Russ Baker on Trump Lawyer Michael Cohen: Consigliere or Stooge?

Michael Cohen, Trump Tower, Felix Sater
Michael Cohen and Felix Sater superimposed over Trump Tower entrance. Photo credit: IowaPolitics.com / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0), 591J / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0), nestor ferraro / Flickr (CC BY 2.0) and Boing Boing (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0).

In the original “Godfather” movie, Tom Hagen, the consigliere to the Corleone family, responds to a movie executive who has never heard of his law practice by saying “I have a special practice. I handle one client.” Vito Corleone reminds Hagen early on that “a lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.”

In many ways Michael Cohen has served that role for Donald Trump. An undistinguished lawyer, his Russian and Ukrainian links from the earliest days of his career make him the perfect lawyer for Trump. He became a kind of Trump groupie, admiring and fawning over Trump’s ghostwritten book, and buying more condos in Trump properties than almost anyone else. Unblushingly, he referred to Trump as his “patriarch.”

As a central figure in the Trump/Russia story, Cohen is among a cast of characters involved in Trump’s murky Russian dealings: Felix Sater, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and a number of Russians with names worthy of a Dostoevsky novel.

Last week, in WhoWhatWhy, Russ Baker delivered an 8,000-word deep dive into Cohen and his activities. In this week’s podcast, Russ talks to Jeff Schechtman about Cohen, Russia, Ukraine and where all of this might be headed.

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As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to resource constraints, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like, and we hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
  Saturday morning a story appeared on how Congress needed to get its act together regarding its investigation of the president’s Russia connection as it relates to Michael Flynn and counterintelligence issues. The reason is that to many it’s becoming clear that Mueller’s investigation is focused entirely on the money; that Mueller and his team are following screenwriter William Goldman’s advice to follow the money. Tax crime, money laundering, offshore funds, and illegal real estate transactions seem to be the fuel powering the Mueller investigation. In that story, Felix Sater and Michael Cohen may be the bookends holding up a complete superstructure of financial crimes.
  Several months ago, WhoWhatWhy ran what’s come to be considered the definitive story on Felix Sater. This week, Michael Cohen, the president’s one-time consigliere, is in the spotlight. In an 8,000-word story, Russ Baker makes the case that could almost be a follow-the-dots picture for Mueller and his team. To talk about this, I’m joined by the editor and publisher of WhoWhatWhy and the author of the story, Russ Baker.
  Russ, thanks so much for doing this.
Russ Baker: Always my pleasure, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: Well, it’s good to talk about this. It is getting murkier and murkier. At the same time, it is getting clearer in so many respects. It’s pretty remarkable.  I want to talk first of all about just the Russian connection in general. When you look at Sater, Michael Cohen that you write about this week, Manafort, Kushner’s dealing with Russian banks, Trump Jr. saying that they get a lot of their money from Russia, all of this coming back to the same set of Russia connections. Talk about it first in a general sense.
Russ Baker: I mean it is striking. It’s interesting how Trump has been able to sort of make the argument at least to his base that he has no interests in Russia and that sort of famous saying he says, “I’ve got no investments there,” I’ve got no this, I’ve got no that. It’s quite interesting when you go from there, which I assume some percentage of Americans accept at face value to what we find, which is almost kind of all Russia all the time in every respect of this man’s life going back many, many years.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about who Michael Cohen is, how he came to be involved with Trump and the Trump organization.
Russ Baker: Sure. Well, as you mentioned, we profiled Michael Cohen recently and found him very, very interesting and neglected in the narrative about Trump and these many, many different Russia strands. Let me just pause to say that I understand and commiserate with everybody on how confusing these stories are, because there are so many names. There are so many strands and the pace has quickened and so there seem to be stories coming out not just by the day but even almost by the hour on these kinds of things and so it’s very hard to sort of decide where to focus. We did focus very early on Felix Sater because we found him extremely compelling. This was a fellow who had a background and association with some criminal acts and some organized crime figures who ended up in Trump Tower and ended up being a business associate and essentially kind of partnering with Trump on some very big real estate deals, including the Trump SoHo Hotel and Towers as well as projects all over the world. So we understood that Felix Sater was very important. We needed to know a lot more about him and that relationship.
