That Time Michael Cohen Stuffed Trump’s Cash in a Walmart Bag

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Several months before Donald Trump rolled down an escalator in Trump Tower in 2015 to announce his presidential bid, a contractor showed up at the building to collect a payment from the Trump Organization. Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal attorney at the time, gave the guy $12,000 to $13,000 — in cash — stuffed inside a Walmart bag.

Because this was the Trump Organization and Michael Cohen was Michael Cohen, the payment was well short of the $50,000 the contractor, John Gauger, claimed he was owed. Because this was Team Trump gearing up for a White House run, Gauger’s work involved trying to rig a pair of online polls to make it appear that respondents believed Trump was a leading business figure and a top Republican presidential contender. And because all of this took place in Trumplandia, Gauger also runs the information technology department at a prominent Christian educational institution, Liberty University — and he met Cohen because the university’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., is an avid Trump supporter who has described the president as “a good, moral person.”

Cohen and the contractor’s dealings came to light Thursday courtesy of bravura reporting in the Wall Street Journal, and it spawned some priceless reactions.

“As for the @WSJ article on poll rigging, what I did was at the direction of and for the sole benefit of @realDonaldTrump @POTUS,” Cohen tweeted. “I truly regret my blind loyalty to a man who doesn’t deserve it.”

That tweet got Rudy Giuliani, a ubiquitous Trump spokesman, all worked up. “My response will be a cleaned-up version of ‘Bullshit,’” he told the Journal. “This is not true. The president did not know about this if it happened.”

Whatever Giuliani may or may not know about something he says may or may not have happened, the rest of us can weigh the Journal’s reporting against what we already know about Trump (who always kept a close eye on every dime traveling through his boutique marketing and licensing operation) and Cohen (who was recently sentenced to three years in prison for violating campaign-finance laws, evading taxes, and lying to Congress).

For starters, the Trump Organization hasn’t denied that it reimbursed Cohen $420,000 for, among other things, what he claimed was a $50,000 payment to Gauger (it appears, according to court documents and the Journal, that Cohen overbilled the Trumps by about $37,000 on that one). The funds were also meant to make Cohen whole on $130,000 in hush money he paid to Stephanie Clifford, a porn star known as Stormy Daniels, who said she had an extramarital sexual liaison with the president. In a delicious, Trumpian move, Cohen also apparently used some of the funds to pay for a Twitter site, @WomenForCohen, that praised the lawyer as “Snazzy looking & ready to #MAGA” while being (sic) “Strong, pit bull, sex symbol, no nonsense, business oriented and ready to make a difference!”

The bulk of the payments to Cohen, according to the Journal, came out of Trump’s personal accounts and not the Trump Organization’s coffers. Trump, whom Cohen already captured in a tape recording discussing the best way to handle the Daniels payments, may not have been a hands-on business manager throughout his troubled career. But very little money and no significant deals transited the Trump Organization without his approval. Trump may not micromanage all aspects of his presidency, either, but when it comes to things that matter to him — his media presence and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of possible ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, for example — he’s stayed right on top of things.

So could Cohen get $50,000 to fund digital finagling, without Trump knowing? It’s possible, of course, but unlikely. (Cohen’s only receipt meant to verify that the $50,000 was, indeed, a payment to a contractor was, apparently, a handwritten note for “tech services.”) 

If Trump knew of and approved the payment to Cohen to rig some polls, it also raises questions about the president’s knowledge of and role in other significant events that have drawn investigators’ attention. Did Trump know about and approve a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower that took place because some Russian visitors promised Donald Trump Jr. compromising information about Hillary Clinton? Did Trump know that his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and Cohen had dealings or took meetings with Kremlin allies? Did Trump know that murky funds were flowing out of Eastern Europe and into a prized hotel project in Manhattan?

Federal prosecutors have already said in court papers that Trump directed Cohen to give hush money to Daniels. BuzzFeed reported Thursday night that Trump also told Cohen to lie to Congress about his efforts during the presidential campaign to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. BuzzFeed also reported that Trump encouraged Cohen to pursue a plan in which Trump would travel to Russia to meet with Vladimir Putin to secure the Russian president’s support for the Moscow project.

That’s a lot of guidance, isn’t it? And it all suggests that Trump, who micromanages with zeal, is neither an innocent bystander nor a bit player in many of the crimes prosecutors and investigators are examining. He appears to be the director.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”

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