What else could Michael Cohen provide investigators beyond a vague conversation over a scandal cleanup? This metric didn’t get a lot of notice yesterday after the release of the taped conversation between Donald Trump and Michael Cohen, but the scope of his surreptitious recording certainly seems noteworthy. Only one conversation has any substantive discussion with Trump, but federal investigators have over a hundred more with other people.
Perhaps more than a few of his clients should start worrying:
The government has seized more than 100 recordings that Cohen made of his conversations with people discussing matters that could relate to Trump and his businesses and with Trump himself talking, according to two people familiar with the recordings. Cohen appeared to make some recordings with an iPhone — without telling anyone he was taping them.
A significant portion of the recordings is Cohen surreptitiously recording reporters who met with or questioned Cohen about Trump during the campaign and after Trump’s election, the people said.
Trump’s voice is on several of the recordings, but only in snippets — typically when he is returning a call from Cohen or asking Cohen on a voice-mail message to call him back, the people said. The only recording in which Trump and Cohen have a substantive conversation is the one that Davis released Tuesday, according to these people.
This may explain why Cohen seems eager to show that he’s “made a turn,” as his attorney Lanny Davis put it this week. If Cohen made that many recordings, it’s likely to put him in more legal danger than it will Trump, at least directly. While the tapes might be admissible in general because of New York’s single-party consent law, the specific conversations will have to clear the hearsay bar to be admitted into evidence against others not involved in the conversations. A conversation between Cohen and someone else other than Trump could be tough to fit in any of the normal hearsay exception rules in a Trump trial, no matter what it contained.
They will, however, make for good investigatory material, and possibly good leverage to turn others into material witnesses — or defendants. Anyone caught on those tapes conspiring to commit crimes can’t claim hearsay if the feds charge them directly. That possibility will provide a powerful incentive to cooperate on broader investigations. No one in that calculation has more incentives than the man who made the recordings, potentially putting himself at the center of who-knows-how-many liable situations.
It’s not a question of whether Cohen wants to be a “punching bag anymore” for Trump, but whether he wants to be a punching bag for federal prosecutors in the future:
In the nearly four months since FBI agents raided his office, home and hotel room, Cohen has felt wounded and abandoned by Trump, waiting for calls or even a signal of support that never came. Cohen got frustrated when Trump started talking about him in the past tense, panicked last month when he thought the president no longer cared about his plight, and became furious when Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani contradicted some of his accounts, according to his associates. …
“He had to hit a reset button,” Davis said in an interview. “He had to say he respected the FBI. He had to say he believed the intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the election. He had to describe the Trump Tower meeting as extremely poor judgment at best. And, ultimately, he said, ‘I’m not going to be a punching bag anymore,’ which he had been when he said, ‘I’ll take a bullet.’”
Perhaps that’s a small part of it, but Cohen’s got much bigger problems than Trump’s fickle affections. Lanny Davis is doing an expert job of muddying up the fact that Cohen’s put himself in a world of trouble with these tapes, and it’s no accident that Cohen hired him just as he realized it. As Politico notes, however, it might end up backfiring:
Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen, the man who once boasted he would take a bullet for his boss, is trying to repackage himself as someone who’s on a mission to tell truth to power — and he’s leaning on the Clintons’ former scandal manager to help him do it. …
But former prosecutors said that while Davis’ PR blitz might help win Cohen fans among anti-Trump liberals, it could hurt his standing with the federal prosecutors who are investigating him.
“This spectacle is doing nothing to help Cohen get a better deal from prosecutors,” said Renato Mariotti, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago.
“No prosecutor wants a witness to stake out many public positions on issues he might be asked to testify about,” added Mariotti, who is a paid CNN contributor. “By looking so eager to flip, Cohen is reducing his leverage. He should at least pretend like he needs a better deal to convince him to turn on Trump.”
No, but it’s a good way to distract the media from whatever else comes down the pike from prosecutors. The more he makes this all about Trump, the better off Cohen is — in terms of media sympathy, at least.