The untold truth of Michael Cohen

Known as Donald Trump's "pit bull," Michael Cohen served as the personal attorney and so-called "fixer" for Trump long before he occupied the Oval Office. With a background shrouded in controversy and layered with careful obfuscation, Cohen has even been likened to the consigliere character Tom Hagen from The Godfather series of mafia films. He got his start as a personal injury lawyer, but it was his taxi business that earned him a fortune, which he invested heavily in real estate — much of it in Trump properties. The men forged a bond over business, and Cohen became one of Trump's closest confidantes.

Cohen's devotion to Trump was solidified in lore when he told Vanity Fair he would "take a bullet" for the man, even as he became a target of both FBI and congressional inquiries into possible collusion with Russia. Though he denies playing a central role in any alleged collusion, Cohen did plead guilty "to charges of bank fraud, tax fraud and campaign finance law violations," the latter of which he attempted to tie directly to Trump. In December 2018, Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison, and according to The New York Times, his case "could threaten Mr. Trump's presidency by implicating him in a scheme to buy the silence of two women who said they had affairs with him."

How did this disgraced lawyer come to be Trump's right-hand man in the first place? This is the untold truth of Michael Cohen.

Friends in low places

Michael Cohen's cinematic nickname didn't come out of nowhere, except it wasn't the Italian mafiosos with which the president's former attorney was allegedly connected — it was the Russian mob. According to Seth Hettena's book Trump / Russia: A Definitive History (via Rolling Stone), Cohen's seedy ties to Russia allegedly stem from his uncle's ownership of "the El Caribe Country Club, a Brooklyn catering hall and event space that was a well-known hangout for Russian gangsters." Cohen was a partial owner of the place, although he reportedly "gave up his stake in the club after Trump's election." But that's not where Cohen's alleged Russian mob links end.

He ran a taxi business with Simon V. Garber and Evgeny "Gene" Freidman, who are alleged "Russian organized crime figures," according to Glenn Simpson's testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in November 2014. (Simpson founded Fusion GPS, the company behind the infamous Steele dossier that accused Cohen, Trump, and other Trump campaign figures of Russian collusion.) According to The New York Times, Cohen was also allegedly involved in a murky real estate deal in the Miami area of "Sunny Isles, known as the Russian Riviera," where Trump owned high-rises that Hettena described as having been "built specifically for the Russian middle-class criminal."

It should be said that Cohen, Garber, and Freidman have never been convicted of any mob-related crimes. However, Cohen's associations with the Russian underworld have stuck with him since becoming a public figure.

The taxi business was big business, until it wasn't

Michael Cohen partnered with some allegedly shady figures in his taxi business, but it was his father-in-law, Fima Shusterman, who gave him his start. According to The New York Times, Shusterman owned "nine taxi medallions — the coveted metal placards that permit people to own or operate cabs — then worth roughly $1.5 million" in 1993. He introduced Cohen to other powerful industry figures, which led to Cohen's partnership with the aforementioned Simon V. Garber and later, Evgeny Freidman, "after a falling out" with Garber. The financials of Cohen's taxi businesses aren't clear, although the Times reported that despite "millions of dollars" coming in from the 30 medallions Cohen eventually owned, he also "racked up millions in debt."

The industry that made all four men wealthy also served as a backdrop for criminal charges for each one of them. In 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to "five counts of evading personal income taxes from 2012 to 2016," which came, in part, from "his taxi business," according to The Wall Street Journal. In 1993, Shusterman pleaded guilty to charges related to "conspiring to defraud the IRS in connection with his own New York taxi business" and was placed on two years of probation. Garber's company was slapped with a $1.6 million fine for a host of allegedly unscrupulous practices, and Freidman was eventually "barred from continuing to manage medallions" after being found guilty of shifting $60 million "into offshore trusts to avoid paying debts."

Fortunately for Cohen, he had other revenue streams.

The start of a beautiful friendship

On top of making (and possibly losing) millions in the taxi business, Michael Cohen also diversified his wealth with real estate. In 2001, his foray into luxury property ownership included the purchase of an apartment in Trump World Tower near United Nations Plaza in NYC, which he loved so much "he convinced his parents, his in-laws and a business partner to buy there, too," according to the New York Post. Trump was also impressed with Cohen's choice of investment, telling the Post, "In short, he's a very smart person."

But it was Cohen's representation of Trump a few years later in a disagreement with the condominium board at that very site that earned him a job and a seat at Trump's right hand, complete with "an office near the boss at Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue," according to The New York Times.

Thus began Cohen's decade of service to The Trump Organization. He not only served as executive vice president but also became "special counsel to Trump," according to Vanity Fair. Though details of Cohen's accomplishments during his tenure at the organization are unclear — he declined to discuss his role with The Times — the paper cited several high-profile flops under his direction, such as the failure to develop golf resorts in California and New Jersey, a defunct mixed martial arts (MMA) "venture," and never-developed Trump Towers "in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Kazakhstan."

