In summer 2012, Michael Cohen took his family to a golf resort owned by Donald Trump in New Jersey. By this point, he had been working as Trump’s lawyer-cum-attack dog for six years. Trump noticed a teenage girl walking off the tennis court, her hair scrunched in a ponytail. “Look at that piece of ass! I would love some of that,” the man Cohen called “the Boss” declared.
Cohen explained to the future president of the United States that this was actually his 15-year-old daughter, Samantha. An unabashed Trump asked when “she had got so hot”, demanded a kiss from Samantha and told her she had a ”beautiful figure”. After this distinctly creepy encounter, Cohen’s daughter begged him to quit as Trump’s attorney. He didn’t.
Instead, Cohen went down a hubristic path. It would take him to glory: helping Trump to beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US election and then to a job as the president’s personal attorney. And to doom and disaster: a bitter public feud with the White House’s Tweeter-in-Chief and to a stint in jail after he pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and to other crimes.
Disloyal is Cohen’s kiss-and-tell account of the decade he spent at Trump’s side. It is an exhilarating and lurid story – part survivor’s memoir, part revenge tragedy. His verdict on the president is brutal. It is, for the most part, convincing. Trump, according to Cohen, is a cheat, liar, fraud, bully, racist and predator. And a gargantuan conman who has succeeded in duping millions of Americans.
As Cohen tells it, Trump is unlikely to quit if he loses November’s election to Joe Biden. Instead, he expects the president to cheat his way to victory, a tactic that has served him well before. Cohen’s reasoning is plausible: that Trump will do anything to stay in power, knowing full well that once he is out of office, federal and state charges and a possible prison cell await.
The Trump who emerges from these pages has the charm and menace of a mafia mobster. From the 26th floor of Trump Tower, he would summon Cohen to fix messes of his own making. They included women with whom Trump had had affairs, who needed to be bought off, and disgruntled contractors and others whom Trump had stiffed. Trump’s directions were always oblique, Cohen writes, leaving room for deniability.
There are gossipy sketches of the president’s family and flatterers. Jared Kushner is a conceited man-boy, Ivanka a bit more likable, according to Cohen. All of the Trump children were starved of their father’s love as children and are now “forever trapped in a cycle of seeking his approval”. This explains why they tolerate his immigrant-bashing outbursts. Trump’s marriage to Melania, meanwhile, is purely transactional – “just another deal, plain and simple”.
Disloyal is illuminating on the theme of collusion with Russia, in which Cohen played a lead role. For four decades, Trump tried to build a hotel in Moscow. In December 2015, Cohen got in touch with Vladimir Putin’s press spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. While Trump was praising Putin on the campaign stump, Cohen was secretly trying to get Trump Tower Moscow off the ground. Trump knew, of course, as did the Trump kids.
According to Cohen, Trump colluded with the Kremlin, but not in the sophisticated way imagined by some of his critics. His treason, if you can call it that, was of the pedestrian, me-first kind. Trump and Putin were united in their loathing for Clinton, with Trump willing to accept Russian help (hacking, spies, trolls, oligarchs bearing gifts) so long as it benefited him personally.
Cohen is scathing about Christopher Steele, the former MI6 spy whose dossier says the Russians have been cultivating Trump for years. One of Steele’s memos alleges Cohen met Russian intermediaries in Prague in summer 2016, something Cohen insists is not true. Trump sucks up to Putin because he loves money and figures – rightly in my view – that the one-time KGB colonel is the world’s richest man, worth a trillion dollars.
Still, Cohen thinks it’s “not entirely impossible” that the notorious dossier pee tape exists. Trump – allegedly – watched two prostitutes perform in his hotel suite while in Russia for the Miss Universe pageant. Cohen wasn’t there. Instead, he describes an outing to a Las Vegas strip club, around the same time, where Trump and his Moscow buddies Emin and Aras Agalarov watched a similar act on stage. They enjoyed it, Cohen tells us.
Why, you wonder, did he spend so long pandering to Trump and his ginormous ego? Cohen’s answer: he was made drunk by a cocktail of power, strength, celebrity and complete disregard for the rules. He likens himself to Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Or, switching metaphor, to the canary in the coal mine. After all, he points out, Trump managed to seduce and mesmerise half of America too, not to mention its bewitched media class.
It is Americans, more than Russians, who facilitated Trump’s rise to power and who may yet connive to keep him there. Cohen worked closely with David Pecker, then CEO of American Media and publisher of the National Enquirer. Together, they smothered the stories of Trump’s extramarital relationships with the adult actor Stormy Daniels and the Playboy model Karen McDougal. (Cohen ended up paying off Daniels himself, an illegal campaign expense that helped put him in jail.)
Amid the cover-ups, lying and sleaze, Cohen acknowledges that Trump has dark gifts. These include talent, charisma and pure ruthless ambition, plus what he calls an innate ability to tap into voters’ deep prejudices and fears and to exploit them for his own benefit. The president, he says, lives constantly in the present tense, thinking nothing of the consequences of his actions, a sort of shark who survives by continuous motion.
There are a few things Cohen leaves out. We don’t learn anything about his meetings with the special counsel Robert Mueller and his FBI team, after Cohen broke with Trump in the summer of 2018 and came clean. Nor does Cohen say much about Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, who was slipping off to pass polling data and other pieces of information to a career Russian spy.
Ultimately, Disloyal is an artful work of self-reinvention. It is (ghost?) written in rollicking style and confected to give the impression Cohen is humbly repentant and ashamed. Maybe he is and his moral awakening is for real. Cohen, though, doesn’t dwell much on why he stopped being Trump’s “gangster lawyer”. Perhaps we should merely be thankful that he is now ringer of the nation’s alarm bell and deliverer of cold truth to a complicit Republican party.
Luke Harding’s latest book, Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West (Guardian Faber), is available from the Guardian Bookshop
• Disloyal: A Memoir by Michael Cohen is published by Skyhorse Publishing (£22). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15