  Then we gradually also began paying attention to Michael Cohen. Michael Cohen was Trump’s in-house counsel. He was a vice president and the top lawyer inside the Trump organization for quite a number of years coming in there about a decade ago. He became sort of famous as Trump’s sort of Rottweiler, this fellow who would stand everybody down from people who were trying to collect payment from Trump to people who are writing things about him that he didn’t like. Very interesting and colorful, controversial figure. He became more interesting to us when we began seeing that Michael Cohen himself had his own connections to Russia, to the former Soviet Union, to Ukraine predating by quite a number of years when he first came to work for Trump. So we thought, “Well, that’s interesting.” There’s all this Russia stuff. There’s all this talk about Russia trying to get its cause into Trump trying to influence him, trying to help him become president.
  We know that Trump has been sort of strikingly kind to Russia and to Vladimir Putin taking a very soft line on Russia and kind of the tables were turned, because traditionally the Republicans were always very aggressive toward first of all the Soviet Union and later a resurging Russia. The Democrats typically were more let’s say diplomacy-minded and then of course this began to shift with Hillary Clinton taking a hard line on Putin. Then we see Donald Trump downplaying, minimizing or even denying some of the actions by Russia that are seen as being most aggressive and most problematical. So when we find out that Trump brings in as his in-house lawyer a sort of fearsome fellow, someone who himself had these ties to the former Soviet Union predating his coming in to Trump, we say, “Well, what is going on here?” You got Felix Sater who comes from Russia. He enters Trump’s orbit circa 2000, 2001. Then we find Michael Cohen who enters later on and around 2007 you got both Cohen and Sater as basically sort of intimates of Donald Trump.
  So we begin looking more closely at Cohen and we discover all kinds of interesting things. One of the things we discovered is that he starts buying all these units in Trump buildings all over the place. He and his relatives are buying just an extraordinary number of these very expensive units in New York City, in Florida and so forth, all Trump starting again around 2000 the same timeframe that we see all this increasing kind of Russia-related activity around Donald Trump. So we find that very interesting. Then we learn that Michael Cohen is married to a Ukrainian-born woman; that his brother also married into a Ukrainian family; that the brother’s father-in-law is a man who came out of the former Soviet Union Ukraine, seemingly modest resources and then somehow gets into this big business with grain from Ukraine. He becomes very, very wealthy and then he starts partnering with all these oligarchs. They seemed to have – according to the FBI – organized crime connections back to the former Soviet Union. So as you can imagine, my eyes are widening and widening as I’m looking at this.
  We dig and so we’ve been looking at all of that for months. What I’ve told you is really just the tip of the iceberg.
Jeff Schechtman: You mentioned Michael Cohen being married to a Ukrainian woman and his brother also married to a Ukrainian woman. In fact, some of Michael Cohen’s early investments in New York before he even got involved in buying all these Trump properties involve the taxicab business and being involved with Russians and Ukrainians yet again.
Russ Baker: That’s right. In fact, as we look at Michael Cohen and I don’t want to judge this, I mean, he may…  Perhaps his family was independently wealthy. I found no signs of that. He grew up I believe middle class on Long Island. He becomes a lawyer, goes to a frankly very low rank law school, little known law school of no particular distinguishing characteristics. He then becomes a personal injury lawyer, a particular kind of law. Again, nothing really stands out at all, any particularly notable successes. I don’t think he gets anywhere near higher levels of that field where I guess you can make quite a lot of money. Then suddenly we see him just spending money like a drunken sailor on all of these businesses. They’re all, whether with his family or as you say with his taxi business, another with the casino boat — all of these people, all of the money seems to have originated back in the former Soviet Union.
