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Michael Cohen, Donald Trump and the curse of loyalty

Jerry Adler
Senior Editor
Michael Cohen and President Trump (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters, Leah Millis/Reuters, Saul LoebAFP/Getty Image, AP)

Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s lawyer and self-proclaimed “fixer,” likes to boast about his loyalty. “I’m the guy who would take a bullet for the president,” he told Vanity Fair last year. “There’s no amount of money in the world that could get me to disclose anything about them,” he said, reporting that he had turned down a $10 million offer for a tell-all book about Trump and his family.

That was the accepted view of Cohen by legal observers right up until the FBI search of Cohen’s office and residences last week, and the disclosure that he was under investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan. Since then, a number of analysts have been wondering aloud whether Cohen’s loyalty will pass the acid test of a federal indictment. That includes Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for actress Stormy Daniels, who told The View that without question, Cohen “is going to roll on the president. … He’s not going to look at his wife and say I’m going to take a bullet for this president.” Jay Goldberg, Trump’s own former attorney, told Trump directly not to trust his longtime associate. The 51-year-old Cohen, Goldberg warned, is “not suited to stand up to the rigors of jail life,” by which he meant the possibility of being raped in prison. Perhaps not since Thomas à Becket has one man’s conscience been so thoroughly debated and dissected in public.

What’s remarkable about this analysis is the largely unquestioned assumption that Cohen will be indicted, and that he has incriminating information on Trump to trade for leniency. On the former point, we don’t know, of course, but on Friday his own lawyer, in the course of fighting off a lawsuit by Daniels, predicted that an indictment might be imminent. The investigation was reportedly focused on Cohen’s role in paying off Daniels to keep quiet about her relationship with Trump. But Cohen has a business empire of his own, in taxi medallions and real estate, that could also be the meat in the ham sandwich that, as the saying goes, prosecutors can indict at will.

As for Trump, Bloomberg reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein assured him last week that he isn’t a “target” of the U.S. attorney’s investigation, but there’s a widespread belief that all that could change with a word from Cohen.

Trump himself weighed in with a series of tweets Saturday morning, reassuring his followers that “I don’t see Michael doing that despite the horrible Witch Hunt and the dishonest media!”
“Most people will flip if the Government lets them out of trouble,” Trump wrote, adding pointedly: “…even if it means lying or making up stories.”

But Cohen is too loyal to do that, isn’t he?

I do not presume to know another man’s heart. But I side with the skeptics who, when Cohen says he’d take a bullet for Trump, suspect he has in mind at worst a flesh wound. From the evidence, Trump and Cohen did not have a particularly long or close friendship; they met when Cohen bought an apartment in a Trump building, and their relationship seems to have been mostly about business. And as the Times reported Friday, Trump hasn’t always been kind to Cohen, who didn’t get the White House job he is said to have coveted — or, in the pungent phrasing of Trump confidant Roger Stone, “Donald goes out of his way to treat him like garbage.”

But the larger point is that if Trump is relying on personal loyalty to see him through this crisis, it is further evidence that the self-proclaimed master dealmaker and negotiator is a self-deluded fool. It is a quality Trump is known to prize above all others; in “The Art of the Deal” he lavishes praise on his onetime mentor Roy Cohn for how he stood by his friends, leaving out the fact that he cut off contact with Cohn when the latter was dying of AIDS. Former FBI director James Comey — who learned about the limits of loyalty as a U.S. attorney, when he used informants to take down the leaders of the Gambino crime family —  described Trump demanding his “loyalty” in a conversation “like Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony.” Comey offered “honesty” instead. As the title of his new book signifies, he held himself to “a higher loyalty,” to the country and the Constitution. (Trump has denied the conversation.)

In any case, the request was meaningless. Loyalty to an individual — rather than a principle or an institution, and outside of marriage or family — is a concept that basically outlived its usefulness with the decline of feudalism. In modern society, it is a transactional virtue at best. Legislators are loyal to their party leaders to the extent they expect to be rewarded for it. Soldiers are loyal to one another, to the point of risking their own lives, because they trust their comrades to do the same for them. At worst, loyalty is a negative virtue and an impediment to justice, invoked by gangsters to … well, keep their fellows from ratting them out to prosecutors. Ask John Gotti how well that turned out for him.

Hillary Clinton surrounded herself with exceptionally loyal aides, and look where it got her. Clinton, unlike Trump, was loyal to her staff in return, and, as I have argued, not necessarily to her advantage. She should have been able to see the danger in having as her closest aide someone whose husband was under investigation for sending lewd messages to teenagers, and cut ties with Huma Abedin before the FBI seized her computer, setting in motion the chain of events that Clinton believes cost her the election. But that would have been disloyal of her.

In Trump’s current situation, he might consider heeding the advice of legal scholar Alan Dershowitz, who said on CNN: “I have told every client I have represented over the last 53 years: Assume your best friend will flip. The president has to assume that his closest friends, his greatest associates, the people he trusts the most, if exposed to the pressure, the risk of life imprisonment, will flip.” Among the Trump confidants caught up in Mueller’s investigation, the most prominent holdout against the pressure to cut a deal is former campaign chief Paul Manafort, who had barely any personal relationship with Trump. Michael Flynn and Rick Gates, who were much closer to the president during and after the campaign, have both pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the investigation.
It demonstrates the truth of the aphorism attributed to the late President Harry S Truman: You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog. Dogs, unlike lawyers, have been bred over millennia for loyalty. And they never talk.

It might be too late, though, for Trump, who is the first president in more than 100 years who doesn’t own a dog.

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