As Michael Cohen goes about making Donald Trump suffer a great deal by releasing the first of many incriminating tapes of their conversations, it’s clear that he’s taking a scorched earth approach. Cohen surely understands that, after doing what he just did, there’s no going back. He and Trump will never have any sort of relationship going forward. They are now officially enemies. The question is why Cohen is now burning everything down, and what he’s building up to. There are some clues.
Michael Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis has already told us what prompted Cohen to release this particular tape. Donald Trump’s team publicly insisted that it was Cohen who wanted to make the Karen McDougal payoff in cash, and that it was Trump who wanted to pay by check. Either way, the payoff was a felony violation of federal election law. But wanting to make a six figure payment in cash is more incriminating, because it speaks to the intent to hide the payment from the authorities. Davis says Cohen wanted the tape out there because it shows that Trump was the one who wanted to pay in cash, and that Cohen shot him down.
The thing is, Cohen probably just sabotaged any legal defense he might want to use at trial. Once you start putting the incriminating evidence against yourself out there publicly, good luck finding a jury that doesn’t already think you’re guilty. In other words, when Cohen decided to release this tape, he gave up any slim shot he might have had of winning at trial. Unless Cohen thinks Trump is going to pardon him, he’s now committed himself to a plea deal.
That leaves us with two schools of thinking. The first is that Michael Cohen is cutting a plea deal, so he doesn’t care how badly he sabotages his chances at trial. The second is that Cohen is trying to force Donald Trump to pardon him, in order to prevent him from publicly releasing any more tapes. But if Trump does pardon Cohen, the courts might strike it down as an attempt at obstructing justice, and New York State would simply bring parallel unpardonable charges against him anyway. So either Cohen has smartly decided to flip, or he’s stupidly bet his future on a pardon that probably won’t save him and probably isn’t coming anyway.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report