On 21 August, Donald Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to tax evasion, bank fraud and breaking campaign finance rules. In a stunning revelation, he directly implicated the president in criminal activity, saying that he acted “at the direction of and in coordination with” Trump to make illegal campaign payments to silence two women who say they had affairs with the president.
He said the payments were “for the principal purpose of influencing the election”.
Faced with a maximum sentence of 65 years in prison, Cohen is believed to be cooperating with the investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia in exchange for leniency.
On 22 August, Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis said in an interview with MSBNC that Cohen has “knowledge about a conspiracy to corrupt American democracy by the Russians and the failure to report that information to the FBI”.
Cohen was one of Trump’s closest and most loyal aides, once telling Vanity Fair that he’d “do anything to protect Mr. Trump”, but under legal mounting pressure he has turned on his former boss.
The result could be spectacularly damaging to the president.
The Long Island-born personal injury lawyer, taxi fleet owner, and businessman with ties to a number of convicted fraudsters and Russian mobsters, served for over a decade as Trump’s deals guy before becoming the president’s personal attorney. His legal troubles are shedding light on the dark underside of Trump’s presidential campaign and the Trump Organization’s business practices. Now he may prove a crucial witness to the Russia Inquiry.
Here’s a full timeline tracking Cohen’s murky business history and how it intersects with Trump. We’ll be updating the story as it progresses.
Cohen graduates from Cooley Law School in Michigan.
Cohen begins working for a personal injury lawyer named Melvyn Estrin, who later pleads guilty to bribing insurance adjusters. (Cohen was never implicated in this.)
Cohen marries Laura Shusterman. Her father Fima is a Ukrainian émigré and taxi fleet owner who was charged in 1993 with conspiring to defraud the IRS. Over the years, Fima Shusterman helps Cohen build ties with numerous Russian and Ukrainian businessmen, among them convicted fraudsters and mobsters.
With his father-in-law’s help, Cohen enters the taxi business, registering five new cab companies that year.
Cohen sets up a series of medical companies in New York. According to the New York Times, “the ventures were noteworthy, in part, because they were created at a time when countless phony companies were cropping up to exploit so-called no-fault auto insurance laws in New York and other states.”
The Times reports that the only two people listed in the incorporation papers as having roles in the businesses are two doctors who were later accused of insurance fraud in relation to different medical practices they operated. There is no evidence that Cohen or the companies were involved in fraudulent schemes, or that he did anything other than register the companies.
At the same time, Cohen also becomes involved in numerous car insurance lawsuits, according to ProPublica reporting.
Cohen buys property in Trump World Tower, a residential complex close to the United Nations in midtown Manhattan. His parents, in-laws, and a man called Symon Garber (more about him shortly) later purchase apartments in the same building. Cohen purchases several more Trump properties.
Cohen runs for New York’s City Council and loses.
Cohen sides with Trump in a dispute between the reality TV star and apartment owners at Trump World Tower.
Cohen joins the Trump Organization as an executive vice-president and legal counsel.
Cohen turns over management of his taxi fleet to the taxi kingpin Symon Garber. (Garber’s company was fined $1.6m in 2014 for ripping off drivers. He has also been convicted of assault in New York and pled guilty in New Jersey to charges of criminal mischief after breaking into three neighbour’s homes, shattering glass doors, smearing blood everywhere and then taking a shower.)
Cohen launches a failed bid for New York’s senate.
As Trump considers a presidential bid, Cohen sets up a website called shouldtrumprun.com and travels to Iowa to explore the political terrain. A complaint was filed to the Federal Election Commission alleging that Cohen’s work on shouldtrumprun.com should be considered an “excessive” campaign contribution, but both Trump and Cohen were cleared of wrongdoing.
InTouch magazine spikes an interview with the porn star Stormy Daniels in which she says she had an affair with Donald Trump in 2006 after Cohen allegedly threatens to sue the magazine’s parent company.
Cohen cuts business ties with Garber after a dispute. Cohen’s fleet is now managed by Evgeny Freidman, another Soviet-born taxi baron. (Freidman has been charged with threatening to kill a former business partner’s family and with stealing $5m in state fees.)
June: Donald Trump formally announces his candidacy for president
August: Cohen threatens a Daily Beast reporter who was writing about claims that Trump raped his first wife, Ivana. He tells the reporter Tim Mak “I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting.”
