Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former fixer and personal attorney, has been called a lot of things over the years. Today, he is primarily known as the first person to be thrown under the Trump bus who decided to fight back.
Cohen has testified before Congress multiple times, sat through grueling court cases, testified before grand juries — all to speak the truth about former President Donald Trump.
I recently spoke to Cohen after he gave testimony in the New York civil case against Donald Trump’s business empire — where Trump himself is scheduled to testify on Monday. It was the first time the two men had been in the same room in five years, but Cohen said he had no emotional reaction to their reunion. “I felt absolutely nothing,” he told me. It was like “when you’re walking down the street and you pass somebody who you do not know. It’s not that you wish anything bad on that individual, it’s just you feel nothing for them. You don’t know them, you don’t care. That’s exactly how I felt. I wasn’t there to make friends with Donald. I wasn’t there to protect Donald. I wasn’t there to harm Donald. I was there to tell the truth, and that’s all that I did.”
Cohen has gone after Trump in two bestselling books, most recently Revenge: How Donald Trump Weaponized the United States Department of Justice Against His Critics, but may have damaged his former boss far worse in that New York courtroom, where Trump faces losing hundreds of millions of dollars because of his fraudulent business dealings. Cohen predicts that the ex-president faces a potential judgment of $600 million or more, and cautions, “Mind you, he does not have that in equity. So when these assets get sold — and remember, he is low basis in most if not all of these assets — take the tax implications and then subtract from that the outstanding mortgages that may exist. Technically, there’s nothing left.”
Donald Trump broke? That would be something to see, but Cohen believes there is a worse fate waiting for Trump than losing his fortune. He won’t win the 2024 election, Cohen says, and “that’s his ‘get out of jail free’ card. He’s not running for anything other than to stay out of jail.” As for the possibility of actual prison time, Cohen says, “Loss of freedom, I’m talking firsthand knowledge now — that really sucks, man. That’s not on his plate right now, but when that is in front of him, I promise you, it’s going to hit him as hard as this case is currently hitting.”
Watch my “Salon Talks” interview with Michael Cohen or read a transcript of our conversation below, edited for length and clarity.
Let’s just start with your recent testimony in the New York case. How did you feel about that? It was the first time you were in a room with Donald Trump for about five years. What was it like?
Like I said to some of the other members of the press, it was absolutely nothing. I felt absolutely nothing. Very similar to when you’re walking down the street and you pass somebody who you do not know. It’s not that you wish anything bad on that individual, it’s just you feel nothing for them. You don’t know them, you don’t care. That’s exactly how I felt. I wasn’t there to make friends with Donald. I wasn’t there to protect Donald. I wasn’t there to harm Donald. I was there to tell the truth, and that’s all that I did.
How did he look to you? I’ve seen him since he left the White House, he doesn’t seem as in good a shape as he was when I last saw him.
That’s a big presumption that he was ever in good shape. The answer is, he didn’t look good at all. In fact, he looked beaten up and weathered. He looked really disheveled and really just different. He looked like somebody had just sucked the life out of him. Rest assured, this New York case is really affecting him, specifically because it’s about his money. His money is his id, his ego, his superego, all combined into one narcissistic sociopath who for the last, what, 70-plus years — let’s just say his whole life has been predicated on his wealth and his standing. What this attorney general case threatens to do is to basically expose the emperor without his clothes and, according to Stormy Daniels, that’s not a pretty picture.
This trial, at this point, is just about how much money they’re going to take, right?
Correct. This case is no longer about liability. He lost that in the motion where Judge [Arthur] Engoron ruled from the bench that the Trump Organization committed fraud. As a direct result, the license to operate in the state of New York will be revoked. That’s why they’ve now assigned a receiver in order to prevent the transfer, sale or encumbrance of any of those assets.
The reason they did that is because the second part of the trial is all about disgorgement. How much money is the state going to fine him as a direct result of the actions that he took with those statements of financial condition? We know that it is a baseline. The bottom number is $250 million. Mind you, that doesn’t even begin to touch the additional disgorgement that they’re going to be looking for, nor does it take into consideration the fines and the penalties associated with this type of a case. So, I suspect it’s going to be substantially more than the $250 million. In fact, I’ve been so bold as to make a prediction that it’ll be between $600 and $700 million.
Mind you, he does not have that in equity. So when these assets get sold — remember, he is low-basis in most if not all of these assets — take the tax implications and then subtract from that the outstanding mortgages that may exist. Technically, there’s nothing left.
You and I both know, me from covering him, and you from working with him, that this will hit him harder than anything else — being considered broke.