  That’s so important because it is well-known — I am not saying there’s a connection here because there may be none — but it is well-known that the moneys in the former Soviet Union massively transferred to a small number of so-called oligarchs as well as figures involved with organized crime there, and that of course it became a priority on everyone’s part to get that money out of there to move it west. The United States has always been seen as a sort of a safe haven, a great place to put your money. Of course, if that money is ill-gotten or they just don’t want to pay taxes on it, it then gets laundered. Of course, real estate is just about I guess number one in terms of the most popular vehicles for laundering money.
Jeff Schechtman: You mentioned all these apartments and Trump properties that Cohen was buying. He was even spending bigger than that in buying whole buildings in New York, 50, 60, 70 million dollars. It is completely unclear as you mentioned earlier where any of this money came from.
Russ Baker: That’s right, I mean, even if you take the top lawyers and top lawyers make quite a bit of money. They can make five million or 10 million dollars a year something like that. Even those people would not have the resources to make those kinds of purchases and so it is a legitimate question. Now I do want to emphasize that we reached out to Michael Cohen and had some communication with him. We asked him that question: what was the source of the moneys for all of these purchases? He declined to answer.
Jeff Schechtman: What is the connection and when did Felix Sater and Cohen come together?
Russ Baker: It turns out that they knew each other growing up on Long Island. There are different accounts of that. It has been confirmed that they knew each other. Whether they were friends or you want to say acquaintances or “ran in the same circle”, they definitely knew each other way back when. We actually see importantly the two of them coming together in a particularly striking affair let’s call it, which got a lot of attention very briefly and then sort of vanished from the news. Back in January of this year, there was a meeting at a luxury hotel in New York with a Ukrainian politician and businessman who came supposedly bearing a peace proposal. This was an attempt, we are led to believe, to find a way to settle the dispute between the Ukraine and Russia with the goal of getting the crippling sanctions imposed upon Russia for its incursions into Ukraine to getting those lifted. This politician who turns out to have his own connections to these people was at this meeting with Felix Sater and Michael Cohen.
  That’s very, very interesting because, of course, Felix Sater, this was intended to pass a message to Donald Trump. It’s quite interesting, of course, this sort of highly unconventional and unusual sort of diplomacy if that’s what it was. We’re not sure that was the real purpose of the meeting but that’s what we are told was the purpose of the meeting that this Ukrainian brought this portfolio of papers that they wanted delivered to the White House. It’s interesting, of course, that Michael Cohen is a lawyer. I don’t know how that all works or whether they can claim any kind of confidentiality and privilege by passing something through a lawyer. It’s also striking that Michael Cohen doesn’t work for the Trump administration. He was an employee of the Trump organization. It’s unclear to us what his status is at the moment. He had said various things. He had said that he expected to have a job in the Trump administration. They did not give him a job there. He has also said that he is now Trump’s personal lawyer.
  We’re not sure exactly what that means, because we see other personal lawyers very much in the news and sort of spokespersons for Trump on questions about his refusing to release his income tax as about conflicts of interest, about other things and, of course, about the current investigation by Mueller. So we don’t know exactly what Michael Cohen does, but we’ve been struck by the fact that he seems to have virtually vanished from public view around the time of this meeting with this Ukrainian on the so-called peace deal. We are certainly wondering whether that turned him into a particular liability for Trump and that he had to distance himself from him just as he has done with Paul Manafort, just as he has done with you can name them the three or four other people. The National Security Adviser Flynn he had to get rid of and there are others as well that he sort of pushed overboard. That’s all very striking because Trump is known for being loyal to those who are loyal to him. He kept on for a very long time some extremely controversial and I would say fairly unpopular figures around him in the White House. He took a really long time to get rid of those people, but seems to have moved much more quickly with anybody who could tie him to Russia.
 
Jeff Schechtman: Of course, with Felix Sater, he denies even knowing and denies he can’t even recognize him in the room.
Russ Baker: Well, that was really…  We had a good laugh about that, because if you go to our articles on WhoWhatWhy, you can see the image of the business card “Felix Sater”, whatever it is, special account adviser or something to Donald Trump, had an office close to Trump’s. He was in Trump’s office all the time, letterhead, special phone number there, so he obviously knew the fellow extremely well. We’ve also published a picture of the two of them standing next to each other.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about how Cohen and Trump actually came together. There’s the official story where Cohen talks about he read Trump’s book Art of the Deal twice and he was just blown away by it and they had to get together. What do we know about how they really came together?
