[THE SOUNDS OF CARS DRIVING IN THE DISTANCE, WAREHOUSES, THE TRAIN]
ILYA MARRITZ: Queens, New York. A warehouse district just across the East River from Manhattan.
MARRITZ: Here I am. One-story brick building. This is where Michael Cohen, now the President's lawyer, practiced law for many, many years. It's kind of a [PAUSE] dingy corner. Here’s the door.
[ELECTRIC GUITAR PLAYS]
MARRITZ: Before Donald Trump, there was another man in Michael Cohen's life. His name is Simon Garber, and this squat building is his office — an office they shared. Inside, everything is taxi cab yellow. There are posters of hockey players and a large framed photo of a famous New York rabbi. There seems to be just one person around — a woman in a cubicle.
MARRITZ: Did Michael Cohen used to be here? The lawyer, Michael Cohen? No?
MARRITZ: In the taxi industry, Garber is considered a major player. He owns medallions, which are licenses for cabs to pick up fares on the streets of New York. He's had taxi companies in Chicago and Moscow, too — and a commercial:
[SLAVIC COMMERCIAL MUSIC PLAYS, THEN, IN RUSSIAN: “YELLOW CAB” CAN BE HEARD IN THE MIX]
MARRITZ: Picture a man with shiny hair who wears a suit pocket square.
[MORE SPEAKING RUSSIAN IN THE COMMERCIAL: “SIMON GARBER” CAN BE HEARD]
MARRITZ: His camera face is confident. The screen dissolves from an animated herd of horses stampeding through the streets to reveal Garber at a desk.
[THE COMMERCIAL CONTINUES]
MARRITZ: Over the years, Garber has been convicted of assault in New York, arrested for battery in Miami, and pleaded guilty in New Jersey to charges of criminal mischief involving him breaking into three neighbor's homes, shattering glass doors, smearing blood all over, and taking a shower. In Chicago, his taxi fleet included wrecked vehicles with illegally laundered titles.
[THE COMMERCIAL GOES FOR A BIT MORE, THEN OUT]
[STRINGS MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: In the mid-1990s, not long after Cohen graduated from law school, Garber became his client — more than a client. Michael Cohen used Garber’s taxi base in Queens as his law office. Garber managed a fleet of taxis Cogen owned up until the year 2012. The two men even bought apartments in the same building, at the same time, six floors apart — Trump World Plaza, across from the United Nations in Manhattan. It has been a strange journey from a taxi garage in Queens to becoming the personal lawyer of the President of the United States.
[TRUMP, INC. THEME MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: Hello and welcome to Trump, Inc., an open investigation from ProPublica and w NYC into the business side of the Trump presidency. I'm Ilya Marritz.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: And I'm Andrea Bernstein. Today on the show: Michael Cohen, the guy that first came to many people's attention in January 2017, when BuzzFeed posted that dossier by a former British spy — the one that described alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. It said Cohen met with a Russian agent in Prague.
DONALD TRUMP: And I think they ought to apologize, to start with — Michael Cohen. [UPROAR]
REPORTER: Since you're attacking us, can you give us a question?
TRUMP: Go ahead.
REPORTER: No — [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: And then, more recently, in early April:
ANNOUNCER: Breaking news, just in. The New York Times just reported that the FBI, today, raided at the offices of President Trump's long-time attorney, Michael Cohen, seizing records related to multiple topics, including, uh, on that payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, uh, alleged hush money. The New York Times also reporting … [FADES UNDER]
[REPETITIVE MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: Today, we're going to try to make sense of Michael Cohen's career and his relationship to Donald Trump and why Trump seems so very worried about the business records federal prosecutors seized from Cohen's office, his apartment, and his hotel room. Just a quick heads up — there’s some swearing in this episode. Just a little, though.
Michael Cohen has deep-set eyes and Bassett Hound face and hair that's going gray. When he's on TV, he's usually arguing, and when he's done making his argument, he looks like a boxer who's ready for a squirt from the bottle. Cohen has embraced descriptions of himself as Trump's Tom Hagan, referring to Don Corleone’s lawyer in The Godfather. Cohen said he'd take a bullet for Donald Trump.
MICHAEL COHEN: And I will do anything to protect Mr. Trump, the family, now Vice President-elect Pence, as well as the campaign. I like to keep myself in that little circle of extremely loyal people.
BERNSTEIN: To try to understand Michael Cohen's life, we’re going to follow his paper trail. Our map? New York City and the nearby suburbs: Long Island, Brighton Beach, the industrial backlots of Queens — to Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, with some glimpses of the former Soviet Union.
MARRITZ: So many of the people around him have been disbarred, disciplined, or arrested, year after year. Some have been convicted. Cohen has never even been accused. Now he's under federal criminal investigation for fraud and lying.
BERNSTEIN: We reached out to Cohen and two of his lawyers with a detailed set of questions about these connections. We also reached out to the Trump Organization. We did not get a response to these questions.
MARRITZ: Act One: Cohen before Trump. Michael Cohen grew up on Long Island, the son of a doctor. After college, he attends an unranked law school, Thomas M. Cooley in Michigan. And when he graduates, in the early 1990s, Cohen comes to work here, at a firm on lower Broadway in Manhattan across from New York City Hall. It's the first stop on our trip.
MARRITZ: Hi, Estrin Law Office?
CONCIERGE: Estrin’s on 12th.
MARRITZ: He goes to work for a personal injury lawyer named Melvin J. Estrin. The law practice still exists, but Estrin wasn't in.
