Years before Michael Cohen ever met Donald Trump, his future mentor and employer was already on his radar. As a teenager growing up in an upper-middle class neighbourhood on Long Island, Mr Cohen lionised the Queens-born real estate scion who would one day become US president.
He read The Art of The Deal — Mr Trump’s 1987 tome — twice. When, as an adult, he began making money, he bought apartments in one of the Trump skyscrapers and had his family and friends buy them too. When Mr Trump finally offered him a job, Mr Cohen jumped at the chance. As he later told ABC News: “I’ve been admiring Donald Trump since I was in high school.”
For years Mr Cohen nurtured a doting, and at times obsequious, relationship with Mr Trump, for whom he served as both personal lawyer and confidante. This week, all that changed.
On Tuesday, in a Manhattan courtroom, Mr Cohen pleaded guilty to eight federal crimes and testified, under oath, that during the campaign for the 2016 election he was directed by his boss to pay off two women alleging extramarital affairs with Mr Trump. In the week leading up to his 52nd birthday, Mr Cohen severed the most important relationship of his professional career.
It is a steep fall. Born in New York to a nurse mother and a surgeon father who survived the Holocaust, Mr Cohen attended an elite local high school, followed by American University in Washington DC and law school in Michigan. By his late twenties, he was practising as a personal injury attorney and had married Laura Shusterman, his Ukrainian-born, New York-bred girlfriend whom he met as a teenager. On the side, Mr Cohen dipped into investing in New York City’s lucrative taxi medallions and real estate.
In 2006, when the residents’ co-operative of one of the Trump apartment buildings threatened legal action against Mr Trump, Mr Cohen, who owned several apartments in the building with his family, came to the rescue, helping Mr Trump regain control of the co-op board. Soon after, he went to work for the real estate developer full-time.
Like his boss, Mr Cohen soon developed a penchant for expensive brands (Dolce & Gabbana and Hermès) as well as a taste for lawsuits. In one instance, Mr Cohen sued a New York University psychiatrist for $250,000 over an allegedly sub-par Hamptons home the doctor had rented to him for a holiday.
When Mr Cohen ran, unsuccessfully, for New York City council in 2003, he boasted about his negotiating skills, noting that when a coffee shop in his neighbourhood had been “lazy about its trash”, he “hectored them into obtaining a state-of-the art disposal system”. And when an “undesirable” commercial tenant wanted to move into his neighbourhood, he “gathered evidence” about the potential impact on the community “and sent them elsewhere”.
An old friend of Mr Cohen said the lawyer was attracted to the fact that Mr Trump was a “large personality”. “He liked the fact that this was a very successful person . . . I think lots of people love the flash of someone like Trump and being around it. He loved his job. He loved the deals. He loved being part of all the hype, all the noise.”
Mr Cohen was elated by Mr Trump’s election as president in 2016. Yet, while he told friends he believed he could soon be joining his employer at the White House, no job there ever materialised.
From there, his problems began to mount. In April, FBI agents raided Mr Cohen’s home, office and hotel room. And while at first Mr Trump appeared to come to Mr Cohen’s defence, by late spring the president had shifted gears, playing down his relationship with the lawyer who had stood by him for years. Mr Trump suggested Mr Cohen alone was responsible for any pay-offs to the two women who claimed to have had affairs with the president: the adult film actress Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, a former Playboy playmate.
As the president pushed his former friend further away, Mr Cohen’s legal bills mounted, and public opinion turned on him. The actor Ben Stiller played him as a bumbling crook straight out of The Sopranos on Saturday Night Live. The New York Post pilloried him in a series of articles: “Michael Cohen went to the worst law school in the country”, one headline ran.
While in September 2017, Mr Cohen declared he would be willing to take a bullet for Mr Trump, by July this year, he signalled his priorities might be shifting. “My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will,” Mr Cohen said in a television news interview. “I put family and country first.”
The final act has played out quickly. On Monday evening, Mr Cohen enjoyed a glass of Glenlivet 12, on the rocks. The next day he turned himself into the FBI pleading guilty to eight charges of tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violation. Those charges, the New York judge noted, carry a prison sentence of up to 65 years.
In the wake of Mr Cohen’s surrender the president has lashed out, giving an interview to Fox News in which he called him a bad lawyer and a liar, and suggesting Mr Cohen had “flipped” out of weakness. “He makes a better deal when he uses me, like everybody else,” Mr Trump said.
Mr Cohen’s old friend believes that while the lawyer had represented Mr Trump “in a very passionate way”, he was also the president’s Achilles heel. “He was a little bit too close,” said the friend, “and knew too much.”
The writer is the FT’s US political correspondent