September: Cohen reportedly solicits a $150,000 donation to the Donald J Trump Foundation from the Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk in exchange for a 20 minute speech delivered via a video link to a conference in Kiev. This payment is later investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller who is leading the inquiry into Russian interference in the general election.
May: Cohen is working on a deal with to build a Trump tower in Moscow. Brokering the deal is Cohen’s old friend Felix Sater, a Russian born businessman and convicted stock swindler turned FBI informant. (Sater also spent time in jail for smashing a martini glass in someone’s face). In a series of emails sent in 2015, Sater brags of his close ties to Putin, writing in one message to Cohen: “buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins [sic] team to buy in on this.”
Cohen later tells Congress that he stopped working on the Trump tower project in January 2016. But Yahoo reports that communications seized by FBI prosecutors in April show that Cohen was working on a deal to build a Trump tower in Moscow as late as May 2016.
July: Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination.
August: According to court filings, Cohen helps broker a “catch-and-kill” agreement with the media company AMI to prevent the former Playboy model Karen McDougal from discussing her 2006-2007 affair with Donald Trump. Under the agreement, McDougal is paid $150,000.
17 October: Cohen sets up a shell company called Essential Consultants LLC and opens up a business account for the company.
27 October: Cohen uses Essential Consultants’ business account to wire $130,000 to a lawyer acting for Stormy Daniels, a porn star who says she had sex with Trump (according to documents provided by Daniels’ lawyer.)
28 October: Daniels signs a non-disclosure agreement under which she is paid $130,000 in exchange for her silence over her 2006 sexual encounter with Donald Trump. The NDA is signed by Michael Cohen, who describes himself on the document as an attorney for Essential Consultants LLC.
9 November: Donald Trump wins the presidential election
December: Cohen meets the head of Qatar’s $100bn investment fund, Ahmed Al-Rumahi, at Trump Tower and according to the Daily Mail asks him to send “millions” through Cohen to Trump family members. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2018 Al-Rumahi confirms that Cohen solicited him and says he refused.
9 January: Video footage shows that Cohen meets with the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, who has close ties to Putin, at Trump Tower. In 2014 the FBI warned that a foundation controlled by Vekselberg might be acting on behalf of the Russian intelligence services.
19 January: Cohen quits his job with the Trump Organisation to become the president’s “personal attorney”. Curiously (or not) most of Trump’s legal affairs are handled by lawyers other than Cohen and he does not relocate to Washington DC.
20 January: Donald Trump is sworn in as 45th president of the United States.
Shortly after the inauguration, Cohen’s Essential Consultants LLC is awarded a $1m contract by a US company controlled by the Vekselberg.
February: Cohen delivers a peace plan for Ukraine and Russia to national security adviser Michael Flynn. The proposal, also backed by Sater (remember him from the Moscow tower deal?) and a Ukrainian lawmaker, outlined a way Trump could lift sanctions on Russia. (A week later Flynn resigns after lying about his contact with the Russian ambassador.)
June: According to BBC reporting, Cohen is paid at least $400,000 to secure a meeting between Trump and the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. (Cohen denies this.)
October: Cohen’s Essential Consultants LLC receives the first of four payments of $99,980 from the pharmaceutical giant Novartis. The following January, Trump has dinner with Norvartis’ CEO at Davos.
He also receives the first of four instalments of $50,000 from the telecoms company AT&T, whose proposed merger with Time Warner is currently being reviewed by the justice department.
November: Cohen’s Essential Consultants LLC receives $150,000 from a Korean airline company that is competing for a multibillion dollar air force contract.
In late 2017: Cohen reportedly brokers a deal to pay $1.6m for the silence of a playboy model who says she was impregnated by the major Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy.
12 January: The Wall Street Journalbreaks the news that Cohen paid the porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 for her silence over a 2006 affair with Trump. Cohen releases a statement signed by Stormy Daniels denying the affair and that she was paid any hush money. (She later says this was coerced into signing this.)
19 January: InTouch magazine publishes the 2011 interview with Daniels in which she describes her alleged affair with Trump in salacious, occasionally stomach-churning, detail. (This is the article that was allegedly shelved in 2011 after Cohen threatened to sue.)
13 February: Cohen says that he used his personal funds to pay Daniels. He notably does not say whether the president reimbursed him. Who ultimately paid Daniels is critical, because the payment could violate campaign finance laws. It also sheds some light on the level of the president’s involvement in silencing women who say they have slept with him.