MARRITZ: Okay, well, that was disappointing. Uh, it seems like nobody was around much. I — I finally found out what receptionist and then she sent out another guy and he said Melvin Estrin wasn't around, and there was no chance that he would talk with me. I left a business card anyway.
[LOW ELECTRONIC MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: I never heard back from him. Like any personal injury firm, this one has an extensive menu of problems you'd rather avoid: car collisions, slips and falls, workplace accidents. In 1995, three years after Cohen starts here, Estrin is indicted on charges he bribed insurance adjusters to inflate claims for his clients and expedite payouts. Estrin eventually pleads guilty.
BERNSTEIN: Michael Cohen has never connected to any of this.
MARRITZ: After Estrin is indicted, Cohen continues to use his address on legal papers. But now he's got two new addresses. One is a taxi base in Queens that belongs to Simon Garber, the Russian taxi magnate, who was a Melvin Estrin client. There's also a Midtown Manhattan address that Cohen and Garber both use.
By the time Cohen is in his lane 20s, he is immersed — personally and professionally — in the ex-Soviet American taxi industry. He marries Laura Schusterman, the daughter of a taxi entrepreneur who has his own connections to Simon Garber. Laura’s father made a loan to Garber around this time.
BERNSTEIN: Like so many of the people around Cohen, his father-in-law also has a criminal record. He was convicted in 1993 of conspiracy to defraud the IRS. He got probation.
MARRITZ: I wanted to ask Simon Garber about Cohen. Which is why, on our tour of Cohen's past, I took the R Train to Queens and dropped off a letter at his taxi base.
[THE SOUND OF A DOOR OPENING]
MARRITZ: Hi. Excuse me. I’m a journalist. I'm a reporter with public radio. I'm trying to get a letter to Simon Garber — or, if he's in, I'd like to talk to him.
RECEPTIONIST: Oh, he’s not here.
MARRITZ: He’s not here. Can you pass him a letter?
MARRITZ: Garber didn't respond to my letter or my calls.
BERNSTEIN: So it's the mid-1990s. Cohen is a lawyer, operating out of a taxi base.
MARRITZ: And he's not the only one. There are two other attorneys using Garber's office. All three of them seem to be doing personal injury and insurance work — and get this! The two other lawyers both lose their law licenses. One of them for not turning money over to a client, the other, for allowing a non-attorney to exercise control over his law practice. That's a big, no-no for lawyers. So these two lawyers in the same office as Cohen are disbarred.
BERNSTEIN: While he's using Garber's address, Cohen starts representing people who claim they've been injured in auto collisions. There hasn't been much reporting on this part of his life.
MARRITZ: I found at least 60 lawsuits involving auto insurers. In one, Cohen represents a four year-old boy who was hurt in a crash. The doctor who treated the boy later has his license suspended for writing fraudulent prescriptions. The owner of the clinic — also a doctor — also loses his license for negligence and incompetence.
BERNSTEIN: For our next stop, Ilya and I drive to a different medical clinic.
MARRITZ: Slow down and pay attention to the road.
BERNSTEIN: It’s one of three that Cohen helps set up around this time, along with three medical billing companies. It’s near Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, which is also known as Little Odessa because so many of its residents immigrated from the Soviet Union.
MARRITZ: So the basic outlines of this thing, from what we can see, is that Cohen helps to set up a couple of medical businesses and he also represented people involved in auto collisions. And we know that the timeframe when this happened is a time when prosecutors in this area were very concerned that there were a lot of staged auto collisions. Basically staged so that people could collect, um, insurance payouts.
BERNSTEIN: So we're getting off here — Ocean Parkway, exit 7B.
[PUSHING, BASS-DRIVEN MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: At the time Cohen was getting involved in medical claims law, prosecutors were responding to a wave of staged accidents. They called their investigation “Operation B.O.R.I.S.” — that’s for Big Organized Russian Insurance Scam. Eventually, they got hundreds of convictions.
BERNSTEIN: Cohen wasn't charged or even implicated in this investigation, but as is a pattern in his life, people around him were.
MARRITZ: So we're going to that clinic on Avenue X, for which Cohen drew up the papers. Some of the people involved were charged with wrongdoing.
BERNSTEIN: As we get out of the car, a woman yells downstairs from a second-story window.
WOMAN: Excuse me, miss. I’m disabled. [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: She asked if I can get her a large cup of coffee at the grocery store.
BERNSTEIN: How do you want it?
WOMAN: Black. Plain black.
BERNSTEIN: Black — large black coffee. Okay.
MARRITZ: Are we doing this? [LAUGHS]
BERNSTEIN: Yeah! We get her a cup of coffee!
BERNSTEIN: She asked them to bring it into her hallway. The locks are broken. A young man in a red track suit asks for five bucks. This neighborhood feels really far from Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, where Cohen hangs out these days. Here, there's a shuttered podiatrist's office, tattered awnings. We walked down the street looking for 400 Avenue X. Random fact: Fred Trump, father of Donald, once had an office at 600 Avenue Z, half a mile away. It was Donald's first office, too. Now, we're looking for that office Cohen set up: Avex.
MARRITZ: This is called Paukman Medical Plaza.
BERNSTEIN: Avex Medical Services!
MARRITZ: Oh shit. Huh. Avex Medical Services.
BERNSTEIN: So we go inside and start asking questions. Does anyone here know Michael Cohen? There are some elderly people in the waiting area and a man behind a welcome desk.