But, in keeping with Cohen's track record, he always had a side hustle.

2014 was a good year

Michael Cohen may have found a second career via his investments with Trump-branded properties, but his crowning achievement in real estate deals has to be the brief time period in which he sold four buildings, netting more than $20 million. According to McClatchy, Cohen picked up the four Manhattan properties "for $11 million in 2011 and 2012." By 2014, he unloaded them all in "all-cash" transactions to anonymous buyers for a tidy sum of "$32 million." Surely, his then-boss was impressed with those deals, huh?

Not everyone was ecstatic, namely a former federal prosecutor and money laundering specialist, who told McClatchy a combination of factors surrounding the sales "tends to arouse interest." Cohen took offense to that implication and fired back his own statement to the news organization: "The buyer of all four properties is a New York real estate family fund that has been around for almost a century," he said, adding, "And yes, they are American." He also took to Twitter, explaining that the sales were legit "under Section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code permitting tax deferrals in exchanges of 'like' kinds of property." Uhh … right, we're gonna have to just take his word on that one.

Getting TKO'd by the UFC

According to Bleacher Report, Donald Trump was an early champion of MMA (mixed martial arts), hosting UFC events at his Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City in 2001, when many other venues had turned them away. So, it was surprising to many when, in 2008, he acquired a "significant stake" in the MMA-related clothing company Affliction and attempted to transition the company to promoting pay-per-view fights, effectively going head-to-head with the the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) — MMA's primary promotion organization.

Michael Cohen was named COO of the new partnership, because nothing says combat sports experience like going to law school and running a taxi company, right? Trump was not only optimistic — he predicted complete dominance. Asked whether Affliction Entertainment would one day "take over" the UFC, Trump said, "It probably will. … All the fighters want to be with us, and I think it probably will take over."

The whole enterprise folded after two fights (and a cancelled third event), at which point Affliction "returned to the UFC as a sponsor" and was sued over the nixed event. Neither Trump nor Cohen were named in the suit, but the whole bizarre debacle is certainly a stain on both of the prolific dealmakers' careers.

He fought The Onion and The Onion won

In 2013, the satirical newspaper The Onion ran a column titled, "When You're Feeling Low, Just Remember I'll Be Dead In About 15 Or 20 Years." The byline was attributed to Donald Trump. Cohen was less than amused and actually fired off a threatening letter to the humor site, demanding the immediate removal of the "disgraceful piece" and requesting The Onion "issue an apology to Mr. Trump." Instead, The Onion did nothing for five years, then published a follow-up piece claiming to have just gotten around to reading Cohen's letter. The publication said it was willing to remove the article in exchange for "influence over the president's decision-making." Amazingly, this bore even more fruit.

Cohen tweeted a link to the follow-up piece: "Maybe all of you #haters #trolls missed the memo but @TheOnion is a news "SATIRE" Organization. That means…it's not real! #GetALife." That tweet raises all kinds of questions. Was Cohen trying to say The Onion fabricated his letter? Was he trying to say that he was joking? Either way, this was a trolling master stroke by The Onion, which aimed to make Trump the butt of a joke but ended up inadvertently providing Cohen with the comedy noose with which to hang himself.  

Welcome to the party, pal

Like many aspects of Michael Cohen's life, his voter registration is also something of a head-scratcher. In 2011, ABC News reported that Cohen was a registered Democrat who not only "once volunteered for 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and worked for a Democratic member of Congress" but also "voted for Barack Obama in 2008." Gasp! "I thought it was the greatest thing ever," Cohen said of Obama's election, but he soon soured on 44 over what he referred to as "'unsustainable' debt, the country's 'ongoing and continuous' loss of jobs and the 'basic overall lack of respect' that the rest of the world has for the U.S."

And yet, by 2017, Cohen still had not gotten around to switching his party alliance, despite the fact that he'd "briefly" done so in 2003 to run unsuccessfully on the Republican ticket for a New York City Council seat. In fact, his decidedly blue voter ID card even kept him from casting a ballot for Trump in New York's closed primary in 2016. 

Cohen eventually got on board with the GOP and even earned a spot as the deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, a position he resigned from in 2018 amid his entanglement with federal authorities. Interestingly, Cohen never earned a spot in Trump's administration, which was a notable sore spot for the once-loyal legal attack dog, and one that some speculated could cause a permanent rift between the two men.

