Stormy Daniels obsession shines light on dark arts of Donald Trump’s New York fixer Michael Cohen – Donald Trump’s America
Michael Cohen, attorney for The Trump Organisation, arrives at Trump Tower in New York City, U.S. January 17, 2017. (Reuters: Stephanie Keith, file)
At the powerful end of New York they say Michael Cohen represents a classic and quintessentially New York tale — that of the hungry and determined fixer who will make problems disappear.
Mr Cohen’s meteoric rise from middle class Long Islander to an office in Trump Tower, right next to New York’s most successful developer, required a toughness even some Democrats praise.
“You need to be ruthless enough to protect your principal, and the principal is Donald Trump, and Michael Cohen did that,” veteran Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf told 7.30.
“He’s very loyal to Donald Trump. You ask him about it he’ll tell you. He said publicly that he would take a bullet for the President.”
Based in Manhattan, Mr Sheinkopf said in cutthroat New York big fish like Donald Trump need a consigliere prepared to do whatever it takes to resolve disputes.
Denials and cover-ups
Stormy Daniels was paid $130,000 by Michael Cohen to not speak about an alleged affair with Donald Trump in 2006. (AP: Matt Sayles)
It is Mr Cohen’s payment of hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels days before the 2016 presidential election that has seen his home and office raided by the FBI.
It’s the ultimate fix for the President’s chief fixer but one that may also unravel the President.
In February, Mr Cohen said he personally made the payment to the porn star (she alleges that she was also threatened by Mr Cohen) over the alleged affair in 2006.
Mr Cohen also said he was never reimbursed for a payment made to the porn star. Equally, Mr Trump claimed in April he knew nothing about the payment.
Since then a series of denials and cover-ups by the President’s fixer have come unstuck.
Finally, today, a financial disclosure report filed by Mr Trump confirmed that he did reimburse his personal lawyer for a $130,000 hush money payment made to Stormy Daniels, who alleges she had an affair with the President.
The annual report, signed by the President, shows Mr Trump reimbursed his lawyer, Mr Cohen, between $100,001 and $250,000 in 2017.
The shell company used to pay Ms Daniels, Essential Consultants, has also been used for a number of other questionable payments — including a $500,000 lump sum from a Kremlin-linked oligarch.
So how did a middle-class Manhattan hustler end up embroiled in this millennium’s Watergate?
Loyalty, according to Mr Sheinkopf, who’s worked with both Mr Trump and Mr Cohen and has a personal affection for the pair.
“You need to know people, you need to be able to threaten people and when you threaten them you have to be believed that what you say will actually occur,” he said.
“And you’ve got to have the cash to back it up.”
Threats and intimidation
Across town, in a gritty part of Long Island, City Taxi union official Asim Akhtar also remembers Mr Cohen, though much less favourably.
Mr Cohen made a fortune investing in the city’s famous yellow cabs that were then a guaranteed path to wealth in a place where most don’t own cars.
Initially it seemed Mr Cohen had timed his investment perfectly as the taxi medallions (a small plate attached to the hood that proves the cab is registered) quadrupled in value in the decade leading up to 2012.
Mr Akhtar said that return wasn’t enough and Mr Cohen’s business partners who did the day-to-day management stole the wages of taxi drivers.
“Drivers are being robbed, literally robbed, on a daily basis form their hard earned money and there was no action,” he told 7.30.
Mr Cohen’s partners, first Symon Garber and then New York’s one-time taxi king Evgeny Freidman, have both had constant run-ins with regulators.
Mr Akhtar said he spent five years working at the garage Mr Friedman — who has since been jailed and faces trouble on a number of legal fronts — ran with partner Mr Cohen.
He said it was a workplace rife with intimidation and threats.
“They were like, ‘if you come back to my garage, I’m going to beat the shit out of you!’,” Mr Akhtar remembered.
“They would curse, they would be very aggressive to a driver. Whereas, no other garages were as aggressive as they are.”
Mr Cohen denied knowledge of the day-to-day operations at the garage and said he was just a passive investor.
His spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr Akhtar said he was inspired to become a union official at the taxi drivers alliance.
“For me, it was always that. This is my revenge. If I can do a little bit, I would be very happy,” he said.
“What I went through, I want to make sure that no other driver would have to go through the same.”
Mr Cohen’s biggest problems with his taxi investment, though, are structural.
The rise of Uber and ride sharing applications has slashed the value of the taxi medallions against which Mr Cohen borrowed heavily.
The Russian connection
Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg has been linked to Michael Cohen through Colombus Nova. (Reuters: Sergei Karpukhin)
Things looked brighter after the election.
His boss was the President and some of America’s biggest companies were queueing up to pay him for access.
Their payments were funnelled through the same shelf company he used to pay off Stormy Daniels.
As well as communications giants there was an investment firm called Colombus Nova that is linked to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.
Max Bergmann, a former speech writer to John Kerry, is running a progressive think tank project called The Moscow Project.
“He’s one of the most powerful oligarchs within Russia, that’s why he’s subject to US sanctions and why his company has now been sanctioned because it is a powerful Russian company,” Mr Bergmann said.
Colombus Nova paid about $US500,000 to Mr Cohen.
Democrats want to know if it’s standard access buying or a more sinister influence campaign.
“There’s a lot that we don’t know but again and again and again what we see with Michael Cohen, what we see with Trump, are that their connections to Russia and to Kremlin-connected oligarchs are incredibly strong and are incredibly deep,” Mr Bergmann said.
As if the FBI prosecution of Mr Cohen wasn’t enough, the payments will be sure to be scrutinised by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
Like him or hate him, one thing those who know Mr Cohen agree on is that he’s tough and will fight to the end.