MARRITZ: So, we’re doing a story about Michael Cohen, you know, the President's lawyer?
MARRITZ: It turns out this is a new clinic with the same old name. We tell the guy at the desk that Cohen set up Avex in 2002.
RECEPTIONIST: [SHOCKED] Are you serious?
MARRITZ: Yes! [LAUGHS]
RECEPTIONIST: You kidding me?
BERNSTEIN & MARRITZ: No!
MARRITZ: The Avex that Cohen set up was a medical clinic that sued insurance companies 200 times. Their lawyer was later disbarred for misconduct. The doctor who owned Avex was criminally charged with insurance fraud, but the charge was dismissed. He's now practicing medicine in New Jersey. When I called, he was on a long vacation.
[BASS-DRIVEN MUSIC COMES BACK IN]
BERNSTEIN: Besides drawing up the papers, we can't find evidence of Cohen's further involvement with Avex. He's not charged with any crime.
MARRITZ: In fact, by 2003, he's moving on up. Cohen is now in his mid thirties.
BERNSTEIN: Records show, by now, Cohen has built up a collection of valuable taxi medallions. Those licenses to be able to run a cab in New York City are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a piece, and rising. He starts buying apartments in Trump properties.
MARRITZ: This is sort of the debutante period of Michael Cohen's life. He enters society: first, by purchasing apartments in Donald Trump's luxury buildings where you might run into Derek Jeter, Sophia Loren, or Harrison Ford.
[A CLIP FROM INDIANA JONES PLAYS: “Fortune and glory. kid. Fortune and glory.”]
MARRITZ: He joins the Friars Club, a private club that does celebrity roasts.
BERNSTEIN: And Cohen runs for city council as a Republican on the Upper East Side, for reasons even people close to his campaign don't understand. Campaign materials from the time point to his ownership of 200 taxi medallions, his stamp collection, a stint on the New York City Transit System’s Inspector General's advisory board, and involvement in a number of charitable and philanthropic causes. His campaign website says he prefers to keep them quiet.
BERNSTEIN: We can get a snapshot of Cohen's network at the time by looking at who donated to his campaign: his lawyer, his father-in-law, a large real estate firm that's done deals in Russia, people from the taxi business.
[“DIAMONDS ARE A GIRL’S BEST FRIEND” PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: And Bruce Winston, son of Harry Winston, the diamond man who Marilyn Monroe sang about.
[MORE MUSIC: “Talk to me, Harry Winston, tell me all about it.”]
BERNSTEIN: A New York Republican with knowledge of Cohen's campaign says Cohen told him he was Harry Winston's in-house counsel at the time, and that Cohen drove a Bentley. Harry Winston's company says Cohen didn't ever work for them.
MARRITZ: Cohen starts using Bruce Winston's Fifth Avenue address on his legal filings. Court papers show Michael Cohen is one of the lawyers helping Bruce Winston — and his daughter, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff — to challenge the bank that was the trustee for Harry Winston's estate, claiming breach of fiduciary duty. The court rejects their arguments.
You might remember that name: Stephanie Winston Wolkoff. We talked about her in our episode, on the Trump inauguration. Wolkoff planned it. She got a flurry of attention when documents became public showing that Wolkoff — who is a friend of Melania Trump — was paid $26 million for her work.
BERNSTEIN: Three more things stand out as peculiar from Cohen's pre-Trump life. We don't know quite what to make of them.
MARRITZ: Thing number one: in 2003, Cohen buys a stake in a casino boat based in Florida. His partners are Ukrainian-American. They have their own business partners on other ventures with ties to the Italian mob, including the husband of the owner of the Tatiana nightclub in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. He was sentenced to 52 months in prison for a gasoline ex-bootlegging scheme. The casino boat fails.
BERNSTEIN: Thing number two: around this time, Cohen travels to Ukraine. He'd previously set up two businesses in New York, Ukrainian Capital Growth Fund and Ukrainian Capital Partners. BuzzFeed reports that Cohen and his brother, Brian, who is also married to a Ukrainian, pitched business in Kiev to a Russian who'd been investigated for money-laundering.
MARRITZ: Thing number three: Michael Cohen somehow becomes the middle man for a $350,000 loan. This loan is from a former Montreal Canadians hockey player who's Russian, and to a woman living in Florida, who's also Russian. The hockey player writes a check to Cohen and the money is then supposed to go to the woman. But she says she never gets it. There's a lawsuit. In his deposition years later, Cohen says he has no knowledge of any of this. The plaintiff's lawyer shows him the endorsed check and asks him if it's his signature. Cohen says, quote, “I don't know, but it could be.” Pressed on where the money went, Cohen responds, “Let’s also not forget that you also had Y2K issues and the changing of the platform.” The check was dated January 1999. According to BuzzFeed, the money is still missing.
BERNSTEIN: By 2007, Cohen's become a man of means. His milieu now? Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue, Manhattan. In February of 2007, the New York Post, which Trump reads every day, publishes a story.
MARRITZ: It says, “Michael Cohen and his circle have bought or plan to buy properties at Trump World Tower, Trump Grande, Trump Palace, Trump Park Avenue, Trump Place, and Trump Plaza, Jersey City. Quote, “Trump properties are solid investments,” Cohen tells the Post. Trump speaks to the Post too. He calls Cohen, quote, “a very smart person.” Cohen now has Trump's attention.