Russ Baker: Well, we don’t have that whole story yet. Our effort I think is a sort of seminal one in moving the ball forward on all of this, but we still have a lot of questions. What we’re interested in is this period where he began acquiring so many Trump properties, because we know that Trump — like I think most business people — likes to know his biggest customers. I can’t say for sure but I’ve seen no indication that there was anyone who was a bigger customer for Trump than Michael Cohen, I mean, 11, maybe even more properties. That’s a lot of properties to buy from one person. We know and we describe in our earlier article on Felix Sater how Trump would sit down personally with some of these people and close the deal himself. Maybe they sit there with the stack of cash for the down payment but, I mean, he would do this personally. So the likelihood that Cohen did not get on his radar around 2000 when he began buying all these properties seems to me very, very remote.
  So what we’re wondering is why was he buying all these properties. Is it true that Trump ran with so much of a better investment than anything else? I mean, I think usually when you buy property you look at the inherent quality of the property, the location, the value. He seems to be one of the few people I could see that think that it’s a wise and careful investment to put so much of your money into stuff because it’s got one person’s name on it. It seems to me a very risky strategy. Anyway, at a minimum, Jeff, he got himself we believe he got Trump’s attention. What happened after that we don’t know. We do see that this man who was a personal injury attorney who seems to spend a lot of his time on non-legal matters including this casino boat and the taxicab medallions and so forth, he suddenly is in a relatively major New York law firm, Phillips Nizer. He shows up in there in the mid-2000s.
  We found out that he and his brother both together joined that firm. The brother described it to us as a merger although they were this nothing firm and Phillips Nizer is a major firm with hundreds of attorneys. There was some reason, why did Phillips Nizer want these little known attorneys to come in and so-called merge with them? They wouldn’t tell us, but we do know that law firms like to bring people in who are able to secure business, to bring in valuable clients. It’s interesting to note that at that point he was we believe pretty thick with Trump already and Trump had a problem getting lawyers because we understand that there were issues about paying the bills with a lot of these firms and just like a lot of banks didn’t want to deal with him anymore. He may not have had that many options but there comes Michael Cohen already Trump’s perhaps biggest or one of his biggest customers in real estate. He moves into the Nizer firm. For some reason they wanted him. We wonder whether that was that he brought Trump in as a client and handled him.
  Then he does that for a year or two and then he moves on to work with Trump himself. The other thing that’s very interesting is there’s the brother and the brother also goes into the firm at the same time. Then the brother leaves and goes into…  are you ready dot, dot, dot, the real estate business where he joined one of the biggest real estate brokers in New York.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s also worth noting that Michael Cohen shows up in the Christopher Steele dossier.
Russ Baker: That’s right. Now that dossier is very controversial. That was the dossier prepared by the former MI6 British Intelligence Officer Christopher Steele who was supposedly doing some sort of research or perhaps opposition research on Trump and had worked in the former Soviet Union and went there to do this research. In that dossier, he includes Michael Cohen and that in his allegation that Michael Cohen traveled to the Czech Republic to try to massage some problems that Trump was having vis-a-vis Russia and want to point out that Cohen denies that he was in the Czech Republic in that period or that he did that or had that meeting. It’s hard to know what to make of that. The whole issue of whether he was in Czech Republic is complicated because he produced a passport showing that there were no stamps from the Czech Republic. Also, you don’t have to, thanks to the Schengen community of Europe. You’re able to pass across borders without getting your passport stamped. So we don’t know what to make of that but that’s certainly something else that I assume would be of interest to investigators.
Jeff Schechtman: Not to make this anymore complicated and you’ve already talked about how complicated this story is. Other characters that populate the story beyond Cohen and Sater, I mean, Manafort comes into the picture and a whole slew of kind of Russian gangsters, Russian mob guys that are all part of the equation at one point or another.
