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President Donald Trump has complete control over the one factor that could determine whether Michael Cohen, his former longtime lawyer, flips on him.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Cohen, facing mounting pressure from a federal investigation into him, is worried his legal fees are “bankrupting” him and wants Trump to foot the bill.
While the Trump campaign and Trump family covered a portion of Cohen’s legal fees related to the Russia probe and the Manhattan US attorney’s office investigation into him, they reportedly did not agree to cover his full fees.
Ketan Jhaveri, a former antitrust lawyer from the Department of Justice (DOJ), said Trump’s apparent refusal to cover Cohen’s legal fees is surprising, given that it was a driving factor in other witness’ decisions to flip.
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn entered into a plea deal with the special counsel Robert Mueller last year because he was worried about the cost of fighting the charges against him. Flynn’s family set up a legal defense fund to help cover the costs, and earlier this year, it emerged that Flynn was selling his house to offset the financial burden even after pleading guilty.
Former Trump campaign deputy chairman Rick Gates said in a February letter that he changed his mind and decided to cooperate with prosecutors after accounting for “how long this legal process will likely take, the cost, and the circus-like atmosphere of an anticipated trial.”
Jhaveri is the co-CEO of Bodhala, a tech platform that helps companies analyze their legal spending. He said that based on the firm’s analysis, Cohen’s legal fees in just the seven weeks since the FBI raided his property are likely a little over $5.1 million.
Alex Whiting, a longtime former federal prosecutor in Boston and Washington, DC, said it was “baffling” that Trump “would pick a fight on this because it certainly increases the chance that Cohen flips.”
Trump’s hubris could be his undoing if Cohen flips
Cohen has been described at different times as Trump’s fixer, pit bull, and consigliere. He worked as the Trump Organization’s main counsel for a decade before leaving the company in 2017 to serve as Trump’s personal attorney.
The Manhattan US attorney’s office’s investigation into Cohen centers around whether he committed any crimes in an effort to protect Trump’s candidacy during the 2016 presidential election.
Cohen admitted earlier this year to paying the porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 in October 2016 in exchange for her silence about an affair she alleges she had with Trump. Trump initially denied any knowledge of the payment. But his defense lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, acknowledged later that Trump “reimbursed” Cohen for the Daniels payment.
Meanwhile, the publishing company American Media, Inc. paid the former playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 for the rights to publish her story about an alleged affair with Trump. American Media, Inc. is owned by longtime Trump friend David Pecker, and McDougal’s story was never published.
Investigators are scrutinizing whether Trump or Cohen were involved in the McDougal payment, and whether both settlements were made to protect Trump’s presidential bid. If they were, election law experts say they could be in violation of campaign finance laws.
Cohen’s involvement in the Russia investigation stems from his role in pushing for a Trump Tower Moscow deal at the height of the election; his involvement in proposing a Russia-friendly “peace plan” shortly after Trump took office; and the so-called Steele dossier’s allegation that Cohen and other Trump campaign officials traveled to Russia during the campaign to meet with Kremlin officials.
If Cohen decides to cooperate with the Southern District’s investigation, the plea deal would be part of a global resolution. That means Cohen would have to share any information he knows that could be relevant to other criminal investigations, like the Russia probe.
Experts say that given what Cohen could know and his longtime position in Trump’s inner circle, his cooperation could be legally fatal for the president.
“In the organized crime world, high-level bosses often pay the legal fees of their underlings to help ensure that they remain loyal,” Whiting said. “Here Trump could anticipate that a refusal to help Cohen out could leave him feeling both financial pressure to cooperate and less loyalty towards Trump.”
Jhaveri offered a possible explanation for why Trump is freezing out his former lawyer: hubris.
Over the past few weeks, the White House has been engulfed in a political firestorm centering around the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting immigrants who illegally cross the US-Mexico border, separating immigrant children from their parents, and detaining babies and toddlers in so-called “tender age shelters.”
Still, Trump’s support among his base remains strong, and a recent Gallup poll found that Trump’s current approval rating of 45% is at its highest ever during his presidency.
Trump not wanting to pay Cohen’s legal fees is “consistent with his past behavior, which is the thinking that, ‘It doesn’t really matter what I do because my base will look past it,'” Jhaveri said.
“He’s going to protect his cauffers and think he can get out of this mess because he’s so confident in his political skills,” he added.
The likely result: Cohen will flip.