Let’s put it this way: Right now, that’s what he’s confronted with. As I previously stated, it’s his id, his ego and his superego. Will that hit him harder than the loss of his freedom when he ultimately sits for the Jan. 6 criminal case, or for the Mar-a-Lago documents case, or for the Manhattan district attorney’s criminal case? Loss of freedom, and I’m talking firsthand knowledge now, that really sucks, man. I can tell you. While that’s not on his plate right now, so he doesn’t think about it, when that is in front of him, and that’s the issue, I promise you, it’s going to hit him as hard as this case is currently hitting.
Do you think he’ll be on the ballot in 2024? If so, do you think he’ll win?
I don’t think he’s going to win, but I do think he’s going to be on the ballot, short of some intervening circumstance. I’m not even referring to if he’s criminally convicted. I think he’ll run from a prison cell if that’s what he believes will ultimately get him off the liabilities that he’s currently facing.
The presidential race is in his mind, and it should be in all of our minds. It is the “get out of jail free” card for him. It’s his only option. We know that he’s guilty on, if not all of them, the vast majority of the 91 counts that are currently charged against him. The only way that he ends up defeating that is if, in fact, he becomes president. So, he’s not looking to become president in order to benefit America or Americans. He’s once again doing it to benefit himself.
Something interesting happened at the trial when I was on the stand. Alina Habba, his lawyer, started asking me questions about some of my testimony before congressional committees, where I’ve appeared seven different times. She asked me, “Were you specifically asked by Donald Trump to inflate the statement of financial condition?” And I said, “No.” And she goes, “No. What do you mean no? You testified before that he told you to inflate the numbers.”
Thank goodness the New York AG’s prosecutors, on redirect, asked me about this. What I tried to explain is, when they used the word “specifically” — and how many times, Brian, have you and I had this conversation offline? — Donald Trump speaks like a mob boss. He doesn’t turn around and say to you, “Michael, Allen” — meaning Allen Weisselberg — “I want you guys to inflate my net worth, let’s say, from $5.5 billion to $8 billion, $7 billion, whatever the number might be. Go into the back and figure it out and come back and show me how you’re going to do it.” That’s not how he speaks. What he said specifically was, and this was why I had to say no, “I’m not worth $5.5 billion. In fact, I’m worth more than 6, probably 7. It could even be 8. Go into the back, go take a look, figure it out and come back and see me.” That’s how he speaks.
So you don’t have to be a code-breaker, especially when you work for him as long as I did, to understand what he wants you to do. How you know that, which I explained, is because we brought the document back to him with the numbers altered in red pen, so he could see the new bottom-line number, approve it and give it back to Allen so it could be bound by Mazars, the accounting firm who handled the statement of financial condition.
Now, the greatest thing is, as soon as Trump comes out of the courtroom, he’s declaring victory: “We just won the case.” But of course he had to go and attack Judge Engoron and his law secretary. The interesting thing here is that his sycophantic, moronic MAGA followers are all sitting there saying, “Well, Cohen lied. He lied. Cohen’s a liar.” Right? But the only person who actually lied during my two days on the stand was Donald himself.
When Judge Engoron wasn’t having any of it, he turned around and he put Donald on the stand under oath and asked him, “Who were you talking about when you went outside these courtroom doors and spoke to the press?” And he said, “Michael Cohen.” The judge said, “I don’t believe that you’re a credible witness.” In fact, he fined him another $10,000 and warned him for the last time that this nonsense has to stop. So who’s the liar here? There’s more than one side to the story, but these MAGAts are really something special. They refuse to open their ears. They refuse to open their eyes. It’s almost like don’t listen to what others are saying and don’t see what you see.
When you were sent to jail — full disclosure, you and I were writing your second book, and we talked about the information you wanted to get from the Department of Justice. We filed a FOIA about your unconstitutional remand. For two years now, you’ve been trying to get information that would prove some of the allegations that you’ve made against Donald Trump. We both know the information is there. Unfold that a little bit, because MAGA members have said the DOJ has been weaponized under Biden to go after Trump. Your allegation is that weaponization of the DOJ occurred under Bill Barr, to assist Donald Trump. Bill Barr has almost redeemed himself now — he’s on talk shows, talking about what a great guy he is and what a horrible person Donald Trump is. But Bill Barr made Donald Trump possible as well. So I’d like you to unpack some of that.
So we have to start with the first part, and it’s in the name of the book, Revenge: How Donald Trump Weaponized the United States Department of Justice Against His Critics. What Donald does, and he’s excellent at it, he’s the great deflector. Whatever he knows that he has done to others, he tries to impugn upon the next person. In this case, it would be Joe Biden. That’s just who he is, and that’s how he rolls.
