The Memo: Cohen clues spell trouble for Trump

President TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE could be facing one of the gravest complications in his sea of legal troubles.

Speculation that the president’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen is on the cusp of cooperating with prosecutors reached a fever pitch on Monday, after the publication of an interview he gave to George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. 

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Cohen told Stephanopoulos that his primary loyalties lay with his family and his country — and offered no praise of Trump, of whom he had previously been fiercely defensive.

That in itself raised eyebrows among legal experts.

“In the past, we have been trying to interpret twigs and tea-leaves,” said Harry Litman, a former deputy assistant attorney general. “This is really much bigger.”

Mark Zaid, a prominent D.C. attorney who has represented clients from both parties, said that Cohen “saying his loyalty is to his family rather than Trump is completely understandable and how it should be — but it is without a doubt a marked difference from what he has said before, and how he has proclaimed his undying loyalty.”

Zaid added that, when it comes to Cohen’s attitude toward Trump, “the most we could say right now is ‘wavering loyalty.’”

This will cause serious concern to Trump and his allies.

Cohen’s relationship with Trump dates back about a dozen years, during which time he is said to have often played the role of fixer for the future president.

He took the lead in negotiating an agreement with the adult-film actress known as Stormy Daniels in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Under that deal, Daniels received $130,000 in return for not speaking publicly about a sexual liaison she claimed to have had with Trump in 2006.

Spokespeople for Trump have said that he denies any affair took place.

More generally, Trump allies worry about what Cohen could know, given his long association with the president.

Cohen’s home, office and hotel room were raided by investigators in April — an action that infuriated the president, who instantly called it “a disgrace” and continued to seethe about the issue behind closed doors for weeks.

However, some sources close to the president have sought to play down the dangers in the recent past. 

“Is anyone at the Trump Organization lying awake at night worrying that Michael is flipping? No,” an unnamed source close to the company told The Washington Post.

There has been wilder speculation about Cohen’s motives in giving the off-camera interview to Stephanopoulos. On social media, for instance, some have suggested that he could be trying to exert leverage on Trump and people close to him, either to pay his legal bills or perhaps to pardon him were he to ever be charged and convicted of a crime.

Experts tend to meet those interpretations with skepticism.

“It just seems like too much of a double-bank shot,” said Litman, who also praised Cohen’s new lawyer, Guy Petrillo, as an “all-around pro” who was unlikely to countenance such a high-risk strategy.

“Guy Patrillo knows what he is doing, especially in dealing with a United States Attorney’s Office,” said Litman. “If that were the gamble and he was ultimately going to turn a cold shoulder [to prosecutors], it would be bad for his client.”

More importantly in the eyes of many experts was ABC News’s revelation that Cohen is expected to end his joint defense agreement with Trump once Patrillo formally takes the reins of his defense. 

That is seen as significant because it suggests the objectives of the two men are diverging. Joint defense agreements enable defense lawyers to share documents and other information, but they must end if the clients' interests come into conflict — for example, if one were to seek a deal to testify against the other.

Legal analyst Daniel Goldman told MSNBC’s “MTP Daily” on Monday that the ending of the joint defense agreement was “the biggest thing to me that stuck out” from Cohen’s interview with Stephanopoulos. “That is usually an indication you’re breaking."

As with so many of the legal issues surrounding Trump — not just in relation to Cohen but regarding the broader probe into Russia's election interference spearheaded by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerLewandowski says Mueller report was 'very clear' in proving 'there was no obstruction,' despite having 'never' read it Fox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network Mueller report fades from political conversation MORE — an enormous amount remains unknown.

For example, federal agents are completing a review of millions of documents seized from Cohen, according to Bloomberg News — even as he also seeks to assert attorney–client privilege over about 12,000 files that he wants to withhold.

What those documents contain is anyone’s guess. But that issue, among others, is likely to cause plenty of unease to the president’s supporters in the weeks ahead.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.