President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen – who prides himself on being a street-wise fixer and hustler – ran into a problem he couldn’t fix Friday when he was denied the “get out of jail free” card he desperately sought in return for admitting his crimes.
Cohen is scheduled to be sentenced next week for his guilty pleas to multiple counts of business and tax fraud. He also pleaded guilty to making an excessive contribution to the Trump campaign and to making false statements to Congress regarding Trump’s business dealings in Russia.
Federal prosecutors in New York City and Special Counsel Robert Mueller – who is investigating whether President Trump and/or members of his presidential election campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election – filed sentencing memos Friday recommending prison time for the former Trump lawyer.
According to a sentencing memo from the New York prosecutors, Cohen built his entire professional life through a “pattern of deception” and unrivaled greed.
Cohen’s belated effort to cooperate with prosecutors without a formal agreement was an effort to play Mueller the way he played Trump – making himself useful in the hope of becoming indispensable.
But it looks like this time Cohen will come up one hustle short.
In the 1961 movie classic “The Hustler,” a young pool shark named Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) sought to topple legendary veteran Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) in a high-stakes pool game. A smug Fast Eddie bragged to Minnesota Fats that he “didn’t leave much” on the table, but the seasoned Minnesota Fats dryly responded “you left enough.”
By declaring himself a redemptive sinner, Cohen clearly thought that he had left little on the table to deny him a zero jail time sentence. Earlier, he decided to give up on a chance for a pardon from President Trump and made the play for Mueller.
Cohen publicly implicated Trump in campaign finance violations in the payment of hush money to women Trump allegedly had affairs with (affairs Trump denies).
Cohen apparently thought that delivering on Trump would wipe away a lifetime of deception and fraud. Instead, prosecutors grudgingly accepted a modest reduction in sentencing, but still demanded a “substantial term of imprisonment.”
Cohen is now looking at the loss of this law license, business and freedom. He could spend as much as five years in prison for what the government described as “Cohen’s extensive, deliberate, and serious criminal conduct.”
Cohen ultimately lacked two essential things to make this hustle work.
First and foremost, he lacked credibility. In an earlier column, I called Cohen’s play for no jail time a plea of leniency bordering on lunacy.
As predicted in the column, the prosecutors played back Cohen’s own words when he threatened journalists, students, and others who were deemed as threats to Trump. For example, in 2015 Cohen threatened Daily Beast reporter Tim Mack for running a story critical of Trump.
On a recorded call, Cohen tells Mack: “Mark my words for it, I will make sure that you and I meet one day over in the courthouse and I will take you for every penny you still don’t have, and I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know. Do not even think about going where I know you’re planning on going. And that’s my warning for the day.”
Cohen then goes full mob heavy and warns the reporter to “tread very f—— lightly because what I’m going to do to you is going to be f—— disgusting. … Do you understand me? Don’t think you can hide behind your pen because it’s not going to happen. … I’m more than happy to discuss it with your attorney and with your legal counsel because motherf—– you’re going to need it.”
Prosecutors clearly did not buy the months of public spin by Cohen and his lawyer, Lanny Davis, including raking in almost $180,000 in donations on a GoFundMe page.
The page says: “On July 2, 2018 Michael Cohen declared his independence from Donald Trump and his commitment to tell the truth. .… Michael decided to put his family and his country first. Now Michael needs your financial help.”
On both Fox News and MSNBC, Davis said that Cohen’s moral epiphany came after watching the Helsinki news conference last July in which President Trump appeared to side with Russian President Vladimir Putin in believing Russia’s denial of interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election that Trump won.
“That shook up Mr. Cohen,” Davis said.
OK, so we are supposed to believe that when President Trump repeated his prior position on Russian interference in 2016 presidential election Cohen suddenly decided that it was time for him to tell the truth about his dealings with a porn star and a Playboy model.
This makes as much sense as mob boss Joe Valachi saying that he decided to flip on the Lucchese crime family after watching “The Sound of Music.”
The prosecutors stated that Cohen’s “description of his actions as arising solely from some ‘personal resolve’ – as opposed to arising from the pendency of criminal charges and the desire for leniency – ignores that Cohen first reached out to meet with (the special counsel) at a time when he knew he was under imminent threat of indictment in this District. As such, any suggestion by Cohen that his meetings with law enforcement reflect a selfless unprompted about-face are overstated.”
Cohen needed a Section 5K1.1 letter. That is what a fully cooperating witness receives when he has a deal with prosecutors. However, prosecutors state that Cohen made the “affirmative decision not to become” a true cooperating witness.
Without that letter, Cohen’s modest reduction in his sentence for cooperation has to be partially or wholly erased by two “enhancements” tied to his status as a lawyer and the sophistication of his fraudulent conduct.
The enhancements could still leave Cohen serving most of the five-year sentence. In other words, even with his cooperation, he still left enough for a “substantial” sentence of prison time.
In what Fast Eddie described as his “Church of the Good Hustler,” the only thing that matters in the end is putting balls in the right pockets. However, hubris is often the ruin of many a good player.
Fast Eddie told Minnesota Fats: “You know, I got a hunch, fat man. I got a hunch it’s me from here on in.”
Like Fast Eddy, Cohen was wrong. It never was his game. It was (and remains) Mueller’s game.