It Might Not Matter if Michael Cohen Flips on Trump

Anywhere you look this morning, you can find an article speculating on the likelihood that Michael Cohen will cooperate with federal prosecutors and implicate the president of the United States in serious crimes in order to lesson his ultimate prison sentence. We should pause for a second a take a deep breath. This is not normal.

Michael Cohen may be under criminal investigation, and that investigation may have been going on for quite some time, but he has not yet been charged with anything. Paul Manafort is facing enough prison time that he could easily die while still in federal custody. So far, Michael Cohen’s problems are still theoretical. Yet, no one who is familiar with him doubts that Cohen is in the same boat as Manafort. Nor does anyone seem to have any second thoughts about assuming that Cohen can provide evidence of massive criminality on the part of Donald Trump. Even the lawyer Trump consulted about Cohen didn’t hesitate to make this assumption.

One of President Donald Trump’s longtime legal advisers said he warned the president in a phone call Friday that Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer and close friend, would turn against the president and cooperate with federal prosecutors if faced with criminal charges.

Mr. Trump made the call seeking advice from Jay Goldberg, who represented Mr. Trump in the 1990s and early 2000s. Mr. Goldberg said he cautioned the president not to trust Mr. Cohen. On a scale of 100 to 1, where 100 is fully protecting the president, Mr. Cohen “isn’t even a 1,” he said he told Mr. Trump.

In fact, Jay Goldberg warned the president that Cohen could secretly record him in order to get evidence of his crimes.

Mr. Goldberg said the volume of correspondence taken and the potential pressure the government can bring to bear on Mr. Cohen to testify put the president in more potential peril from the Cohen matter than from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Mr. Mueller is examining whether members of Mr. Trump’s campaign team colluded with Russians to affect the 2016 election. Russia officials have denied meddling in the election, and Mr. Trump has denied any collusion took place…

…In the call, Mr. Goldberg, a former prosecutor who represented Mr. Trump in divorce and real-estate matters, said he told the president Mr. Cohen could even agree to wear a wire and try to record conversations with Mr. Trump. “You have to be alert,” Mr. Goldberg said he told the president. “I don’t care what Michael says.”

It’s not clear why Jay Goldberg talked about his private counsel to the president with reporters from the Wall Street Journal and allowed them to look at the ‘thank you’ note he received from Trump’s attorney Ty Cobb, but that’s not really relevant. What matters is that he didn’t ask the president if Cohen had evidence of crimes in the records that were seized because both he and Trump already knew the answer to that question. Furthermore, if the records alone weren’t enough, he cautioned Trump that being candid with Cohen would be dangerous because their conversations might be recorded.

It’s telling that the people who have an acquaintance with the facts understand that the only question now is if Cohen will flip on the president, not whether he has anything to offer to the prosecutors.  But I think this is the wrong question to ask.

A better question is if the prosecutors now have all the evidence they need from Cohen. They may not need his testimony at all. Everyone is wondering if he’ll cut a deal, but the prosecutors may have no interest in a deal. The biggest piece of evidence Cohen could probably provide is oral confirmation that he did indeed travel to Prague as the Steele Dossier alleges in order to collude with the Russians in paying off hackers and covering up Paul Manafort’s connections to the Kremlin. But the prosecutors reportedly have evidence that Cohen made the trip. They had that evidence before the raids on Cohen’s home, office and hotel room. Certainly, Cohen could fill in important details and explain what Trump knew and when he knew it, but if he doesn’t want to cooperate it might not be necessary to cut a sweet deal to prove the case.

The Prague trip is hardly the only criminal vulnerability here. Cohen has been involved in real estate deals and negotiations abroad that probably involved bribes and other financial crimes. He’s made threats against journalists and people who have accused Trump of everything from fraud to sexual assault. Stormy Daniels alleges that Cohen sent someone to threaten her in Las Vegas, which was done in front of her child. Yesterday, she released a sketch artist’s drawing of the man who told her she had a nice child and it would be a shame if something happened to her mother. We already know he’s under investigation for bank fraud, wire fraud, and campaign finance violations in relation to his efforts to help Trump cover up his sexual dalliances. Prosecutors also seem to have him on something related to New York City’s (and maybe Chicago’s) taxicab business, although that’s not likely to involve the president. To be honest, this is just scratching the surface. As Josh Marshall reported this week, Cohen is so tightly connected to the Russian mafia that he essentially is the Russian mafia.

TPM first reported last year that Cohen was actually a childhood friend of Felix Sater, whose father was himself a reputed capo in the Mogilevich organized crime syndicate, said to be Russia’s largest and most dangerous. Filling out this picture of how Cohen fell into this milieu we’ve always been focused on the fact that Cohen’s uncle, Morton Levine, owned and ran a Brooklyn social club, El Caribe, which was a well-known meeting spot for members of Italian and Russian organized crime families in the 1970s and 1980s. (Levine, a medical doctor has never been charged with a crime.) But now it turns out there’s a bit more to this story.

I came across this in a January AP article about Boris Nayfeld, one-time organized crime boss in Brooklyn who now wants to go home to Russia to start a new life. Nayfeld is 70 and he just finished his latest prison sentence. The whole story is a bit low energy and a sad sack in a nonetheless menacing and predatory way.

According to published reports, in the 70s and early 80s, the boss of the Russian mob in New York (and for practical purposes the whole U.S) was a man named Evsei Agron. Things ended badly for Agron when was gunned down in a mob hit in 1985. After Agron was assassinated, his organization was taken over by under-boss Marat Balagula. Authorities believed Balagula was behind Agron’s killing. But he was never charged with the crime. Balagula ran things until 1991 when he was convicted of gasoline bootlegging. Nayfeld had been the bodyguard and enforcer for both Agron and Balagula, one would say more successfully in the latter case than the former. He took over the organization when Balagula went to prison.

What I didn’t realize until now is that both Agron and his successor Balagula ran their operations out of an office in the El Caribe social club. So the El Caribe wasn’t just a mob hangout. From the 70s through the 90s at least, the bosses of the Russian mafia in the U.S. literally ran their crime organization out of the El Caribe.

So Michael Cohen’s uncle Morton Levine’s social club was the headquarters of Russian organized crime in the U.S.

That’s quite something.

The AP article includes another detail.

According to Levine, who is apparently still alive, all his nieces and nephews owned shares of the El Caribe and still do. Levine told the AP that Michael Cohen owned his stake in the club until Donald Trump was elected President when he “gave up his stake.”

That was probably wise!

It was also very recent.

Let me repeat. Michael Cohen owned a stake in the Russian mafia’s social headquarters in the United States until some time after the president was elected. As I noted two days ago, Cohen also spent time when he was supposed to be in court last week smoking cigars with a man who serves as the “right-hand man” of one of Vladimir Putin’s closest allies.

I don’t know what the FBI got in their haul of Michael Cohen’s records, but it’s likely the motherlode. They’re going to have more options for bringing charges than there are items on a New York City Chinese menu. The time for Cohen to talk was long before now. I am certain of that.

Trump can certainly pardon him but New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has a plan for that. In fact, he sent a letter yesterday to Governor Andrew Cuomo and leaders in the state legislature asking them to promptly clean up the Empire State’s law so that there can be no doubt that Cohen can be charged for state crimes even if he is pardoned for federal ones. I expect that they will oblige him.

It’s still interesting to speculate about whether Cohen will flip on Trump and also about what he might have to say. But I don’t think it really matters whether he does or not. What matters is what the FBI already has, and unless they can somehow be prevented from looking at their evidence, this broad criminal enterprise is going to be exposed.

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