most famously, Cohen, alongside his childhood friend Felix Sater, was involved with the effort to develop Trump Tower Moscow during the 2016 election campaign. While Cohen and Sater were trying to get this project off the ground, Cohen emailed Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov asking for help; Peskov has acknowledged that he received the email, but claims not to have responded.
Cohen also played a role in arranging the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow. In the summer of 2013, Cohen attended a planning dinner in Las Vegas along with Rob Goldstone, Aras Agalarov, Ike Kaveladze, and Donald Trump (Agalarov and Goldstone were both later involved in arranging the infamous June 9th, 2016 Trump Tower meeting, which Kaveladze attended.)
Cohen remained a trusted advisor through the 2016 campaign cycle, during which any questions regarding Russia were reportedly sent directly to Cohen. Cohen was also a surrogate for the Trump campaign, both in public and private, working hard to shield Trump from any potentially damaging stories. He reportedly used “intimidation tactics [and] hush money” to protect Trump from various public scandals such as compromising pictures, allegations of sexual misconduct, and alleged affairs.
The most well-known example of these strategies is Cohen’s payment to the adult-film star Stormy Daniels. He reportedly paid Daniels $130,000 immediately before the election in order to prevent her from publicly discussing her relationship with Trump. Cohen has denied that Daniels had an affair with Trump; in turn, Daniels has accused Cohen of intimidating and coercing her. He has also denied that the payments had anything to do with the election and denied threatening Daniels. This is not the only time Cohen used payments to cover up an undesirable story, either on Trump’s behalf or on behalf of another client. Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who claims to have had an affair with Trump, also said in a lawsuit that Cohen was involved in efforts to pay her off to ensure her silence.
Cohen’s role in the Trump Organization during the 2016 election has drawn scrutiny, especially after the publication of the infamous Steele Dossier. The Dossier contains four successive different reports alleging that Cohen traveled to Prague in late August or early September as a representative of Trump’s campaign to meet with Russian officials to cover up collusion between the two sides. (Cohen has strenuously denied making this trip, even allowing reporters to view the inside of his passport in an attempt to disprove the allegation.)
Cohen continued to meet and work with his old business contacts even after Trump’s inauguration. The most notable example came during Trump’s first month in office, when Cohen, Sater, and the aforementioned Ukrainian politician Artemenko partnered up to bring a “peace plan” between Ukraine and Russia to then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The plan reportedly involved lifting sanctions on Russia and facilitating the withdrawal of Russian forces from eastern Ukraine, as well as the use of kompromat to show “that Mr. Poroshenko and his closest associates are corrupt.” It drew heavy criticism from Ukrainian diplomats and did not move forward.
After the election, Cohen used his relationship with Trump to drum up more business. He met with Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg in January, 2017; later, the U.S. based investment vehicle for Vekselberg’s company awarded Cohen a lucrative consulting contract (the head of this investment vehicle has denied Vekselberg’s involvement in this decision.) He was also paid at least $400,000 by Ukrainians to set up talks between Trump and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in June 2017 (Cohen has denied this story.)
Cohen’s history as a “bag man” for Trump and his organization has placed Cohen at the center of a number of the president’s scandals, and has not gone unnoticed by federal investigators. He appeared before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees in October 2017 to answer questions about “the inner workings of the president’s business empire and how it considered expansion into foreign markets like Moscow,” with particular focus on his and Sater’s attempts to develop Trump Tower Moscow during the campaign. The Trump campaign is reportedly paying a significant portion of Cohen’s legal fees.
In April 2018, CNN reported that Cohen had been under criminal investigation for months. On April 9, federal agents raided Cohen’s residence, office, and hotel room, reportedly seizing business records, emails, documents, and recordings Cohen made of his meetings with clients; according to CNN, the raid “included a search for communications related to efforts to suppress negative information ahead of the election,” including communications about the “Access Hollywood” tape. No charges have been filed to date, and Cohen’s lawyers “have sought to restrict prosecutors’ access to seized material.”
Since the FBI raid, the Stormy Daniels lawsuit and criminal probe have placed Cohen under significant pressure to turn against the president. On May 9, 2018, documents related to Cohen’s financial dealings were released by Daniels’ lawyer, Michael Avenatti. They allege that a LLC owned by Cohen received $500,000 from a company connected to Putin ally Viktor Vekselberg, and that the money was used to pay for Stormy Daniels’silence. Cohen has denied any wrongdoing. On July 25, Cohen’s legal team released a recording on which Trump and Cohen can be heard discussing buying the rights to a former model’s story about an alleged affair with Trump. Trump can be heard telling Cohen to “pay with cash,” although Trump’s attorney has stated that he said “don’t pay with cash” and Trump denied both the affair and knowing about a potential payment. On July 27, in another dramatic rebuke of his former benefactor, Cohen indicated to news outlets that Trump knew about the June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, where Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort met with a number of Russians to discuss potential dirt on Hillary Clinton. Trump has denied knowing about this meeting beforehand. The revelation of the tape – and the possibility, suggested by Avenatti, that there are any more – has fueled speculation as to whether Cohen will flip on Trump.
As with the president himself, Cohen’s business history helped lay the groundwork for the 2016 election and beyond, as he, like Trump, leveraged connections like his childhood friend Felix Sater and experience pursuing shady deals to allegedly help coordinate collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
On August 21, 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty in a Manhattan federal court to eight criminal counts, including tax fraud, false statement to a bank, and campaign finance violations tied to his former role as Trump’s personal attorney. Notably, Cohen told the judge that he made the unlawful campaign contributions at the direction of the candidate, but he did not explicitly name Trump.