Michael Cohen reportedly likes to compare himself to Tom Hagen, the genteel mob lawyer portrayed by Robert Duvall in The Godfather. In reality, though, Cohen has none of Hagan's reserved competence. While you might have looked at President Trump's "personal lawyer" and seen an over-eager nincompoop, the kind of person who issues comical threats to journalists ("I'm warning you, tread very f***ing lightly, because what I'm going to do to you is going to be f***ing disgusting") and offers up slavish loyalty pledges ("I will always protect our @POTUS"), Cohen seems to fashion himself a ruthless underboss who inspires fear and awe.
So after federal agents raided his home, office, and hotel room, what did Cohen do? Knowing he'd be trailed everywhere by cameras, he arranged to meet a few buddies to sit on a street in Manhattan and smoke cigars. Naturally, someone set the video to the theme song of The Sopranos.
Every major political scandal has its characters, theretofore little-known figures who burst into public consciousness when their misdeeds, or closeness to someone else's misdeeds, are revealed. Sometimes they can even spin a new career out of their fame, like G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North becoming right-wing media stars despite, or perhaps because of, their crimes in Watergate and Iran-Contra respectively (we should note that while Liddy spent time in prison, North's conviction was overturned because of an immunity agreement he made with Congress).
But even among those characters — your Linda Tripp, your Fawn Hall, your Howard Hunt — there's something special about Michael Cohen. And that tells us something about his boss, too.
Maybe it's his hangdog mien, but until recently it was hard to picture Cohen as anything but a tough-guy wannabe who never would be. Yet each day seems to bring a new development linking Cohen to people and events that push the Trump administration's central scandal — maybe we could call it "Russia-plus," since it reaches beyond Russia — farther along. Wherever this crazy story goes, Michael Cohen seems to be there.
First Cohen claimed that he personally paid adult film actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet her alleged affair with Trump. Then there was former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who was paid $150,000 by American Media, Inc., parent company of the National Enquirer; McDougal alleges that her then-lawyer was secretly in communication with Cohen, working not for her interests but Trump's. Then there was another payment by AMI, of $30,000 to a doorman to keep quiet about a rumor he heard that Trump had fathered a child with one of his housekeepers; Cohen confirmed that he was in communication with AMI while the negotiations were underway. Then there was GOP donor Elliot Briody, who paid $1.6 million to a different Playboy model whom he impregnated, to buy her silence. The deal was arranged by Michael Cohen.
And in a weird and possibly illegal twist, the lawyer representing Daniels, McDougal, and Playboy model #2 was the same person, Keith Davidson. He and Cohen seem to have had a tidy little arrangement going, where everything stayed quiet and they reaped generous fees.
But that's not all! Last week McClatchy reported that special counsel Robert Mueller has evidence that Cohen traveled to Prague during the 2016 campaign, possibly to meet with representatives of the Russian government. This was an allegation in the "Steele dossier," and when it was made public in early 2017, Cohen denied he had ever been to Prague. Was he telling the truth? Who knows.
And just to make things extra-interesting, in legal proceedings over evidence seized in the raid of Cohen's office, home, and hotel room, Cohen was forced against his will to name his three legal clients: Trump, Briody, and none other than Fox News host Sean Hannity, who had used his show to vigorously condemn the raid on Cohen.
Were Hannity employed by a real news network, or even a person possessed of even the barest modicum of integrity, advocating for Cohen on the air without mentioning that Cohen is his lawyer could be a career-ending transgression. But he is unrepentant, leading to oxymoronic headlines like "Hannity's ethics under fire."
Hannity and Cohen are in an extremely uncomfortable position: Cohen insists that any communication with Hannity should fall under attorney-client privilege and so should be off-limits to prosecutors, but Hannity insists that Cohen wasn't really his lawyer, just a friend he sometimes called for advice on real estate. But it's worth remembering that the raid would never have happened had Robert Mueller and the U.S. Attorney's office in New York not been able to demonstrate to the Justice Department and to a judge that there was a high likelihood that the search would produce evidence that Cohen had committed crimes.
As the movies have taught us, sooner or later the mobster always pays the price, either with a hail of bullets or a one-way trip to the slammer. While some of those Russian oligarchs are pretty scary, it's hard to imagine any of them will send a team to rub Michael Cohen out. But prison? That could definitely be in Michael Cohen's future. Unless, that is, he decides to tell what he knows about Trump's business dealings. And he knows an awful lot.
Either way, when we look back on this scandal, we're probably going to say that the most colorful character, other than Trump himself, was Michael Cohen. He has already reserved his place in history.