Russ Baker: That’s right, a very interesting bunch. I think those of us who enjoyed watching the movies or reading the books over the years about the La Cosa Nostra in the United States will find this cast every bit as colorful if not much more so. Particularly Semion Mogilevich, the so-called boss of bosses, considered by many law enforcements to be the most powerful gangster in the world. Born in the Ukraine, shows up throughout the story and in our Felix Sater piece you find quite a bit about him, about Mogilevich. He was a major target of the FBI when he began moving operations into the United States. His people were believed to be involved with, among other things, Wall Street and trying to get into many aspects of the financial trade. We also know that Mogilevich sent his deputy Ivankov to the United States. The FBI was trying to track this man down, because they had gotten a tip that he was here. Couldn’t find him, couldn’t find him, suddenly he shows up. Where is he? He is living in a luxury condo in, wait for it, Trump Tower.
  Then as soon as they identified him there, I don’t know if he gets another tip or offer but he takes off and they don’t hear about him again for a little while until there’s another sighting of him. This time he is in New Jersey at, wait for it, a Trump casino. So this is all very, very interesting. Sater’s own original activity that landed him with a criminal conviction involved the Wall Street pump-and-dump scheme targeting the elderly and other people who were taken advantage of. It was Sater’s cutting a deal with the US Attorney’s Office that turned him into an FBI informant. He was essentially an FBI informant for years while in Trump Tower. Of course, we’re very, very interested in that and I would send listeners back to our first piece about Sater in Trump Tower. The question, which I think is very important here, which is what did the FBI know, because they were running Felix Sater when he was in there doing all this stuff with Donald Trump when Michael Cohen was buying all these apartments.
  What was that all about, because now you’ve got former FBI Director Bob Mueller running the investigation. I mean, what does he know and what can he tell and will we ever be able to get to the bottom of all of this.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit, personally, as someone that has looked at this story, written about this story, perhaps dug deeper into all aspects of this story as it relates to the Russian money connection than almost anyone else, the fact that so much of this just can’t be coincidence.
Russ Baker: It seems like it can’t be coincidence. In our latest piece, the one about Michael Cohen, we do lay some of this out. I mean, I think it is a fact that the United States is important to other countries. I think it is a fact that the United States is very important to Russia. That the United States is very important to Putin and is both an entity to cooperate with but also an adversary and a competitor for all kinds of things, including resources around the world. There’s a lot there. All we have to do is look at Rex Tillerson to see when he was running ExxonMobil, now all the effort he made to go to Russia and cultivate Putin. So there’s all of this very intense sort of bilateral cooperation and competition.
  Then, of course, there’s a whole issue of Ukraine. Ukraine becomes important as it begins moving more and more into the western orbit. This is a huge problem for Putin, because Ukraine was arguably the most important former Soviet Republic. It is considered the breadbasket of Europe. It has its own tremendous natural resources. It is also the place through which Russia runs its pipelines with its natural gas, which is tremendously important to the Russian economy. It runs through the Ukraine to major markets in Western Europe. For many, many different reasons Ukraine for its ports, locations that Russia needs for its navy and so forth. There are many, many reasons that the Ukraine is tremendously important to Russia. Russia knew that when Ukraine went independent, it went independent at a point where Russia could not stop it. Putin is not about to have what he perceives as an enemy on his doorstep. Any more than the United States would be okay with Mexico going in an unfavorable direction. These countries are tremendously important to major powers. So we’ve got to keep our eye on Ukraine.
  So that I think is one of the big factors here that Putin was looking at with his relationship with the United States and I think they’re always. I think all intelligence services are studying these foreign leaders and figuring out what they’re up to. They’re trying to infiltrate their circles. They’re trying to ensure that they get as many advantages as they can and interacting with them. We do see what looks like some recognition by the Russians that Donald Trump is a person, way before he was elected president, who they could do business with. Trump had serious financial problems and by their own admissions the Trumps turned increasingly to projects related to the former Soviet Union, of people and moneys related to the former Soviet Union as major sources of funding during some tough years. So I think it makes sense that they were aware of Donald Trump at least as a major American figure, a famous person with a lot of influence.