As I started writing Revenge, the reason that I ended up calling you, Brian, was because I could get nowhere in terms of interviews with people. I was unable to get the information that I needed to finish this book. What Revenge lays out for the reader is the most disgraceful prosecution of an American citizen in at least the last 100 years, orchestrated by the president of the United States and his willing and complicit attorney general, in this case Bill Barr, all in order to silence a critic. One thing that we learned in your interviews on my behalf with so many people, from FBI agents, former and present, to judges, is that all the documents in the possession of government are being sealed. This is amazing, almost like the way that they sealed the Kennedy assassination. It’s truly spectacular to see. When we first filed that FOIA, they came back with an acknowledgment that there were zero documents responsive to our request.
I’ll predicate this by saying that when you file a FOIA, one thing they always tell you is that you could violate third-party privacy rights. You signed a waiver saying, “Look, I want the documents that are about me. These are my documents.”
They’re really America’s documents. The same way the documents that Trump stole and kept at Mar-a-Lago do not belong to him. They belong to the American people. The point is to open up the country’s eyes to how dangerous a human being Donald Trump is toward democracy. But going back to the section, when we put in that FOIA request, they responded that there are no documents in our possession, nothing, zero. Well, I knew that that was a lie, because somehow or another I had four or five documents that made clear that their reply to our request was inaccurate.
At which point you were kind enough to reach out to Mark Zaid, a renowned attorney in this area, you returned those documents then to him, he filed the action and after three, four months they reply back, “Oops, we made a mistake. We apologize. In fact, there are documents that are responsive to your FOIA request,” and it’s not zero, it wasn’t 100, it was 486,000 documents! We’re not talking about seven or eight, where it’s an obvious mistake simply because there were so few. It’s 486,000 documents.
Now, because it dealt with a constitutional issue, I was supposed to receive priority, which is a consideration in processing. They were supposed to process a minimum of 500 documents per month. Now, that would take, if you do the math, greater than 90 years to get all the documents. Now, of course all they need to do is stick it on a thumb drive, send it to us and allow me to do it on my own. But no, that’s never going to happen. Now this has rolled over into the Biden administration, and it is frustrating to me as frustrating can be. After, I think, close to 20 months now, they said, “Can you do us a favor?” Get a load of this s**t! “Can you do us a favor and alter your request to take out the 302s,” which are grand jury documents that even Mark said I probably wouldn’t be able to get. I said, “OK, fine.” That took us down to like 90,000 documents.
This is a closed case. This is done. This is a Freedom of Information request about a case that you are involved in and should have access to. It was Bill Barr who weaponized the DOJ against you and said no. The reason why this is important for all Americans is that if this can happen to you in such a high-profile case, imagine what will happen to others who don’t have the profile or the access to the media that you have.
It’s an absolute nightmare. Twenty months have now gone by and not a single document turned over. They’ve even turned around and expanded their right not to deliver them by claiming that there’s like 15 governmental agencies, from the FBI to the CIA to the NSA to the Bureau of Prisons, you name it, that need to see the documents before they release them. They’re saying that some of the documents could risk the lives or reveal the identities of federal agents.
The whole thing is so absurd. So many members of Congress now have asked for investigations to be opened, and FOIA doesn’t care. They don’t care who’s making the request. It started out with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and Rep. Ted Lieu. They made a request saying, “This is ridiculous. We want documentation to show it.” Then it was Sen. Dick Durbin regarding the IRS attack on me, despite the fact I have never not paid taxes. I’ve never asked for an extension. I’ve never had overseas bank accounts.
Even more members of Congress jumped in on it. Steve Cohen, Jamie Raskin, Dan Goldman. So many members of Congress have asked, and so far nothing. Not a single piece of paper, not one. Shame on the Biden administration for not pushing this thing through. I am a political prisoner, the first political prisoner held by my own country because I refuse to waive my First Amendment constitutional right and not publish a book, not do media, not speak to anybody — that’s what the former president of the United States wanted. So, instead, what do they do? They jail their critics.
This is the last part I wanted to bring up, how dangerous Donald Trump is, or legitimately could be. Don’t take my word for it. Tell all your listeners and readers to Google this, and I want you to understand these are not my words. These are the words of the deranged former president who said that if he wins the presidency again, the first thing he’s going to do is to rewrite the Constitution. The fact that anybody could even make such a statement, especially somebody who barely writes or reads — he’s going to rewrite the Constitution. This is not a joke. This is the danger of Donald Trump.
