Is Michael Cohen Cutting a Deal or Just Broke?

If he didn’t already know, Michael Cohen just found out that he’s going to have to pay close to half the cost of having a special master examine all the records that were seized from him by the FBI. I guess Trump and the Trump Corporation will shoulder some of the cost, too. It’s wasted money, because practically nothing has been ruled as privileged. And perhaps Cohen isn’t waiting around to see what the prosecutors will do with the information once they have unfettered access to it, because it looks like he just followed Rick Gates’s example once he made the decision to cooperate and fired all his attorneys.

Three lawyers for Paul Manafort’s co-defendant, Rick Gates, have told the court they want to quit in the criminal money-laundering conspiracy case, raising the possibility of a defense strategy shift and possible cooperation with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

The lawyers filed their reasons for leaving under seal. However, Gates has reportedly hired long-time Washington criminal defense attorney Tom Green, whose resume stretches back to the Nixon-era Watergate scandal and who helped negotiate a plea deal for disgraced former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

The Wall Street Journal makes it sound like Cohen’s lawyers are quitting rather than getting fired, and while that’s what Gates’s lawyers said too, I suppose it’s possible that this news is being is misinterpreted and Cohen’s team is stepping down voluntarily for some reason. Perhaps they’ve taken a look at the mountains of incriminating evidence and advised him to cooperate and he has instead refused. Or perhaps the New York Times is correct and this is all over a billing issue.

Mr. Cohen’s current legal team is expected to stay with him for the rest of the week as they struggle to complete a laborious review of a trove of documents and data files seized from him by the authorities two months ago. But after that review is finished, he will seek new legal counsel, the people familiar with his case said. The issue is primarily over payment of the legal bills of one of his lawyers, Stephen Ryan, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

The widespread assumption is that this indicates that Cohen is preparing to cut a deal with the Special Counsel’s office, but it could be as simple as Cohen not being able to pay his lawyers’ fees.  Maybe all that money from AT&T and Novartis really doesn’t go very far when the Feds come knocking.

But then there’s this from Vanity Fair:

People close to Cohen have described the shake-up as an anticipated strategic decision. “Steve [Ryan]’s firm was perfect for this document review and not a lot firms have the wherewithal for that. They wanted to get through the document review because they were very equipped to handle it,” one adviser and longtime friend of Cohen told me on Wednesday. “But as far as a criminal case going forward in the Southern District, he’s going to want a New York attorney who came from the Southern District. If there is an indictment in the Southern District, there is no way Steve Ryan was going to handle it. This is something that’s been in the works for a while, and who knows what’s going to happen next, but Steve won’t be the one handling it.”

The switch reflects the changing nature of Cohen’s case moving forward, the friend suggested. With privilege designations coming to a close, Cohen has been in talks with lawyers who have close ties to the Manhattan U.S. attorneys office. He is close to hiring one of them, according to three people familiar with the situation.

That all makes sense, too. And Vanity Fair expands on the billing issue, here:

The breakup was also spurred by a disagreement over payment, and how much the Trump Organization was expected to foot on Cohen’s behalf, according to two sources with knowledge of the dispute. For a decade, Cohen represented Donald Trump as part of the Trump Organization, including when he made a hush-money payment to adult-film star Stormy Daniels. Records related to that payment, along with other activities involving Cohen’s dealings with Trump and the Trump Organization, were among the documents seized by federal agents in April, according to two people familiar with the search warrant.

Which gets us back to the judge’s order I cited at the top.

I think it’s too early to say what’s really going on here, although I can’t fail to mention that there is now more than one media outlet reporting that Cohen has told friends he expects to be arrested at any moment. I don’t think he’ll be arrested before the prosecutors have combed through all his records which they’ll be able to do starting sometime on Friday. Of course, Cohen has to be considered a substantial flight risk, and there should be considerable concern about his physical safety. So, he could be arrested at the soonest practicable moment, even before the Feds know all they’ve got on him.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.