White House

Cohen Isn't the Biggest Catch from Trump World

Other players know far more about the president's dealings than his lawyer does.

Could be worse.

Photographer: Yana Paskova/Getty

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's personal attorney, will be in a federal courtroom on Monday, arguing that he has the right to review documents that FBI agents seized when they raided his office and residences last week.

Reporters will be in the courtroom, too. The media is excited about what might emerge from Cohen's legal travails, and for good reason. But it’s also worth remembering what Cohen actually did at the Trump Organization -- and not to assume that his evident downfall portends doom for Trump's presidency.

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Cohen started working for Trump in 2006, and has brought potential licensing deals to the president's attention for years. He worked with the career criminal and Trump business partner Felix Sater on a proposal for a Trump project in Moscow, as well as an initiative to end economic sanctions against Russia over its military annexation of part of Ukraine.

Cohen, an in-house fixer at the Trump Organization who actually practiced very little law, also helped resolve various messes Trump found himself in. That included, most famously, arranging to pay a porn star named Stormy Daniels to stay quiet about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump. The FBI is reportedly looking into payments to Daniels and another woman, as well as possible campaign-finance violations and bank and wire fraud.

That's a lot of stuff, and its potential overlap with the president's business and political dealings may be perilous for both men. Given all of the elements here -- the presidency, federal prosecutors, a search warrant, sex, money, power and Trump's personal attorney -- the press has also been tempted to see Cohen's legal trouble as something of an end game for the president himself:

"Michael Cohen and the End Stage of the Trump Presidency," read a headline on a New Yorker article that ran on Saturday.

"We can safely speculate that Cohen knows everything: the money, the scams, the women, the Russians. All of it," noted Esquire last week.

"Arguably, no one who has worked with Trump over the past decade knows more about the president's past business dealings in Russia and elsewhere abroad than Cohen," Rolling Stone allowed.

"Cohen knows everything there is to know about Trump's 500-plus businesses," an author told Mic five days ago. "He understands how Trump challenged the boundaries of normal business practices and where he may have crossed them." 

There are many more articles and broadcasts like this from just the past week alone. The problem is that Cohen may not know many of those things. There was a lawyer at the Trump Organization who did have to sign off on almost every significant deal -- and that guy wasn't Cohen. His name was Jason Greenblatt.

Greenblatt specialized in real-estate law at a major New York firm before signing on with the Trump Organization in 1997. He soon became Trump's true in-house counsel and the company's executive vice president. Everything that mattered in the Trump Organization, every sizable deal or sensitive transaction, required Greenblatt's signature, not Cohen's. Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization's chief financial officer, has played a similar role when it comes to the company's finances.

At the end of 2016, Greenblatt left the Trump Organization after the president made him a special representative for international negotiations. Weisselberg still helps Trump's sons manage the business while Trump is in the Oval Office. Now that special counsel Robert Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organization for business records, his investigators may get around to interviewing Greenblatt and Weisselberg, who almost certainly have more expansive information on the president's business activities than Cohen does.

If that happens -- or if the U.S. attorney's office in New York takes a similar interest -- then the media might have to reassess its take on Cohen and the role he's playing in the broader drama surrounding the White House.

Adam Davidson, the New Yorker writer who wrote the recent article about Cohen, is a careful reporter who has spent a lot of time navigating some of Trump's business deals (he's also an acquaintance of mine). In his piece, however, he refers to Trump's company as "a small, sad operation, mostly run by his two oldest children and Michael Cohen."

That's not true. Cohen has never run the company in a significant way. "I wish I was clearer about Michael Cohen's role," Davidson told me when we talked about his article. "He was a central player in the problematic overseas deals that will become central to these investigations. But he definitely wasn't running the company."

Cohen certainly remains a vulnerability for Trump, especially in the context of Mueller's investigation of quid pro quos between the Trump team and the Kremlin. But Cohen still isn't the biggest catch from within the Trump Organization, and Trump's international deals may wind up being less threatening, legally, than some of his domestic transactions. All of which means that the investigation may require far more time to progress and reveal itself than the media and other observers think -- even if recent events make it feel like the end is near.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net

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