6 March: Daniels files a lawsuit against Donald Trump to get out of her non-disclosure agreement, which she argues is void because Trump did not sign it. She also says that Cohen used “intimidation and coercive tactics” to force her to deny the affair.
26 March: Daniels sues Cohen, saying he portrayed her as having lied about her affair with Trump.
5 April: Cohen is hired to help a major Trump donor seek investment from Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund. According to the Wall Street Journal’s report, Trump’s personal lawyer also solicited Qatari investment for another infrastructure deal
9 April: Following a referral from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the investigation into Russian interference in the election, the FBI raid Cohen’s office, safe deposit box and hotel room, seizing documents and computer hard drives.
Cohen is under criminal investigation over his personal business interests. The Washington Post reports that he is under investigation over bank fraud and wire fraud.
16 April: Cohen appears in court in New York after his legal team attempt to issue a restraining order to prevent prosecutors from reading his seized documents, arguing they are subject to attorney-client privilege. The judge fails to reach a decision over who should get a first look at the seized documents to remove from investigation any items that are privileged.
In a moment of drama, Fox News host Sean Hannity is revealed as one of Cohen’s clients. Stormy Daniels attends court, for no other reason, it seems, then to drum up publicity.
26 April: A New York judge appoints a former federal judge, Barbara Jones to act as a Special Master in Cohen’s criminal case. This means Jones will sift through the documents seized by the FBI and determine which are protected by client-attorney privilege and which can be viewed by prosecutors.
27 April: A judge in California orders a three-month delay of Daniels’ case against Donald Trump, citing the likelihood that Cohen will be indicted. Daniels, if you recall, is suing Trump to get out of her non-disclosure agreement.
2 May: Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and the latest addition to Trump’s legal team, tells Fox News’s Sean Hannity (Cohen’s secret client) that Trump repaid Cohen the $130,000 hush money. Giuliani says that Trump wasn’t aware of the specifics but knew about the general arrangement.
This contradicts Trump’s previous statements. On 5 April the president told reporters on Air Force One that he had no knowledge of the payment.
8 May: Daniels’ lawyer Michael Avenatti releases a report making public Cohen’s shell company, Essential Consultants, and the money it received from companies with business before the Trump administration.
AT&T, Novartis and the South Korean defence firm later confirm hiring Cohen as a consultant. A lawyer for Columbus Nova, the investment firm whose biggest client is a company controlled by Vekselberg, describes the payment as a consulting fee that had nothing to do with Vekselberg.
9 May: US media outlets report that Cohen aggressively pitched himself to companies as the person closest to president, who could give them an insight into how Trump is thinking. Of legal importance is whether Cohen promised specific government actions in exchange for payments (which is illegal), if he should have registered as a lobbyist and if any of this money was channelled back to Trump
16 May: The president’s financial disclosure, released by the Office of Government Ethics, shows that Trump reimbursed Michael Cohen between $100,000 and $250,000 for a payment to a third party. This may refer to the $130,000 Cohen paid to Daniels.
22 May: Cohen’s longterm taxi business partner, Evgeny Freidman, agrees to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for leniency, having been charged with evading over $5m in taxes.
13 June: Cohen parts with his legal team, according to reporting by the Associated Press.
18 June: Cohen hires former New York prosecutor Guy Petrillo as his lawyer.
2 July: In his first interview since the FBI raided his home and offices in April, Cohen hints to ABC News that he is willing to cooperate with investigators even if that means implicating Trump.
Cohen hires Lanny Davis, the lawyer who served the Clinton White House, as his attorney.
25 July: CNN obtains an audio recording made by Cohen during a conversation with the president in which the pair discuss arrangements to pay hush money to McDougal. The recording shows that Trump was intimately involved in the arrangement, but it’s unclear whether the president suggests to Cohen that McDougal should be paid off in cash.
27 July: CNN reports that Cohen is willing to testify to Mueller that Trump knew in advance of the now-infamous Trump Tower meeting between Don Jr., senior Trump officials and a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton.
9 August: The Special Master reviewing Cohen’s seized documents says she has now completed her task.
21 August: Michael Cohen pleads guilty to tax evasion, bank fraud and breaking campaign finance laws to silence Daniels and McDougal “under the direction of and in coordination with” the president. Sentencing is scheduled for 12 December.
22 August: Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis tells MSNBC that his client can provide important evidence to the Mueller Inquiry. He says Cohen has “knowledge about a conspiracy to corrupt American democracy by the Russians and the failure to report that information to the FBI”.