BERNSTEIN: And this brings us to Act Two: Cohen plus Trump. Cohen's new place of work? 25th and 26th floors of Trump Tower.
[THE SOUNDS OF AN ELEVATOR OPENING]
MARRITZ: When he goes to work for Donald Trump around age 40, Cohen's qualifications look like this: a law degree that's not highly rated, some experience as a litigator, lots of experience in the taxi and insurance industries. To help us tell this part of the story we're bringing in a friend of the podcast.
ADAM DAVIDSON: Hi, I'm Adam Davidson, staff writer at the New Yorker.
BERNSTEIN: Adam has written extensively about the Trump Organization.
DAVIDSON: When Cohen starts working at the Trump Organization, he is a lawyer, but he is not coming to the Trump Organization as a lawyer. There is a legal team that's divided between people who handle the contracts for deals and, uh, lawyers who deal with litigation. Cohen's not doing either of those. He's not reporting to the general counsel. He's not really part of the legal team. His job is going out and finding deals.
BERNSTIEN: Cohen signs on as Executive Vice President — the same job title is Don Jr., Ivanka, and Eric Trump.
DAVIDSON: And this is a really interesting time in the Trump Organization. They're going through two transformations. One is, they're shifting from a traditional real estate development company that buys big projects, or builds big projects and then tries to sell them over the long-term — they're shifting to this model of licensing their names on hotels, luxury condos, office buildings that other people are building.
And also, they're shifting to the rest of the world, that this largely U.S.-faced company is now doing business in — or at least trying to do business in — dozens of countries around the world. And that global operation is really not much more than Ivanka, Don Jr., and Michael Cohen. So, in this crucial transformation, Michael Cohen is the most important figure whose last name is not Trump.
[UPTEMPO MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: Cohen is doing something else during this period: dabbling in politics. From Trump Tower, he runs for office himself: New York State Senate. This time, his donor list is a bit longer. It includes the shipping magnate Oleg Mitnick and Trump's friend, Howard Lorber, the tobacco tycoon and New York real estate man. Cohen eventually withdraws from the race.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
BERNSTEIN: But in October 2010, Cohen sets his sights much higher. He sets up the website “Should Trump Run?” with some Long Island attorneys to explore a Trump presidential bid. The site — plain white letters on a blue background — says, “This campaign will sweep a nation ready for real change.” Then, Cohen travels to Iowa on a Trump jet, to test the waters.
COHEN: I met with 18 GOP operatives, grassroots organizers, finance people. Every one of them expressed not just an interest, but a fervent desire to see somebody like Donald Trump join the race in hopes that we can turn this country around.
BERNSTEIN: It’s March of 2011. Trump and Cohen ride an escalator down into the atrium of Trump Tower to the crowd of awaiting reporters.
TRUMP: [OVER CAMERAS] Okay, Michael.
BERNSTEIN: The reporters have all shown up because of Cohen's trip to Iowa and ShouldTrumpRun.com. Trump and Cohen get to the bottom of the escalator, and Cohen wants to talk about a tower in Georgia — the country.
COHEN: Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Michael Cohen. I'm an executive at the Trump Organization. Honored guests and the media, thank you for coming, and welcome to Trump Tower. Seven months ago, at the request of a dear friend of mine from Georgia, Giorgi Rtskhiladske, I traveled to the Republic of Georgia to explore several real estate opportunities on behalf of Mr. Trump.
MARRITZ: It’s a short distance, but a long journey from Simon Garber's Queen's taxi garage, across the water to Manhattan, Trump Tower. Cohen is now side-by-side with a head of state.
COHEN: In front of you, the press, you have President Saakashvili, George Ramishvili, of Silk Road Group. And, of course, Mr. Donald J. Trump.
[COHEN FADES UNDER]
DAVIDSON: This is a big, big, big day for Michael Cohen and the Trump Organization. They have — as it's been reported again and again — been dreaming of projects all over Russia and the former Soviet Union. And this is their first big project in Georgia — the Republic of Georgia, former Soviet state. And it's been widely reported that this was going to — supposed to be the first step in a ring of properties all around Russia that would eventually lead to a Trump Moscow. And this is fully Michael Cohen's deal — a big, big deal, that he's — Michael Cohen travels to Georgia several times. He also goes on a trip to Kazakhstan.
There's a moment where they believe there's going to be a Trump Tower Kazakhstan as well. And it's Michael Cohen interacting with these potential partners.
[COHEN FADES BACK UP]
COHEN: So ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, someone who actually needs no introduction: Mr. Donald J. Trump.
BERNSTEIN: WNYC News covered the event.
TRUMP: Well, thank you very much, Michael. And it's a great honor to have everybody here. Ivanka is over here someplace, and I just want to thank her for showing up. She's going to be spending a lot of time — she’s now seven months pregnant. But, as soon as she has the baby, she's going to be going over to the Republic of Georgia. And we've already been there, and it's a great place.
[TRUMP FADES UNDER]
DAVIDSON: At the moment that the Trump Organization is signing this deal to build a massive property in Batumi, Georgia, the company they're signing the deal with is under a major international investigation. It was a wild, audacious plan that didn't seem to make an awful lot of sense, and was never completed.
[AUDIO RECORDING FROM TRUMP TOWER EVENT FADES BACK UP]
REPORTER: And just to follow up — Mr. Saakashvili, do you think Mr. Trump should consider running for president?
