The mob dynamic woven into the Trump-Cohen saga

Cohen arrives in federal court last December with his children.
Cohen arrives in federal court last December with his children.
Image: AP Photo/Julio Cortez
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Over the course of a full day’s congressional testimony, Michael Cohen touched on sweeping themes: American democracy, personal remorse, and the vagaries of human nature.

Donald Trump’s former lawyer accused the US president of federal crimes and outrageous behavior, including loan fraud, hiding a project in Russia for personal gain while running for office, and gross dishonesty in business and personal affairs. He spoke of his personal regret, warning Republicans on the House Oversight Committee that his shame was their future, after they attacked his character rather than asking about Trump’s alleged transgressions.

Cohen also spun a complicated tale of greed, loyalty, intimidation, and family ties that would be at home in a Martin Scorsese movie. Cohen said he was called upon to harass journalists and people Trump owed money, while protecting the president’s children and lying to the president’s wife and to his own spouse.

Now that he’s crossed the boss, he said he fears for his own life and those of his family’s.

Cohen didn’t say the Trump Organization is directly tied to organized crime. (In fact, at one point Cohen said he wasn’t aware of any Trump mob ties). Still, the entire saga exposes how much the president’s own business operated like a crime family controlled by a powerful boss.

Organized like crime

Trump ran the business, “much like a mobster would do,” Cohen said at one point. “He doesn’t give you questions, he doesn’t give you orders,” Cohen said. “He speaks in a code, and I understand the code because I’ve been around him for a decade.”

How many times did he threaten people for Trump, asked Jackie Speier, the California Democrat.

“Quite a few times,” Cohen answered.

“Fifty times?” she asked.

“More,” he said.

“One hundred? Two hundred,” she asked.

“More,” he said, estimating it was closer to 500.

Everyone’s “job at the Trump Organization was to protect Mr. Trump,” Cohen said later.

After an incriminating videotape came out weeks before the 2016 election that captured Trump bragging about he could sexually assault women at will, Trump’s campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks tapped Cohen to try to shut down the story, he recalls. “We need you to start making phone calls” to the people that you have relationships with,  Cohen testified of her instructions, “and just claim that this was men’s locker-room talk.”

Cohen said the president made Cohen lie to Melania Trump about payments he made to Stormy Daniels, the adult-film producer and performer who was given $130,000 to keep quiet about their affair. Cohen said repeatedly that the lie made him feel terrible.

“Not only did I lie to the American people, I lied to the first lady when the president called me,” Cohen said. “I was sitting in a car with a friend of mine and he had me speak to her,” he said. Then, Cohen concealed his finances from his own wife, using a home-equity line to facilitate the payment.

He described a regular pattern of Trump-directed financial deception, that including inflating his assets to get loans and make the Forbes rich list, and deflating them to avoid paying taxes. “There was nothing that happened at the Trump Organization that did not go through Mr. Trump with his approval and his signoff,” Cohen said.

Organized around family

He frequently dealt with the president’s children about business matters. One of Cohen’s first jobs for Trump was to “handle a problem that Don Jr. had created with a license deal,” Cohen said, without elaboration.

Were the president’s daughter Ivanka and oldest son Don Jr. involved in a project to build a Trump Tower in Moscow? (Cohen has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about whether Donald Trump was involved in the potential deal while running for president, a conflict that could potentially compromise US foreign policy.)

“The company was involved with the deal, which means the family was involved with the deal,” Cohen said. He likely briefed Ivanka and Don Jr. 10 times, he said about the Moscow project, directly contradicting their public statements on the deal.

Ivanka told ABC she knew “literally almost nothing” about the deal, while Don Jr. has said he wasn’t involved in earlier testimony to Congress.

This isn’t the first time that a Trump associate now under investigation has conjured up mob imagery when speaking about the president. Roger Stone, his former campaign advisor, actually told another Trump associate to “do a ‘Frank Pentangeli‘ ” when testifying to Congress, referencing the character in the Godfather trilogy who becomes a federal witness against Michael Corleone but then lies to Congress

Organized around silence

Stone was referring to a core principle of mobster life, the idea of of omertà, as Quartz wrote earlier. The Italian word of uncertain origin is used to “describe the complex code of silence that covers all who are involved in a crime or associated with the group who committed it.” Without that silence, the entire criminal enterprise falls apart.

As Cohen speaks out, he and his family are the ones now intimidated by Trump and his allies. The president called Cohen a “rat” on Twitter and said Cohen’s father-in-law should suffer; some of Trump’s 60 million followers have taken to harassing him, Cohen said. Just before the hearing, Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican House member who is close with Trump, threatened to expose Cohen’s alleged adultery on Twitter. Gaetz’s threat is now being investigated by the Florida state bar association.

When he leaves the house, Cohen said, “I don’t walk with my wife, I don’t walk with my children, because I have fear,” he said.

“My loyalty to Mr. Trump has cost me everything,” Cohen said at the end. “My family’s happiness, my law license, my honor, my reputation and my freedom.”