Warning shot from Cohen: “I will not be a punching bag as part of anyone’s defense strategy"

Michael Cohen has a message for Donald Trump, and maybe for prosecutors as well. The man who once vowed to “take a bullet” if necessary to protect his most famous client told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that his priorities have changed — and that “my wife, my daughter and my son, and this country have my first loyalty.” He also told the Good Morning America host that he’s nobody’s patsy:

When I asked Cohen how he might respond if the president or his legal team come after him — to try and discredit him and the work he did for Mr. Trump over the last decade — he sat up straight. His voice gained strength.

“I will not be a punching bag as part of anyone’s defense strategy,” he said emphatically. “I am not a villain of this story, and I will not allow others to try to depict me that way.”

Cohen’s in the middle of changing attorneys, recently hiring former federal prosecutor Guy Petrillo to take over his defense. Petrillo used to work in the same office that is investigating him, a move that gives Cohen a wide range of options. If he has to fight any charges (none have been filed yet), Petrillo will know his courtroom adversaries well enough to anticipate their attacks. On the other hand, if Cohen wants to cooperate, Petrillo would be well connected to get him the best deal possible.

But which is it? Cohen threw out some big hints in the interview by praising the FBI, the prosecutors in his case, and going out of his way to castigate the Russians for attempting to meddle in the election:

“I don’t like the term witch hunt,” he said, adding that he condemned Russia for interfering in the 2016 election.

“As an American, I repudiate Russia’s or any other foreign government’s attempt to interfere or meddle in our democratic process, and I would call on all Americans to do the same,” he said.

And in a direct rebuttal to President Trump, who sent out a tweet last week repeating Vladimir Putin’s claim that Russia did not interfere in our election, Cohen added this: “Simply accepting the denial of Mr. Putin is unsustainable.”

That doesn’t exactly sound like pound sand to prosecutors, especially to Robert Mueller.

Perhaps more ominously for Trump, Cohen has stopped publicly claiming that the payment to Stormy Daniels was his idea alone. In fact, he’s stopped answering the question altogether, although he tells Stephanopoulos that “I want to answer.” His attorneys have advised him to stop talking about the case, Cohen explained, and so he’s not commenting at all. Given that the heart of any case against Cohen relates directly to this point, one can understand why his attorneys want him to keep quiet about it. If Cohen’s ready to cut a deal on this issue, it could get very unpleasant for Trump, although the failed prosecution of John Edwards for a similar set of circumstances calls into question just how unpleasant it could possibly get.

Still, the clear tenor of the interview as reported by ABC is one of distance, if not outright hostility, on Cohen’s part when it comes to Trump. Perhaps nothing at all will come out of this, but it’s not a good sign for the White House that Cohen clearly thinks he’s in big trouble and is sending out semaphore signals to prosecutors about cutting a deal. Or maybe the real semaphore signal is this: Pardon me soon or live to regret it?