Decades before Michael Cohen rose to fame as Donald Trump’s lawyer-fixer, he spent summers working for his uncle Morty at the El Caribe, a lively Brooklyn social club frequented by New York mobsters.
It was there, on a “glorious” sunny afternoon in 1980, as Cohen recounts in “Disloyal” — his mea culpa memoir of his relationship with Trump — that he witnessed a drunk patron skinny-dipping in the crowded pool get shot in the rump by a local hood.
“I had been an eyewitness to the whole scene,” he writes. “I had seen the shooter and could identify him, of course.” But after a hard look from another gangster, Cohen got wise and told the police nothing. His reward was $500, slipped to him in an envelope.
It was a formative moment for the young Cohen, helping explain his later cult-like fascination with Trump: if you were tough enough and flashed enough cash you could get away with shooting somebody in broad daylight — or in the middle of Fifth Avenue.
The lesson would serve him well as he rose from the El Caribe to Trump Tower in Manhattan, where in 1996 he went to work helping Donald Trump chase his every “desire and demand” while imbibing the intoxicating “pleasure of inflicting harm and exercising raw power.”
Cohen isn’t the first author to recount Donald Trump’s failings as a businessman, husband and person. His account competes with other books about Trump by his niece, journalist Bob Woodward and others currently flooding the market. But Cohen is certainly the one closest to his subject, not just a witness but an eager participant in the future president’s many excesses.
This proximity provides an answer to one of the great mysteries: How does Trump, for all his flaws, command loyalty, especially from people who know him best?
“The answer, I was coming to see, included something deeper than the obvious lure of money and power…. It was physical, emotional, not quite spiritual, but a deep longing that Trump filled for me,” he writes. “Around Trump I felt excited, alive, like he possessed the urgent and only truth, the chance for my salvation and success in life.”
It’s Cohen’s inner life that gives his book its considerable power.
By the time Cohen went to work for him, Trump was shunned by big banks, making his money mostly by licensing his name and appearing on television. Cohen was his consigliere, the tough street lawyer whose job, he says, was stiffing Trump’s business partners and burying his scandals.
He writes that he also encouraged Trump to run for president, first in 2011 and then in 2015, and orchestrated Trump’s now famous ride down the escalator in Trump Tower’s marbled lobby.
Cohen would eventually pay the same price many wise guys have for years of unquestioning loyalty to a godfather.
By 2018, he had pleaded guilty in federal court to multiple crimes — including lying to Congress and violating campaign finance laws by making hush-money payments to two women who claim they had affairs with Trump (which the president denies).
He would wind up an inmate, called a “rat” by the man he once served. His book was written in Otisville Federal Prison, in upstate New York, on breaks from his job in the sewage treatment plant.
There’s an unstated message in Cohen’s account that each of us is supposed to ponder: Are we all a little like him, possessed of some deep national neediness (even if only via the adrenaline rush of the latest outrage) for a serially bankrupt golf course operator serially accused of sexual assault? Haven’t we all rightly ended up, metaphorically speaking, in the sewage treatment plant?
Cohen self-destructive descent into Trumpland foreshadows the country’s, or so his account implies. Trump’s transparent lies and boastful grievances corrupted some deep part of his soul, as it would those of his voters a decade later.
Oddly, Cohen says he still cares for Trump “even to this day.” And he blames himself from beginning to end. His father, a Polish-born Jew who escaped the Nazis only because he spent World War II in a Russian detention camp, emigrated first to Canada, then to New York, where he set up a thriving medical practice in the Long Island suburbs.
When his son Michael began imitating the tough guys he saw at the El Caribe, his father wasn’t impressed: “Cut it out, the whole mafia, gangster thing. You’re not one of them. You’ll be a surgeon like me, or a lawyer.”
Cohen did become an attorney, graduating from a Michigan law school he picked because it was the easiest one to get into. He wasn’t interested in the law as an elevated profession. He wanted to be Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky or Trump’s pal, Roy Cohn, a “Tough Jew” who practiced law “like a gangster.”
Cohen accumulated personal injury cases that he quickly settled, then accumulated enough cash to buy New York City taxi “medallions” — lucrative, leveraged permits that made him a fortune before he was 40. Like his future boss, he left for Manhattan as soon as he could.
By 1996, he was living on the Upper East Side with two kids and his wife, Laura, the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants from Queens. He also owned investment properties in several Trump buildings in Manhattan. He was semi-retired but still “plenty ambitious and very energetic.”
That was when Donald Trump Jr. called, inviting him to a meeting with his father — a call that “summoned me to my destiny and my downfall.”
What follows is a kind of rake’s progress narrative of his ever-deepening infatuation with Trump and the dirty deeds he gleefully handled for “the Boss.” One of his first, Cohen says, was squashing a blackmail attempt by an ex-husband claiming Trump “forcibly kissed” his wife at Mar-a-Lago; one of the last was paying $130,000 to placate porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election, using his home-equity line of credit.
Believing Trump would repay him the $130,000 in his 2016 year-end bonus, Cohen received a check for only $50,000. When Trump called the next day, “I wanted to shout at him for treating me with such slimy disrespect, after all I’d done for him… But I didn’t, of course.”
Cohen moves through his story briskly, including the 2016 campaign — a good thing, because Trump’s behavior has long since lost its capacity to shock. He admits to lying for Trump for years, including in testimony to Congress over a Moscow real estate deal he was secretly pursuing during the 2016 campaign. Now, he insists, his days of lying are over.
He lingers on the psychic toll of his devotion, like the time at the Bedminster club when Trump ogles an attractive girl in a tennis dress. Cohen summons the courage to tell Trump she is his 15-year-old daughter, he writes. Instead of offering an apology, the Boss vows that he will soon be dating her friends.
Year after year, Cohen’s disgusted wife and children urge him to quit the Trump Organization, but he just buries his qualms and moves on to the next crisis, desperate for Trump’s approval (and of course the influence it confers in Manhattan society).
“I knew Trump better than anyone else did,” Cohen writes. “I knew him better than even his family did, because I bore witness to the real man, in strip clubs, shady business meetings, and in the unguarded moments when he revealed who he really was: A cheat, a liar, a fraud, a bully, a racist, a predator, a con man.”
When Trump won the White House, Cohen stayed behind in Manhattan, serving as Trump’s personal lawyer and pursuing his own deals on the side. He slept with a loaded Glock on his nightstand. He was in many ways the ultimate plugged-in Manhattan lawyer he once dreamed of becoming — until the morning the FBI knocked on his apartment door and it all came crashing down.