Michael Cohen’s Next Move May Be a Sit-Down With Prosecutors
(Bloomberg) -- Michael Cohen may be signaling publicly that he’s open to cooperating with U.S. investigators. If he goes that way, his next move is probably a private pitch to the government.
With U.S. prosecutors considering whether to charge President Donald Trump’s former fixer, Cohen’s lawyers may reach out to the U.S. attorney in Manhattan for a so-called proffer meeting, where their client would confidentially detail his knowledge of any crimes committed by him or others, legal experts said.
The goal: Win a cooperation agreement that might save him from prison.
A deal isn’t certain for Cohen, a longtime Trump aide who was also a top executive of the Trump Organization. Much depends on what he tells investigators -- whether it’s about hush payments to women who wanted to go public with personal information about Trump, or the president’s alleged ties to Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, or practices at the Trump family business, which is also under scrutiny.
“He has to have information that’s valuable on other targets, and he also has to be psychologically ready to talk about those people,” said Mimi Rocah, a former U.S. prosecutor in Manhattan. “They’d find out what information he has, how truthful he’s going to be, how it fits in with other evidence they have, and determine if they can trust him.”
“Not everyone gets to cooperate,” she added.
With prosecutors examining Cohen’s personal financial dealings, the likelihood of a proffer swelled on Monday after ABC News published an interview in which Cohen praised the FBI and said his family and country came before his loyalty to the president.
His comments came as he was set to end his joint defense agreement with Trump that allowed the two legal teams to work together by sharing information and documents, a person familiar with the matter has said. The shift, which often occurs after the interests of the clients diverge, was seen as a possible sign that Cohen planned to cooperate.
“There were a lot of signals in his interview that he’s moving in the direction of cooperation,” said Rocah, who worked for Cohen’s new defense attorney, Guy Petrillo, when the two were U.S. prosecutors. “I have been hesitant to read signs before, but this seems pretty strong.”
Cohen hasn’t been charged with a crime, but as Trump’s longtime personal attorney he was intimately involved with his personal dealings, including facilitating a $130,000 payment to the adult-film star known as Stormy Daniels, to keep her silent just before the election about a tryst she says she had with Trump over a decade ago.
Cohen was also deeply involved in the Trump Organization’s attempt to develop Trump Tower Moscow in 2013, a proposal in which Cohen talked about the involvement of President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials. A report by House Republicans in April concluded that boasts by Cohen and Trump’s Russian-born business associate Felix Sater about Putin’s involvement were “mere puffery.”
“If Cohen intends to cooperate, the usual process in the Southern District of New York is that the defendant needs to admit to all of their wrongdoing and to plead guilty to criminal conduct, while promising to cooperate fully and truthfully with the investigation,” said Harry Sandick, a former Manhattan federal prosecutor.
The pressure on Cohen is substantial. Prosecutors have begun to review almost 4 million items from his office, home, hotel room and electronic devices in an April 9 raid. Crucially, the U.S. must have already had significant evidence against Cohen to persuade a judge to approve a search warrant of his premises, Sandick said.
There are signs Cohen feels abandoned by Trump, who has sought to distance himself from his ex-lawyer and political fixer. Cohen, meanwhile, appears under mounting financial pressure as his law firm’s few clients flee, his taxi-medallion business loses value and his legal costs grow.
Cohen’s in-laws, Fima and Ania Shusterman, recently rented three units they owned in Trump World Tower, near the United Nations in Manhattan, after unsuccessfully trying to sell them, according to people familiar with the matter.
Even a former Cohen business associate, Evgeny “Gene” Freidman, known as the Taxi King, may pose a threat. Freidman in May pleaded guilty to state tax charges and appears to be cooperating with prosecutors, although what that help is about isn’t clear. New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood is probing a Trump charity, the Eric Trump Foundation, where Cohen was a board member.
“Once I understand what charges might be filed against me, if any at all, I will defer to my new counsel, Guy Petrillo, for guidance,” Cohen told ABC News.
Petrillo didn’t return a call for comment. Dawn Dearden, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Richard Berman in Manhattan, declined to comment.
A cooperation deal would probably require Cohen to work with prosecutors for Berman, Underwood and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and who referred the Cohen probe to Berman. Cooperators typically agree to testify in court, provide guidance to investigators and come clean about prior wrongdoing.
Cohen isn’t guaranteed to get a deal, even if he wants one. Information he offers may be of little value, he may blanch at harsh terms demanded by the government, he could hold out hope for a presidential pardon, or he could decide to take his chances with a jury if he’s charged, Sandick said.
Should he proffer but not reach a deal, nothing he says in those discussions can be used against him directly at a trial, though prosecutors could cross-examine him about his statements if his testimony contradicts what he tells the government.
Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, said Cohen may be facing a lengthy prison term if he’s charged and convicted. “Even a reduction of a half or a third of the amount of time he’d spend in prison would mean a lot to someone like him,” Mariotti said.
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