  Trump had made it known long before going all the way back to the 1980s that he was interested in politics, that he was interested in the presidency. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Russians realize that Donald Trump was somebody, a horse to bet on.
Jeff Schechtman: It is also hard to imagine with all of this money going back and forth, with all of these real estate transactions, with all of the banking transactions that somehow all of this is perfectly clean that in the course of this investigation that’s going on now we’re not going to find an awful lot of money that was laundered somehow or taxes that weren’t quite right. There’s just so much opportunity here for things to go wrong.
Russ Baker: Well, that’s right and, of course, these tremendous amounts of money pouring out of the former Soviet Union. You have to keep in mind that the vast majority of the people in those countries are struggling. Many of them are poor. I mean, former Soviet Union, a communist country where supposedly everybody had shelter and something to eat. I mean, people were certainly not rich but they weren’t in what you would call poverty that now 20% of the Russian population is said to live in poverty now. That’s I guess comparable to the United States, but we have a very different system than they had. So that means that even that the moneys are not going to them, they’re going somewhere else. They’re going to the so-called oligarchs and friends of Putin, and that money is coming out of the country. So yes, I mean, there is at least a 1% versus 99% factor there. I don’t think that you could say that all wealthy people are people that become wealthy in the former Soviet Union are problematical, but by the estimations of law enforcement a fairly significant share of that money is dirty, absolutely.
Jeff Schechtman: Of course, the political overlay to all of this that kind of brings it into a kind of contemporaneous aspect is the degree to which so many people in the Trump orbit have lied about their connections to Russia.
Russ Baker: That is staggering, Jeff. It is staggering how many have ties to Russia. It’s staggering what they’ve said about them. I mean, another figure we didn’t even mention is this Carter Page who is over there doing financial work and then became a foreign policy adviser to Trump. We didn’t talk about the fact that at the Republican convention they had meetings with Russians. They worked assiduously to soften the Republican platforms, criticism of Russia over Ukraine. Boy, I mean, they have had to reverse themselves individually and collectively again and again and on every front. It really is sort of jaw dropping. I have to say when you consider the scandals that people like say Hillary Clinton faced over having her emails on a private server and the White Water, all these kinds of scandals over the years that frankly I’m not sure anybody ever fully understood exactly what was wrong or exactly what the magnitude of the wrongdoing was or the harmful intent behind these things that, Benghazi. I mean, my gosh, you look at Fox News. They go on forever just venting about these things.
  Yet if you were to interview the most avid of viewers and ask them what is this thing actually about, they kind of get irritated by the question because they don’t know. Here we know what’s going on. We can see it. It’s unprecedented, I think, in history, this notion that one country – a nemesis of another country – has sunk its claws into it to this extent. I have to say by the way I am not somebody who is in favor of beating up on Russia. Our website WhoWhatWhy was very, very careful. We took a long time in looking at this stuff. I mean, I, myself get invited on and appear from time to time on RT, a Russian news channel. So we’re not advocating the creation of a new cold war here. Business is business, but I think the American people deserve the truth and deserve to know what is going on and to understand the magnitude and the potential ramifications of what we’re seeing.
Jeff Schechtman: Russ Baker, his recent spotlight on Michael Cohen could be found at WhoWhatWhy.org as can many other stories about this including the story about Felix Sater. Russ, thanks so much for doing this.
Russ Baker: Jeff, thank you very much.

Hi, this is Russ Baker. If you like that podcast, please feel free to share it and help others find it by rating it and reviewing it on iTunes. Also, if you’d like to see us continue to do this kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism, we need your help. Please support our work. Go to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from FBI seal (Andy L / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), Michael Cohen (Blacklist21 / Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 4.0), Semyon Mogilevich (Mark Nilstein / Getty Images), Felix Sater (591J / Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 4.0), Alex Oronov (Facebook / TPM) and Donald Trump (The White House).

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