He intends to strip the legislative branch and the judiciary of their powers under the tripartite system of United States government and confer all power to the executive branch. In his mind, that’s the only way that things can get done. There’s too much fighting, there’s too much going back and forth between Congress and the Supreme Court. So he goes, “I’m going to confer all power to the executive branch.” What is he really saying? He’s conferring all the power of government, the entire gambit, to himself, the chief executive, so he can do whatever he wants.
Rest assured, Brian, people like yourself, certainly myself, journalists, members of the court, members of Congress, members of the Supreme Court of the United States — he can have a special group, no different than under Nazi Germany or under Stalin, show up to your home, kick your door down, bag you, tag you and put you in some sort of facility where nobody knows, a gulag. That’s the power that he wants. The only other people I can think of who have that sort of power are supreme leaders like Mohammed bin Salman, Kim Jong-un, dictators like Vladimir Putin. That’s the power that Donald Trump seeks for himself.
What do you predict will happen in the next few months? I know you’re not done in court, but where do you see this going with Trump?
This case with the New York attorney general is slated to end by Dec. 22. That gives like two and a half months before the March case that has to do with the attempt to overturn the election, the Jack Smith case in Washington. Then we also have — and this is going to be complicated, because you can’t have two of these going on at the same time — the Manhattan district attorney’s case that’s slated to start, I think, around March 22. I don’t know which one’s going to get put off. The Jack Smith case may not be ready for trial at that time.
There’s Colorado, too. Remember? They’re trying to ban him from the ballot. That one is already ongoing in Colorado.
Yeah. I’ll tell you, personally, I don’t like that. I listened to Chris Christie and I agree with him on this point: That’s only going to bolster his followers, these MAGA morons, into saying, “Well, this whole thing is about keeping Trump off the ballot.” I say, bull. Nah, let’s just kill them at the ballot box. That’s what you want to do. You want to create a massive blue tidal wave. Something I talk about regularly on my two podcasts is that we all need to ensure we are registered to vote in the 2024 election. It is the single most important thing that you could do. Don’t just make sure that you’re registered. Make sure that your family, your friends, your co-workers, the person that walks your dog are all registered. It’s easy to do. We need a blue tidal wave to drown out this red MAGA nonsense, because the only way that we end up destroying Trumpism and this MAGA ideology is to vote them all out of office, let them scurry back to whatever rock that they came out from. Democracy, America, our future — it’s worth it.
How do you see the Georgia case going down? You’re a former attorney and in that RICO case, Fulton County D.A. Fani Willis has cornered many people, including Mark Meadows, who are already taking plea deals. That doesn’t look good for Donald.
It clearly doesn’t. You’re talking about people that were in that inner circle with him, and now they will be testifying against him. Personally, I have an issue with prosecutors giving so many people sweetheart deals. They were giving so many people immunity and they’re giving them these incredible breaks for attempting to overturn a free and fair election. That is the basic core of our American democracy, the peaceful transfer of power, turning around and congratulating the victor in a presidential race. Not only congratulating them, wishing them well because wishing the next president well means that you’re wishing America well.
Not Donald. He’s such a petulant animal, such a child, that he can’t wish the next guy well. He would rather see the country burn down because he’s not the leader, because he lost. Instead of acknowledging the reasons that he lost, he accomplished nothing. All he did is sow divisiveness, hatred, racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism. Every promise that he made to the American people never came to fruition. Whether it’s building the wall to repealing Obamacare, whatever their reason was for voting for him, he failed them. A million Americans died as a result of COVID on his watch.
My final question for you has to do with what MAGA members often say about you, which is that you would still be with Donald today if things hadn’t gone sour for you. What endears you to me is your response to those people. It’s one of the most honest things I’ve ever heard anybody say. I’d like to give you the opportunity to explain to people again why you are where you are in the path that you chose.
I didn’t choose. The funny thing is I didn’t choose the path. The path was chosen for me.
But you’ve chosen since then. It’s your choices after that I find compelling. That’s what people should hear.
Well, I stated this publicly on ABC with George Stephanopoulos: “I will not allow history to remember me as the villain of Donald Trump’s story.” My first loyalty belongs to my wife, my daughter, my son and my country, and it always will. I didn’t wake up one day and say, “Whoa, what happened? I’m in a cult. I’m in a cult. Now I’m out.” I didn’t get that choice on whether to extricate myself from the cult. I was used as a pawn by Donald and whoever the idiot was that told him it would be a good idea. I certainly hope they’re not eating for free at Mar-a-Lago like everybody else was. But that’s really the answer. Where would I be today? I don’t have a real honest answer that I can give, other than to say that when the light was turned on and I could clearly see for myself, I knew what I had to do. It’s really to ensure that Donald Trump, for the first time in his life, is held accountable for his own dirty deeds.
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