PRESIDENT MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI: That — that — that’s totally up to him. I mean, it's not enough for my business. He — if he decides to run for president in Georgia, he might win. I don't know, but, uh … [FADES OUT]
BERNSTEIN: Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of the Republic of Georgia, who’s here to promote a Trump-branded real estate deal, is now fielding questions about a Trump candidacy for president.
REPORTER: Um, can you talk — comment on the kind of feedback from Mr. Cohen's Iowa trip?
TRUMP: No, you could ask Mr. Cohen. You can speak to him later.
REPORTER: Were you encouraged by anything that you saw or read out of that?
TRUMP: Well, I certainly was. I mean, the response has been amazing actually.
[INTRIGUE MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: But the amazing response draws some unwanted scrutiny. There's a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission alleging that Donald J. Trump has accepted excessive or impermissible contributions from the Trump Organization, because “Should Trump Run?” was set up by an employee. Trump and Cohen are cleared of wrongdoing. One of the FEC commissioners who signs off on the ruling — Don McGahn — he later becomes Trump's White House Counsel.
In May 2011, Trump announces he isn't going to run for president against Barack Obama. But, in some ways, he and Cohen continue to act like a presidential run is in the offing.
BERNSTEIN: They keep making international deals. They keep talking about a presidential run. They hold rallies.
[PEOPLE CAN BE HEARD CHANTING “LET TRUMP BUILD”]
BERNSTEIN: They hold one boisterous rally with construction workers on the boardwalk of Jones Beach State Park on Long Island.
BERNSTEIN: It’s a gorgeous late summer day. People hold signs that say, “Stop the red tape!” And organizing the rally, there at the podium, the same lawyer who helped set up “Should Trump Run?”:
DAVID SCHWARTZ: My name is David Schwartz, and I represent the Alliance to Revitalize Jones Beach. [CHEERING]
BERNSTEIN: David Schwartz was — and is — Michael Cohen's lawyer. You might've seen him on TV recently, arguing that the Stormy Daniels payoff was completely independent of Trump. But on the day of this rally, on the boardwalk, Schwartz is working for Trump, lobbying to get the clearances for Trump to build a large banquet hall in a state park: Trump on the Ocean.
SCHWARTZ: We have so much worldwide support for this project on Jones Beach and this man wants to do it.
BERNSTEIN: A person who's at the rally told us Trump comes up to thank her for supporting his presidential campaign. Standing right by Trump's side throughout this rally? Michael Cohen.
[PLUCKY MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: I’ve been looking at Trump on the Ocean for months. And I don't quite understand why, but Trump and Cohen want badly for it to be built. I've been able to confirm it's so important to Trump that unusually — even for him — he personally calls four governors and a state controller to get the approvals. In at least one call, Trump mentions his sizable campaign donations. He calls them investments.
And Trump puts his pugnacious fixer on the case: Michael Cohen. There's a clue as to why. At a time when he needs cash, Trump manages to get a rare concession from the state: he can borrow against the value of his lease for anything he wants, but his demands are so large, it’s hard to make them happy.
TRUMP: You know what the state did? They appealed. [MEMBERS OF THE AUDIENCE GROAN] And that's where we are right now. It's four years later. This could have been open for three years already. It's a very sad situation. I can only tell you …
BERNSTEIN: Judah Thank was a top New York State environmental official at the time. She says it was a very intense back and forth.
JUDAH THANK: It was not a typical discussion with — with the business that was trying to do business with the State of New York. It was aggressive. There were efforts to go around me to get a better outcome in the discussions. I recall it as, you know, one of the most unpleasant experiences I had in the governor's office.
BERNSTEIN: In the end, Trump gets most of what he wants. He's so thrilled with the outcome, he writes a letter to Schwartz. It says, “Great job. We will use your firm again.” Trump gets ready to build.
MARRITZ: The site of Trump on the Ocean floods during Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. After all he'd thrown at it, Trump walks away. We asked David Schwartz to comment on his work on “Should Trump Run?” and Trump on the Ocean. He didn't reply to our questions.
[ELECTRONIC MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: In 2013, Trump and Cohen are working on a new project together: the Miss Universe Contest in Moscow. That's when Trump joins with the real estate developer Aras Agalarov, who is close to Vladimir Putin.
It was Agalarov and his son who set up that infamous Trump Tower meeting — the one with Donald Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner to discuss so-called dirt on Hillary Clinton, allegedly from the Russian government.
But before all that happened, there was a dinner in Las Vegas in 2013 to cement the Miss Universe deal.
CNN REPORTER: [OVER CROWD NOISES] Hanging out with the men now at the center of the newest development in the Russia controversy.
BERNSTEIN: CNN found a video of the meeting.
TRUMP: The most powerful people in all of Russia — the richest men in Russia. [FADES UNDER]
CNN REPORTER: In the video, Trump is seen having dinner with the Agalarovs, along with their publicist, Rob Goldstone, seen here leaning over to talk with Trump.
MARRITZ: And next to Goldstone is fellow Friars Club member, Michael Cohen.
TRUMP: Our country is in serious trouble. We don't have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don't have them.
BERNSTEIN: In June of 2015, it’s no longer “Should Trump Run?” — Trump is running.
TRUMP: I love my life. I have a wonderful family. They're saying, “Dad, you’re gonna do something that's going to be so tough.” You know, all of my life, I've heard that a truly successful person — a really, really successful person — and even modestly successful — cannot run for public office.
BERNSTEIN: To discuss the next chapter in Michael Cohen's career, The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson is back with us. He's spoken to a number of Trump Organization insiders.
