Michael Cohen leaves court in New York.
By Jeenah Moon/The New York Times/Redux.
Attorneys for Donald Trump were dealt another major blow on Friday as Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign chairman, agreed to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller as part of a deal that involved pleading guilty to two conspiracy charges. Andrew Weissmann, a prosecutor from Mueller’s office, explained to the judge that as part of the deal, all other charges against Manafort will be dropped at sentencing or “at the agreement of successful cooperation.” Under the agreement, Manafort agreed to forfeit four properties and multiple bank accounts, along with cooperating with investigators by participating in interviews, providing documents and testifying in court.
Manafort is one of a number of members of Trump’s inner circle who have cut deals with the special counsel’s office, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Manafort deputy Rick Gates. In recent weeks, it has also become common knowledge among close friends of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, that Cohen is talking to the Mueller team, according to people familiar with the situation. (Cohen did not respond to request for comment, nor did his attorney, Guy Petrillo. A spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment.)
The extent and purpose of those talks is not entirely clear. Last month, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts of tax evasion, lying to a bank, and campaign-finance violations. During his allocution in front of a packed courtroom, Cohen read carefully chosen words stating that Trump had directed him to make payments to two women who had alleged affairs with the then-candidate, implicating the president as his co-conspirator. Trump subsequently criticized Cohen, contrasting his disloyalty with the contemporaneous actions of Manafort, who he tweeted had “refused to break” by making up stories in order to get a deal. “Such respect for a brave man!” he added. (Trump has denied sexual relationships with both women, and has maintained that he did nothing wrong.)
For months, Cohen has appeared to signal his willingness to cooperate with the government, both with the Southern District of New York and the special counsel’s office. While prosecutors for the Southern District did not initially approach Cohen about a cooperating agreement before he pleaded guilty, many speculated that he could still cut a deal in the months between the plea and his sentencing in December. Those familiar with Cohen’s thinking were unsure about what he might have to offer prosecutors, but because he had worked so closely with Trump and his family for more than a decade, it was assumed that he could potentially be a useful corroborating witness.
It is a remarkable reversal from a year ago, when Cohen told me he would take a bullet for the president. But Cohen has now been squeezed financially, emotionally, and legally in a way he could not have imagined. Since last month, his primary concern has been his family—what a prison sentence could mean for them, and what his financial situation will look like, given his mounting legal bills and lack of income. He had expressed to friends that he was willing to share what he knows, both because he wants to be on the right side of history, and to spare them. As one longtime friend of Cohen’s put it to me, “He doesn’t feel he needs to go out of his way to protect Trump anymore, particularly because Trump has gone out of his way to hurt Michael.” Earlier this week, Cohen and his attorney sat down with New York state tax-department officials, who subpoenaed him last month as part of their inquiry into the Trump Foundation.
According to people close to him, Cohen closely watched the White House’s reaction to his allocution in court last month. He listened as Trump railed against anyone who makes a plea deal, telling Fox News that cooperating with the government “almost ought to be outlawed.” And he has bristled at the feeling that he has taken the fall for a man who has refused to take any responsibility or face any consequence himself. In conversations with Mueller’s team, he is making good on what he told ABC earlier this summer: that his loyalty to Trump is no longer his lodestar.