We don’t need Michael Cohen to know the truth about Trump

In April, on the first night of Passover, Michael Cohen—Donald Trump’s former fixer, who was then incarcerated at Otisville prison, in New York—took an early manuscript of a book he’d been working on, and tossed it into a fire that Orthodox inmates had built to burn leavened bread. According to Vanity Fair’s Emily Jane Fox, Cohen didn’t want the manuscript—a tell-all about his sordid work for the president—falling into the hands of Trump-sympathizing guards; in any case, his wife had a backup copy. The following month, Cohen was released to home confinement. In July, he showed up at a courthouse to handle paperwork extending his home stay, only to encounter a surprise catch. Probation officers demanded that Cohen refrain from pursuing his book or otherwise talking to the media while at home; Cohen refused to agree to those terms, and so back to Otisville he went. His lawyers pushed back, arguing that his treatment amounted to an egregious violation of the First Amendment. A bemused judge ruled that the federal government had, indeed, retaliated against Cohen, and sent him home again.

Last month, Cohen (who’s still at home) used a personal website to publish a teaser of the book the Trump administration had tried to quash. Over the weekend, more details leaked out in the press ahead of the book’s formal publication date, which was yesterday. Normally, home confinement makes book tours awkward, but we’re all basically home-confined these days (if not by court order). Cohen has already sat for videochat-style interviews with NBC’s Lester Holt and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, and will appear on CNN tonight. And juicy nuggets from the book continue to make the news cycle: Trump has “low opinions of all Black folks”; Trump once hired a Barack Obama stand-in (a “Faux-Bama”) so he could “fire” him, Apprentice-style; Trump didn’t just have the National Enquirer “catch and kill” negative stories about him in 2016, but also signed off on its hit pieces about Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio; Trump plans to have himself indicted for crimes to which Cohen pleaded guilty, so that he can pardon himself; and so on.

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In addition to campaign-finance crimes tied to the “catch and kill” scheme, Cohen pleaded guilty to making false statements to Congress about Trump and Russia. He is thus a convicted liar, which makes it hard to take his book at face value. Journalists including Holt, in his Cohen interview, have grappled with that difficulty; others have declined to dwell on it much at all. Last night, Maddow called one of the stories in the book “unbelievable,” then caught herself: “I don’t mean literally unbelievable,” she told Cohen, “I believe you.” Speaking on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show after Maddow wrapped up, Daniel Goldman, a prosecutor who represented the Democrats during Trump’s impeachment, said he believes Cohen, too: the truth Cohen is professing to tell “is against his self-interest,” Goldman argued, and the book doesn’t overstate its anti-Trump case. On Twitter, Josh Campbell, a CNN security correspondent and former FBI staffer, noted that while “it’s hard for investigators to believe convicted crooks,” crooks “also make great witnesses.” Campbell’s CNN colleague Elie Honig, a legal analyst, added that there’s corroboration for much, if not all, of Cohen’s account.

In the book, Cohen apologizes for some of his past conduct—he was “more than willing,” he writes, “to lie, cheat, and bully” at Trump’s behest—and acknowledges that many people will consider him to be “the least reliable narrator on the planet.” However, he also insists that he’s innocent of some of the crimes to which he pleaded guilty; he now calls himself a “scapegoat” and a victim of prosecutors’ “gangster tactics.” And his book pins blame for Trump’s ascent elsewhere, including on the media. “Donald Trump’s presidency is a product of the free press. Not free as in freedom of expression, I mean free as unpaid for,” Cohen writes. “Rallies broadcast live, tweets, press conferences, idiotic interviews, 24-7 wall-to-wall coverage, all without spending a penny… Right, left, moderate, tabloid, broadsheet, television, radio, Internet, Facebook—that is who elected Trump and might well elect him again.”

There’s merit in that argument. But there’s no merit in Michael Cohen making it. Aside from the National Enquirer, “the free press” didn’t use illegal tactics to cover up Trump’s wrongdoing in 2016—Cohen did. “The free press” didn’t deny a story involving incriminating photos of Jerry Falwell, Jr., then contradict that denial in a book—Cohen did. “The free press” did not scream, “I will make sure that you and I meet one day over in the courthouse and I will take you for every penny you still don’t have, and I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know… and that’s my warning for the day,” at a reporter. You get the picture.

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There’s a broader point here which goes beyond Cohen’s attempt at media criticism and the debate as to whether or not his account can be trusted: we don’t need to hear any of this from him. Books by disillusioned former confidants of the president are common these days, and—judging by their sales figures and the media coverage they generate—interest in the spicy details they offer remains high. Often, though, their authors are themselves compromised. (I’m looking at you, John Bolton.) And while details, of course, matter in journalism, the anecdotes in these books can feel repetitive, and the public reaction to them tends to fizzle.

Ultimately, there’s no need to get bogged down in such debates about credibility and conjecture—because we all know by now the truth of who Trump is and what he represents. That truth is both factual—as I’ve written before, Trump has a habit of saying the really bad stuff out loud—and, more importantly, moral. Discerning it requires our eyes and ears, as well as our empathy. It doesn’t require getting into the weeds—or the gutter—with the likes of Michael Cohen.

Below, more on Michael Cohen and books:

  • Samwise: Under so-called “Son of Sam” laws at the federal and state level, convicted felons are often prevented from cashing in on their notoriety. Legal experts told the AP’s Jim Mustian, however, that such laws don’t seem to cover Cohen’s book. “The law doesn’t apply at the federal level because Cohen’s crimes were nonviolent,” Mustian writes. “And more expansive state Son of Sam statutes, including New York’s, don’t cover Cohen’s convictions” because, per one legal analyst, “there really is no victim to notify in this case.”
  • Rage-turner: Rage—Bob Woodward’s hotly-anticipated follow-up to his first Trump book, Fearis due out next Tuesday. It promises “explosive” details about the president’s conduct which will, at least, have been routed through a real journalist’s reporting process. Woodward reportedly interviewed Trump 17 times, though that hasn’t stopped Trump slamming the book on Twitter. CNN’s Brian Stelter reckons the first excerpts from Rage will start to leak this week. “This feels like the calm before a very specific type of storm,” he writes.
  • Peter pans Trump: Peter Strzok, the former FBI agent turned Trumpworld hate figure, also has a book out, titled Compromised: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump. In his first interview since quitting the FBI, Strzok told The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum that, in his view, Trump “is unable to put the interests of our nation first, that he acts from hidden motives, because there is leverage over him, held specifically by the Russians but potentially others as well.” Wired’s Garrett M. Graff spoke with Strzok, too.
  • Kim: Kim Darroch—the former British ambassador to the US, who resigned last year after the Mail on Sunday leaked confidential diplomatic cables that showed Darroch privately disparaging the Trump administration—is out with a book, too, called Collateral Damage. It contains public disparagement of the Trump administration; The Times of London has an excerpt. (I wrote for CJR about the murkiness of the Mail’s leak.)
  • Publishing power: For CJR’s recent magazine on election coverage, Akintunde Ahmad, Lauren Harris, and Savannah Jacobson quantified the Trump-era book boom. “The publishing industry has produced more material on Trump than any president before,” they reported, “with books selling in the millions.”

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.