DAVIDSON: So Michael Cohen takes on this very odd role during the campaign. Most of the staff of the Trump Organization is not doing all that much, but Michael Cohen is both remaining a major deal-maker, and also a major spokesperson-pugilist. He was the guy you put on TV who would just defend Trump to the hilt, in the most Trumpian of ways.
BERNSTEIN: Here’s Cohen on TV with CNN’s Brianna Keilar, who asks him a question about Trump being down in the polls.
BRIANNA KEILAR: And it makes sense that there would —
COHEN: [VERY ABRUPTLY] Says who?
[A LONG PAUSE]
COHEN: Says who?
KEILAR: Most of them. All of them.
[ANOTHER VERY LONG PAUSE]
COHEN: Says who?
KEILAR: Polls. I just told you. I answered your question.
COHEN: Okay. Which poles?
KEILAR: All of them.
BERNSTEIN: Here’s Cohen on Sean Hannity's radio show.
COHEN: If I ask you, if you think about it, what is really the United States of America? Now, most people would probably immediately reply, “Oh, it’s a — it’s a country.” Yes. And of course that would be true. But if you think about it, it's also a company. And if you compare the president in a — in a business sense, the president would be a CEO. Who better to make America great again, to make this company what it needs to be, than Donald Trump?
BERNSTEIN: While he's playing an occasional role as campaign surrogate, Cohen is continuing his private deal-making. While Trump is building up ahead of steam in the primaries, Cohen is drafting a letter of intent with a Moscow investment company to build Trump World Tower Moscow. Cohen's partner in the deal is Felix Sater, a Trump associate who's had a history of felony convictions and connections to the Russian mob.
MARRITZ: Sater writes in an email to Cohen, quote, “Let's make this happen and build a Trump Moscow, and possibly fix relations between the countries by showing everyone commerce and business are much better and more practical than politics.” In another email Sater writes, “Buddy, our boy can become president of the USA, and we can engineer it.” In a statement issued last summer, Cohen calls this “puffery,” and says Sater is prone to colorful language and salesmanship.
DAVIDSON: So we know now a fair bit about this deal — actually more than almost any Trump Organization deal, because some emails have been made public. We know that Cohen is going to some pretty great lengths to interact with people close to Vladimir Putin.
There's talk of going to a — a convention in St. Petersburg where Putin himself, or people close to him, might be. At some point, Cohen just goes on the Kremlin public affairs website and sends a blind email to something like info@kremlinPR.org or whatever it is. Um, it's a really confusing moment. ‘Cause on the one hand, it almost feels like this is proof of some kind of collusion.
On the other hand, the very fact that Michael Cohen is sending emails to websites [LAUGHS] to try and reach out to Putin is a sign that maybe he didn't have the closest ties.
BERNSTEIN: So how do we morph from, like, deal-making in Moscow to alleged, you know, clean-up man in the campaign?
DAVIDSON: It's not exactly clear when this whole deal falls apart — this Trump Tower Moscow. It certainly seems to be dead by June and maybe earlier. Either at the same time or right after, Michael Cohen turns to another role, a role with which he had by then become quite familiar. And that's as the fixer: the guy who quashes bad information about Donald Trump or his family, by paying hush money or finding other ways to silence people who might reveal information about his big boss.
BERNSTEIN: There was the time Cohen threatened to sue Daily Beast reporter Tim Mack, who wrote a story about Trump's ex-wife, Ivana, who had accused him of rape in divorce papers, a claim she later walked back.
TIM MACK: But then it descended into insults and threats, threats of lawsuits telling me to tread lightly and to say that that whatever lawsuits that they might file against me would be disgusting.
BERNSTEIN: What Cohen actually said, Mack couldn't say on TV. Quote, “I'm warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I'm going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting.”
INTERVIEWER: Tim, and you reached out to the campaign and you heard back from a lawyer. Did that surprise you?
MACK: Yeah, that surprised me a lot. I've dealt with a lot of campaigns. Uh, very rarely does it get this acrimonious and so quickly. I’ve never reached out to … [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: Then, in the fall of 2016, a former British spy named Chris Steele, who’s gathering raw intelligence on the Trump campaign's relationship with Moscow, writes a memo. The memo says Cohen met with contacts in Prague after damaging news came out about Trump's former campaign manager and an aide. The overall objective of the trip, according to the memo, had been to, quote, “sweep it all under the carpet and make sure no connection could be fully established or proven.” This memo was written on October 19th, 2016.
In statements and court documents, Cohen has roundly denied he took such a trip. He's filed two defamation suits over the release of the dossier. But recently, McClatchy reported that Special Counsel Bob Mueller has evidenced that Cohen was in Prague in the late summer of 2016.
MARRITZ: And one thing we now know for sure — during exactly this period, October of 2016, Cohen is involved in sweeping something else under the rug Trump's relationship with a porn actress, Stormy Daniels. Cohen doesn't deny this. Cohen says he paid this money out of his own pocket. Defending him on TV, his old pal, and Trump's from Trump on the Ocean — attorney David Schwartz.
SCHWARTZ: And so $130,000 was paid.
MARRITZ: Here he is on Anderson Cooper.
SCHWARTZ: Is that the normal course of business, for an attorney to pay it? No, but there's nothing illegal about it. And, given the context of this relationship, there's certainly nothing unethical about it. And, remember, Michael Cohen was representing EC, LLC. It was EC, LLC. that entered into this contract. Donald Trump was a third-party beneficiary.
