On Wednesday afternoon, a federal judge in New York sentenced Michael Cohen to a mere three years in prison. For President Trump’s ex-lawyer, who was convicted of tax evasion and violating federal campaign finance law, this was not exactly welcome news. But it was probably the best he could have hoped for. He originally faced a 65-year prison term.
Judge William H. Pauley III made a great show of being appalled by Cohen’s "veritable smorgasbord" of crimes "motivated by personal greed and ambition." But the sentence he handed down seemed to take into account Cohen’s tortured claims of repentance: "Today is the day that I am getting my freedom back," Cohen said on Wednesday. "I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the day that I accepted the offer to work for a real estate mogul whose business acumen that I deeply admired." That poor man! Making millions of dollars licking the boots of a reality television star — and not paying taxes on it.
This sham contrition was Cohen’s last con. It was also, in a sense, his greatest.
Cohen is not what one would call a lovable rogue. He lacks most of the qualities we associate with the great criminals — nerve, improvisational ability, a certain low cunning, populist charm — and all of the ones we ascribe to decent human beings. He is neither funny nor especially clever. He seems to have been utterly delusional about his prospects, imagining a day when, having put aside his Trump-whispering millions, he would serve his master from the Oval Office. His faith in the essential goodwill of his old boss seems to have been limitless. It never once occurred to him that Trump would betray him. The president, on the other hand, expects betrayal from everyone and prepares for it accordingly.
For all that I find it difficult not to admire Cohen after a fashion. He may not be especially good at crime, but faced with the possibility of many decades in prison and the wholesale confiscation of his vast ill-gotten fortune he managed to discover the greatest advantage and to exploit it for maximum personal gain. Choosing to cooperate with the special counsel investigation has endeared him to the American legal establishment. Judge Pauley and others are not naive. They understand what they are doing. Moreover they despise Cohen. But they hate the president more. Cohen will escape full justice because he understands the value of their hatred. He can survive the jeers of liberals on Twitter. Like any former employee of Donald Trump, he has heard worse in his time.
Besides, it's not entirely clear to me that his cooperation exhausts the reasons for the leniency shown to Cohen. I believe that the three-year sentence is also evidence of pity, a virtue in which he now offers the American people an object lesson. Cohen is a pathetic figure, not only in the sense that he is, as a lawyer, a businessman, a criminal, and an American citizen "woefully inadequate," but in the older sense that he arouses pity. He seems utterly incapable of having motives that are not base.
Paul Manafort and other associates of the president who have run afoul of the law are proud men. Even in cooperating they give the impression of being in command of themselves, of their lives and characters, doing what they must reluctantly in order to survive. Cohen, meanwhile, is such a loathsome bottom feeder that it is almost impossible to imagine him doing anything else but abasing himself before his former enemies and telling sob stories that no one believes, least of all the person telling them. Is our willingness to entertain this behavior actually merciful or the cruelty of spectators delighting in the grotesque? Most disordered societies find themselves in need of figures like Cohen.
Which is why somehow I doubt we have seen the last of him.