Profiting from his proximity to POTUS

Michael Cohen may not have secured an office in the West Wing, but that didn't stop him from allegedly attempting to capitalize on his former boss becoming leader of the free world. In fact, Donald Trump's election was not only a personal victory for Cohen, it was a major boon in yet another of his side businesses, this one being a consulting firm specializing in … well, that's not really clear. Cohen established the dubiously named Essential Consultants L.L.C. the month before the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He used the so-called shell company to conceal a $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels in order to keep her quiet about an alleged affair with Donald Trump, according to The Washington Post. But that was just the beginning for the fledgling "firm." 

Through this sleeper entity, Cohen also allegedly funneled $4.4 million from corporations supposedly seeking access to Trump, like Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical manufacturer who paid him $1.2 million to "advise the company as to how the Trump administration might approach certain US healthcare policy matters." Curiously, Novartis reportedly paid him despite its determination that Cohen "would be unable to provide the services [it] had anticipated." Other big name companies such as AT&T and Korea Aerospace Industries also bought in — both had large deals looming that could be impacted by federal policies. 

Unfortunately for Cohen, he had the whistle blown on him by Daniels' lawyer, Michael Avenatti, who released financial records detailing the "hush money" payments made to her.

He probably knows where Bigfoot and Elvis are hiding

In his self-professed role as Donald Trump's "fix-it guy," Michael Cohen handled a backroom arrangement with American Media Inc. (AMI), which publishes the National Enquirer, Us Weekly, Radar, and InTouch Weekly. According to The New York Times, AMI chairman and longtime Trump ally David Pecker (above right) "served as a protector dating back to before the days when Mr. Trump was the host of his reality show, The Apprentice." This resulted in a "catch and kill" policy relating to "information that would damage Mr. Trump," according to an anonymous AMI executive who spoke separately to the Times. (AMI denied any such policy.)

According to Cohen, he coordinated with Pecker and another AMI executive, Dylan Howard, to squash the aforementioned Stormy Daniels story, as well as another by former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal, who also claimed she had an affair with Trump and who also received a hush money payment in the amount of $150,000 from AMI. According to Market Watch, Cohen attempted to repay AMI $125,000 of the fee via — you guessed it — another corporation he created called Resolution Consultants LLC. That payment was never made.

According to The New York Times, both of those payments were considered illegal donations to the Trump campaign. Cohen reportedly testified that he "arranged the payments 'for the principal purpose of influencing the election' for president in 2016."

He's a big fan of haute couture. Taxes? Not so much.

It probably shouldn't come as a shock that Michael Cohen developed designer tastes, considering he spent a decade at the beck and call of the guy who once paid $10,000 for 24-karat gold bathroom vanity fixtures. However, it appears that Cohen and Trump were actually destined to be men of a certain distinction even before working together.

In college, Cohen drove a Porsche and claimed he "imported luxury cars into the United States" and "invested in a casino boat that went bust," according to The New York Times. As an intern for former Democratic Congressman Joe Moakley, Cohen was "always dressed to the hilt," a practice he continued thereafter, reportedly only wearing "Dolce & Gabbana suits and Hermes ties," according to ABC News. According to The Washington Post, he once shelled out $150,000 for a one-month rental in the Hamptons. The point is: Cohen likes living that life.  

Given everything else that's now known about Cohen's business practices, it probably shouldn't come as a shock that he allegedly mismanaged his couture cravings, too. He reportedly left the $30,000 he made from the sale of a Birkin bag off of his tax return. According to Vox, this was "a small portion of the more than $4 million in income that he failed to report between 2012 and 2016," which allowed him to skirt "more than $1.4 million in taxes to the IRS."

Gotta pay for those caviar dreams somehow, right?

Could you spare a few bucks for the truth?

Considering the information we just provided about the millions Michael Cohen allegedly withheld from the IRS, as well as his penchant for posh amenities, this next bit of info is probably going to feel like meeting the man of your dreams … then meeting his beautiful wife. That's because, as of this writing, Michael Cohen has a GoFundMe page.

Yep, that's right, the Hermes-clad, Porsche-driving, luxury real estate investor, who bought a $6.7 million Manhattan apartment in April 2018, launched a crowdfunding effort for his legal defense. Technically, Cohen's lawyer, Lanny Davis, started the page and is presumably the one who wrote the passages about Cohen's "commitment to tell the truth." Nonetheless, people were not amused. One critic summed up her feelings about folks donating hard-earned cash to Cohen's "truth fund" by simply saying, "Are you nucking futs?"

That sentiment was echoed when Davis went on Megyn Kelly TODAY and plugged the GoFundMe, claiming Cohen is "without resources." After a mixture of groans and laughter from the crowd, Kelly, herself stifling a chuckle, said, "The audience is … they don't know if they're ready to donate." Amazingly, as of this writing, Cohen has raised more than $153,000 of his $500,000 goal. Isn't it ironic?