MARRITZ: And on Megyn Kelly's show.
MEGYN KELLY: And never sought reimbursement from Donald Trump?
SCHWARTZ: A hundred percent.
KELLY: Come on. No one believes that, David. [LAUGHTER FROM THE AUDIENCE]
SCHWARTZ: Well — [APPLAUSE] lots — lots of people.
BERNSTEIN: His entire adult life, Michael Cohen crossed paths with people who were charged with ethical lapses, disbarred, convicted of crimes, or investigated. Cohen was never investigated that we know of — until now.
[STRINGS MUSICAL FLOURISH]
MARRITZ: Act Three: the unraveling.
MARRITZ: When did you start pulling on the string that led you, eventually, to Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels?
MICHAEL ROTHFELD: Well, we first started looking into, uh, women who we had heard were being paid by Donald Trump before the election. In 2016, we had heard there was a lawyer who was, um, going across the country paying off women for Donald Trump. So we started looking into that.
[KEYBOARD MUSICAL MOMENT]
MARRITZ: This is Michael Rothfeld, an investigative reporter with the Wall Street Journal. I met him in the newsroom.
ROTHFELD: Want some fruit snacks?
MARRITZ: Nah, thanks.
MARRITZ: During the presidential campaign, Rothfeld and a colleague, Joe Palazzolo, chased down rumors about Donald Trump and hush money, days before the election. They reported that an adult film actress, Stormy Daniels, was ready to go on Good Morning America and say she had sex with Donald Trump. She canceled at the last minute.
Last summer, Rothfeld and Palazzolo resumed their digging. They'd heard a rumor that one of Trump's lawyers had made a payment to a woman through a shell company.
ROTHFELD: We’d heard that it was an LLC with a kind of a funny name and it was an appropriate name. Like, um, “Damage Control” or something.
MARRITZ: They started searching state databases for new companies formed in October 2016, picking out any suggestive names they saw
ROTHFELD: Right? We looked for “Damage Control.” We looked for, like, “Hush Money.” Um, we looked for “Secrets,” you know, things like that. Um, “Secret Consultants,” things such as that. Um, we eventually found one called “Resolution Consultants,” that was formed in Delaware. And when we pulled the paperwork for that corporation, Michael Cohen's name was on it. And that was kind of like a bingo moment. And we thought we had found it.
MARRITZ: But the timeframe wasn't quite right.
ROTHFELD: And so we confronted Michael Cohen with that and he said, “No, no, that's not it. That — I never even set up a bank account for that LLC.”
MARRITZ: They went back to the database of shell companies.
ROTHFELD: That’s how we found “Essential Consultants, LLC,” which also had his name on it, and that was the one that he used to pay Stormy Daniels. Well, he, for whatever reason, chose to put his own name on the formation documents, even though he could have used a registered agent. That probably saved him a little bit of money. Um, and also maybe he didn't have to tell somebody else that he was doing it. It was not a smart move on his part if his goal — which I think it was — was to conceal his identity. Because when you pull the papers, he's — he’s right there.
MARRITZ: After they go to print, Cohen confirms the essential facts of the story.
BERNSTEIN: And then, on April 9th, federal agents from the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Public Corruption Bureau execute search warrants on Cohen's apartment, hotel room, office, safety deposit box, and two cell phones.
MARRITZ: The Washington Post reports one piece of evidence prosecutors are examining is a mortgage tied to Michael Cohen's taxi medallions. In 2014, Cohen got a fresh round of bank financing on his medallions. By then, he had ended his business relationship with Simon Garber, moving to a new taxi manager of Evgeny Gene Freidman.
MARRITZ: Last year, Freidman was barred from managing medallions. Freidman is also a lawyer. His law license was suspended last July. Records show Cohen recently owned 35 medallions. So, if you hail a cab today in New York City, there's a small chance it's Cohen’s.
BERNSTEIN: In court papers, prosecutors say they've been watching Cohen for some time, covertly gathering his emails. And they say Cohen is the subject or target of a criminal investigation. They don't say for what, but they say his possible offenses point to a lack of truthfulness.
DANIEL BRAUN: The search of an attorney's office is, uh, not particularly common.
BERNSTEIN: This is prosecutor-speak for, “Oh, wow.”
BRAUN: Hi. This is Daniel Braun. For about 17 years, I worked at the U.S. Department of Justice. For much of that time, I was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York, where, for a number of years, I served in the Public Corruption Unit.
BERNSTEIN: This is the exact unit that authorized the raid on Cohen's office.
BRAUN: I’m currently at the firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.
BERNSTEIN: What Cohen has argued — and Trump said in a Tweet — is that their communications are for their eyes only. But Braun says, “Maybe not.”
BRAUN: They’re only privileged if they're part of a confidential process of providing advice to a client.
BERNSTEIN: If you're not really doing legal work for somebody, does that affect the issue of whether your communications are privileged?
BRAUN: Absolutely. It's one of the requirements to establish the attorney-client privilege is that the, uh, attorney is providing legal advice to the client. If they're involved in a business deal, or something purely personal, then the privilege doesn't apply.
BERNSTEIN: It also doesn't apply if the attorney-client relationship is being used as a cover to commit a crime.
BRAUN: If the entire relationship was established to further criminal conduct, then perhaps all of the communications that would occur during the course of that relationship — even if they would otherwise be privileged — could not be shielded.
