As President Donald Trump absorbed the news that Michael Cohen, his former personal attorney and notorious “fixer,” had released a secret recording of the two of them, he did what he usually does in such situations: swore and groused loudly.
Two sources who have spoken to Trump about Cohen this week said the president was furious—hurling “expletives,” per one confidant—after CNN revealed Cohen had covertly recorded at least one of their conversations. On Tuesday, the cable network published audio, provided to it by Cohen’s attorney, of Trump and his former fixer discussing purchasing the rights to former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal’s story alleging she had an affair with Trump.
American Media Inc. (AMI), the parent company of the National Enquirer, owns the rights to the story. And David Pecker, a longtime Trump ally, helmed AMI. But, according to a source familiar with the Trump-Cohen conversation, Pecker had told Trump he was considering leaving AMI, prompting fears in Trumpland that a new leader at the company could decide to publish McDougal’s story. Such fears prompted Trump and Cohen to look into buying the rights to the story themselves, according to the source. Ultimately, Pecker stayed at AMI and Trump opted not to purchase the story rights.
Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, told The Daily Beast he had “no knowledge” of the discussion between Trump and Pecker. A spokesperson for AMI did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.
After audio of the call surfaced, the president conveyed to those close to him that he felt betrayed by Cohen. He was particularly irate at being clandestinely recorded and that audio had found its way to, of all places, CNN, a frequent target of Trump’s tweets. Trump also vented his frustration that there are apparently other tapes out there, and that he doesn’t know exactly what could be on them, or when they’ll drop in the press.
On Thursday evening that next shoe dropped, only it wasn't in the form of an audio recording. CNN (again) reported that Cohen was willing to attest that Trump had lied when he claimed he had no prior knowledge of the infamous campaign meeting his eldest son helped organized with Russians at Trump Tower.
Giuliani denied the latest allegation to CNN and called Cohen a chronic liar. But the episode is likely to further anger the president, who has been simmering over the Cohen matter for days.
In his three most recent tweets about his former lawyer, Trump has declined to write “Michael” or “Cohen,” as he has in other tweets about him this year. The slight is not by accident, according to multiple people who have known Trump for years. The president, they say, will often stop using people’s names if he’s convinced they’re turncoats, or if he suddenly finds them big enough “losers” not worth the attention.
On Friday morning, Trump continued using this tactic, referring to his former loyalist as “he,” “him,” and “someone.”
“I did NOT know of the meeting with my son, Don jr. Sounds to me like someone is trying to make up stories in order to get himself out of an unrelated jam (Taxi cabs maybe?). He even retained Bill and Crooked Hillary’s lawyer. Gee, I wonder if they helped him make the choice!” the president posted to Twitter.
“They’re dead to each other [now],” said another source close to the president who also knows Cohen.
Trump allies are already gaming out how to, in the words of one outside adviser to the president, “bury” Cohen.
A Cohen ally brushed off the impending attacks, calling Giuliani and his associates “the gang who can’t shoot straight.”
Reached for comment, Cohen referred The Daily Beast to his lawyer Lanny Davis. Davis said Cohen is not concerned about any coming attacks from the president’s allies and surrogates. “When you’ve got truth on your side, you’re not afraid of anything,” he said. “So what are they afraid of?”
“When Michael Cohen came to me, I spent two weeks asking him about what he had done in the past for Mr. Trump and what he wanted to do in the future,” Davis continued. “I decided to represent him after hearing the answers to both of those questions and listening and watching what he was willing to say on TV to George Stephanopoulos. That’s when I made my decision. He has hit the reset button, he’s made a turn—to be on his own, speaking the truth.”
Several of Cohen’s associates have told The Daily Beast that Cohen—who for years publicly branded himself as the ultimate Trump loyalist—chose to publicize elements of his relationship with Trump once he realized that his loyalty would not be reciprocated.
Many were surprised it took him so long to realize this. The president passed over Cohen for a plum administration gig—Cohen had told friends he expected to be tapped as White House chief of staff—and displayed a nasty habit of making Cohen appear like a nuisance among peers.
Two sources with direct knowledge of Trump and Cohen’s relationship over the years tell The Daily Beast that during the 2016 presidential run, Cohen would often wander into rooms in Trump Tower where the GOP frontrunner and his senior advisers were having meetings on political strategy and other campaign-related matters. Cohen, according to these sources, would try to interject, only to have Trump tell him to leave and say they’d talk later. “Get out, Michael,” Trump ordered during one particular moment of annoyance.
Through it all, Cohen remained a committed Trump ally. But in the months after the feds raided his office, he began to feel abandoned by the president. The sense that he could be left as a potential fall-guy ultimately convinced him to go on offense.
Cohen has told associates he believes there is no going back on his latest moves, and that he expects to be finished with the president for the rest of his life.
“He has… made his peace with the loss of his friend,” one friend of Cohen assessed.
It’s been a staggering reversal for someone who had said as recently as April that he’d “rather jump out of a building than turn on Donald Trump.” At the time, a senior White House official joked, “How tall is the building?”—reflecting a widely held perception of Cohen as a supplicant whose utility wasn’t all that evident. Now, the words often used to describe the former Trump lawyer are “snitch,” “weakling,” and “traitor,” with Trump allies saying it won’t be hard to portray Cohen as a hypocrite, opportunist, or criminal.
Cohen has certainly given his enemies fodder. Upon Trump’s election, he tried to make a financial killing through a secret “shadow lobbying” effort. When that effort blew up spectacularly with the publication of private client lists, Cohen found himself further in trouble with federal investigators. Those clients could now find themselves enduring even more embarrassing headlines.
“One doesn’t have to speculate too hard to think that some of Michael Cohen’s other clients are going to be very, very angry when they find out they’re possibly on tape,” said a source familiar with his track record.
But not everyone in Trump’s orbit thinks it’s a wise idea to go to war. Former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), a prominent Trump surrogate and a friend of Cohen’s, told The Daily Beast that he felt “sorry” for the former Trump hand.
“It would appear to me that if I’m [White House chief of staff John] Kelly, I would say to the president, ‘Do not talk to Michael Cohen anymore, it’s not in your interest,’” Kingston added. “But I would have someone else talk to Michael Cohen…so he wouldn’t feel like he was out on a limb, and that the limb was being sawed off.”
Edit: This story has been updated throughout.