The following is an excerpt from a Daily Kos column, originally published on April 13, 2020.
For ten years Michael Cohen was Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer. He maintained his own law practice and investment business even as he carried the title of Executive Vice President of the Trump Organization and Special Counsel to Donald J. Trump. When Trump became president, Cohen’s job title changed to Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump. He lived in a Trump building and had an office in Trump Tower.
In his fixer role Cohen had threatened reporters, companies, and others who were seen to be attacking Trump. He also had arranged for a secret payment to adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, who performed under the name Stormy Daniels. She and Trump had been in a sexual relationship in 2006, and the payment was to prevent public disclosure just before the election. Cohen was also involved in the National Inquirer buying the exclusive rights to a story by former Playboy model Karen McDougal and later suppressing that story.
Cohen was investigated by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York for these two payments and for other, unrelated, activities. On April 9, 2018, the FBI arrived at Cohen’s home, the hotel room he was staying in while his home was being renovated, and his offices. They had search warrants authorizing them to seize documents, computers, phones, and other possible evidence.
That day President Trump spoke with the press and expressed his outrage at the fact that the FBI had raided his lawyer’s home and office. He called the warranted search a “break in.” He also escalated the significance of the raid into an attack on America:
“So I just heard that they broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys — a good man. And it’s a disgraceful situation. It’s a total witch hunt… And it’s a disgrace. It’s, frankly, a real disgrace. It’s an attack on our country, in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.”
Trump continued to defend his former lawyer and to challenge the validity of the FBI raid until it became clear that Cohen was cooperating not only with the U.S. Attorney but also with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Cohen pleaded guilty four months after the FBI raid to eight felony counts, including campaign finance violations, tax fraud, and bank fraud.
In the hearing, according to the New York Times,
“He told a judge in United States District Court in Manhattan that the payments to the women were made ‘in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office,’ implicating the president in a federal crime. ‘I participated in this conduct, which on my part took place in Manhattan, for the principal purpose of influencing the election’ for president in 2016, Mr. Cohen said.”
Cohen later identified the “candidate for federal office” as Donald Trump.
As Cohen awaited sentencing in mid-December, Trump began a series of tweets and public statements to discredit Cohen, including attacking his family and suggesting some kind of criminal activity by his wife and father-in-law. On December 3, 2108 Trump tweeted:
“Michael Cohen asks judge for no Prison Time. You mean he can do all of the TERRIBLE, unrelated to Trump, things having to do with fraud, big loans, Taxis, etc., and not serve a long prison term? He makes up stories to get a GREAT & ALREADY reduced deal for himself, and get.....” “....his wife and father-in-law (who has the money?) off Scott Free. He lied for this outcome and should, in my opinion, serve a full and complete sentence.”
On December 12, Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison and a $50,000 fine. During the sentencing hearing Cohen told the court,
“My weakness could be characterized as a blind loyalty to Donald Trump.”
Four days later Donald Trump called Cohen a “Rat,” which was widely reported as mob slang for “informant.” Trump tweeted:
“Remember, Michael Cohen only became a “Rat” after the FBI did something which was absolutely unthinkable & unheard of until the Witch Hunt was illegally started. They BROKE INTO AN ATTORNEY’S OFFICE! Why didn’t they break into the DNC to get the Server, or Crooked’s office?”
The Washington Post told the story of mob boss Al Capone, who refused to testify against others, and asserted, “I’m no rat.” The Post noted,
“Capone’s rise to power as a prohibition-era gangster roughly coincides with the use of the rodent name for someone who “secretly aids the police to apprehend criminals,” as defined in the Dictionary of the American Underworld Lingo.”
ABC News specifically saw the term as a lone-wolf whistle, putting Cohen’s life potentially at risk when he arrives in federal prison. It reported,
“A rat, commonly known as an FBI informant, often refers someone from an organized crime family who has gotten arrested and cooperated with the federal government to provide information about a larger crime or crime family aka an informant, according to Merriam-Webster.”
When asked by ABC News whether Cohen being branded as a “rat” would be dangerous, Michael J. Stern, a former federal prosecutor said that it could be.:
“Trump is not disclosing anything the prison population will not already know, given Cohen’s very public disclosure of his cooperation. In general, cooperators are often subject to retribution, by the people they cooperate against and by prisoners who don’t like the idea of people cooperating with the government. One nuance, in this case, is that there will be prisoners who support Trump and his branding Cohen a ‘rat’ may be perceived as a call for them to punish Cohen,’ he said.”
Read the full column here.