BERNSTEIN: Braun says it's premature to say if that even applies to this case, but there have been cases, he says, where an in-house counsel has been hired to create a barrier of privilege that would prevent investigators from taking evidence they might otherwise be able to get.
BRAUN: It’s not the sort of thing that I've seen in public corruption investigations. Um, but I suppose it's possible.
MARRITZ: We’ll be right back.
[MUSIC PLAYS OUT, THEN MIDROLL]
MARRITZ: The U.S. attorney has now seized reams of Cohen's own files, but just from what's on the public record, the New Yorker’s Adam Davidson says we can already make sense of the Trump-Cohen relationship. Cohen's résumé certainly isn't perfect for everyone, but it seems perfect for Trump.
DAVIDSON: Some of the sketchiest, sorta gritty, like, New York, outer borough crimes — [LAUGHS] taxi cab businesses, insurance scams, diamonds — would be exactly the dream for — for Donald Trump. He doesn't want, you know, some buckled-up white shoe lawyer who graduated from Harvard. He wants someone who went to one of the worst law schools in the country and they'll do whatever it takes.
MARRITZ: Adam says Trump sought these people out.
DAVIDSON: People I know who -- who've known Trump very well — sources who’ve — who've known Trump extremely well, for many years, tell me he always likes these kinds of characters. He likes tough guys, or at least people he thinks of as tough guys — guys from the street.
MARRITZ: According to people who have worked for Trump, there's a hazing process when you start the job. Trump wants to know:
DAVIDSON: Are you a stickler for the rules, or are you going to be someone who's going to do work the way I want it done? Michael Cohen — certainly to me, I think to others — projects, in every utterance, “Yeah. I'll do what you need, Donald.”
MARRITZ: And Trump is perfect for Cohen, too.
DAVIDSON: Donald Trump is his best shot in life. For him, Donald Trump is the biggest step he'll ever take in his life.
[LIGHT MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: I’ve spoken to people who've worked with Cohen. One of them told me Cohen, quote, “did jobs for Donald that no one would ever do, especially a lawyer.”
DAVIDSON: This is why it was so striking after the election, but before the inauguration, that, of the many, many, many lawyers that Trump either employed or hired, had long-time relationships with, he plucks this guy out and says, “You will now be my personal attorney. You will leave the Trump Organization. Start a new law office, with one lawyer and one client.”
BERNSTEIN: In January 2017, Cohen resigns from the Trump Organization. He sets up an office in Rockefeller Center. He's allowed to put “Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump” on his email signature.
DAVIDSON: And it makes one wonder. Why would you do that? Why would you pick Michael Cohen, of all the lawyers, when you had never really asked Michael Cohen to do most of the important legal work of your company? And [PAUSE] it’s hard not to wonder if the entire goal was to establish attorney-client privilege, to allow Michael Cohen to take all of his documents, all of the information he had, and put it under the umbrella of attorney-client privilege, because there was great fear that Michael Cohen’s information would be quite damaging.
BERNSTEIN: [OVER LAWYERS YELLING] And lawyers are furiously arguing in the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan over who should get to examine Cohen's files. In one letter, President Trump's lawyer — a new one — makes an extraordinary argument that Michael Cohen, the target of the raid, should get to review all the documents that were taken from him before prosecutors get to see them. In their response, prosecutors call this proposal “extreme, unworkable, and ripe for abuse.” They write, “The President's proposal would set a dangerous precedent.”
[CREDITS MUSIC BEGINS TO PLAY]
MARRITZ: Here’s where you come in. Have you crossed paths or done business with Michael Cohen? Do you know anything about Trump on the Ocean, and why it was so important to Donald Trump? Send us an email: Tips@TrumpIncPodcast.org. We read everything we get. There are also ways to share something with us securely. Find out how at TrumpIncPodcast.org.
Next week, in our final episode of this first season of Trump, Inc.: Another casino.
INTERVIEWER: Have you made money on it? I think that would be a — a — an enticement.
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Not yet. Not yet.
INTERVIEWER: [LAUGHS] Okay.
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: But it's a marathon. It's not a sprint.
MARRITZ: And if you're in New York City, plan on joining us at our live show in The Greene Space. That’s Monday, May 14th. We have some great guests lined up for you: Masha Gessen from The New Yorker, and Tony Schwartz, co-author — with Donald Trump — of The Art of the Deal. Tickets are on sale now. You can find out more at TrumpIncPodcast.org.
BERNSTEIN: Trump, Inc. is produced by Meg Cramer. The associate producer is Alice Wilder. The engineers are Bill Moss and Rick Kwon. The editors this week with Charlie Hermann, Eric Umansky, Nick Varchaver, and Robin Fields. Jim Schachter is Vice President for News at WNYC, and Steve Engelberg is the Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica. The original music is by Hannis Brown.
Katherine Sullivan at ProPublica did research for this story, and Callie Pates from WNYC gathered tape from outside the federal courthouse. A special thank-you to Michael Rothfeld at the Wall Street Journal and Adam Davidson at the New Yorker — and to Anna Sale, the host of the podcast, Death, Sex, and Money, who, in her previous life as a political reporter, collected the tape of Michael Cohen and Donald Trump at Trump Tower in 2011.
ANNA SALE: Should deals like this count as experience in a run for president?
TRUMP: Oh, I think so. I mean, I'm dealing with one of the great leaders of the world, and somebody that really has done about the best job in the world, certainly from an entrepreneurial standpoint.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.