WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen signaled in a new interview that he is ready to cooperate with federal prosecutors even if doing so undercuts the interests of the president - a potentially significant development that could pose legal peril for Trump.
“My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will,” Cohen told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, according to a story posted Monday morning on the network’s website.
Reminded that he had previously vowed to “take a bullet” or “do anything” to protect the president, Cohen said the president is not his top priority: “To be crystal clear, my wife, my daughter and my son, and this country have my first loyalty,” he said.
Cohen is under intensifying scrutiny from federal prosecutors in Manhattan who are examining his business practices, as well as special counsel Robert Mueller , who is continuing to investigate episodes involving Cohen as part of his probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
A series of recent reports that had appeared driven by Cohen and his allies had suggested that Cohen felt abandoned by the president, whom he had served for a decade, and might now turn on Trump and provide information about him or his family to prosecutors.
But the 45-minute off-camera interview with ABC represented a distinct escalation for the man often called Trump’s fixer, a virtual bat-signal to investigators that he is ready to deal. The interview also could have been an attempt to offer a public plea to the president - whom Cohen had served since 2007 - for attention, for financial support or even for a presidential pardon that would end Cohen’s legal predicament.
If that was Cohen’s goal, however, several people close to Trump who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the interview was a miscalculation. Instead, it sparked a furious effort to distance the president from his one-time lawyer and undermine Cohen’s credibility.
“I think it’s a cry for help and a cry for attention,” said one person close to the Trump Organization. “Every time the story dies down, he seems to want to reignite it.”
Cohen, said another person close to the company, had never been given major responsibilities at the real estate company that served as Trump’s springboard to the White House. Despite his title as Trump’s personal counsel, the person said that Cohen had been seen internally as a minimally competent lawyer who too nakedly craved the approval of his boss.
“Is anyone at the Trump Organization lying awake at night worrying that Michael is flipping? No.”
Cohen did not respond to requests for comment Monday from The Washington Post.
The new assessments of Cohen’s role in Trump’s orbit stand in contrast with years of company profiles that depicted Cohen as a close adviser entrusted with all manner of sensitive and personal tasks and a confidant not just of Trump but of his adult children, Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric.
In a May interview, for instance, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani told Stephanopoulos that Cohen was routinely asked to handle issues that could pose personal embarrassment to Trump, like the claim of an affair from adult-film actress Stormy Daniels.
Trump has denied the affair but Cohen directed that Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, be paid $130,000 just before the November 2016 election to ensure her silence.
“The agreement with Michael Cohen, as far as I know, is a long-standing agreement that Michael Cohen takes care of situations like this then gets paid for them sometimes,” Giuliani said then.
Stephanopoulos said that Cohen, who has not been charged in connection with either probe, came across “as his own man” during the weekend interview and said he will “not be a punching bag” if Trump’s team tries to discredit him as part of a legal strategy.
In New York, federal investigators are scrutinizing Cohen for possible bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations as they examine his efforts to squelch damaging information about Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election, including the allegations of an affair made by Daniels.
On Monday, a special master turned over to the government more than 1.3 million items that were seized by the FBI from Cohen’s New York home, office and hotel room in April. A judge had appointed the special master to determine whether some documents were subject to attorney-client privilege and should be withheld from prosecutors.
In a filing, the special master told Judge Kimba Wood that the Trump Organization, facing a July 5 deadline, was still reviewing about 22,000 items to see if they might object to those being turned over to the government. But the handover of the vast majority of the documents taken in the raids marks an important milestone as Manhattan prosecutors weigh whether to charge Cohen.
In Washington, Mueller also has been examining Cohen’s role in at least two episodes involving Russian interests.
People close to the case have said that Cohen will soon be switching lawyers, with the departure of Washington litigator Stephen Ryan, who has worked closely with Trump’s lawyers during the court-ordered document review.
Ryan will be replaced by New York attorney Guy Petrillo, a veteran of the Manhattan federal prosecutor’s office, who could open negotiations on Cohen’s behalf with his former colleagues.
During the interview, Cohen declined to discuss specifics of particular cases and offered circumspect responses to some questions.
Stephanopoulos, for example, said he asked Cohen if Trump had directed him to make the payment to Daniels in exchange for her silence. Cohen has previously said he acted on his own, without guidance from Trump, though Giuliani has said Trump reimbursed his lawyer.
“I want to answer. One day I will answer,” Cohen told Stephanopoulos during the Saturday interview. “But for now, I can’t comment further on advice of my counsel.”
Stephanopoulos said that in several instances, Cohen broke with Trump in characterizing the federal investigations.
“I don’t like the term ‘witch hunt,’ ” Cohen said, taking issue with the way Trump has characterized Mueller’s investigation into Russia interference in the 2016 election and possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“As an American, I repudiate Russia’s or any other foreign government’s attempt to interfere or meddle in our democratic process, and I would call on all Americans to do the same,” Cohen said.
Cohen also declined to criticize FBI agents who served the search warrants on his New York home, hotel room and office, as Trump has done.
“I don’t agree with those who demonize or vilify the FBI,” Cohen said. I respect the FBI as an institution, as well as their agents.”
“When they searched my hotel room and my home, it was obviously upsetting to me and my family,” Cohen said. “Nonetheless, the agents were respectful, courteous and professional. I thanked them for their service, and as they left, we shook hands.”
According to Stephanopoulos, Cohen also repeated his previous denials of personal involvement with Russian attempts to interfere in the U.S. election.
But Cohen did criticize Trump campaign aides who took part in a June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower with several Russians after being promised damaging information about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
“I believe it was a mistake by those from the Trump campaign who did participate,” Cohen said. “It was simply an example of poor judgment.”
Cohen declined to say whether Trump knew about the meeting before it happened, citing the advice of his lawyer.