Michael Cohen has legal tongues wagging after a new interview in which he appears to give the signal that he could flip on President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump takes shot at new GOP candidate in Ohio over Cleveland nickname GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default MORE and cooperate with special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE’s investigation.
Cohen, the longtime personal lawyer and “fixer” to Trump, once professed that he would “take a bullet for the president.”
But in an interview released Monday by ABC News, he appeared to be singing a different tune.
“My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will,” Cohen told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.
More significant, legal analysts say, is the revelation that Cohen has withdrawn from a joint defense agreement with the president. This suggests that his new lawyer, Guy Petrillo, believes that Cohen’s and Trump’s interests are no longer aligned.
Ending the agreement doesn’t mean Cohen has “flipped,” but his withdrawal is perhaps the most concrete symbol that he is weighing either pleading guilty or cooperating with prosecutors, say legal experts.
“Short of a posting on eBay, Cohen could not be more clear in his pitch to Mueller,” said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor and contributor to The Hill. “It was abundantly clear that he used this interview to remove any doubts as to his willingness to cooperate with Mueller.”
The joint-defense agreement that Cohen had with Trump is common. Such deals allow defense lawyers to share information without waiving attorney-client privilege.
But attorneys who are sharing information under this kind of agreement will stop if there is a conflict of interest — if one client is cooperating with prosecutors while another is still under investigation, for example.
Cohen has been under criminal investigation in the Southern District of New York for months, related to his business and financial dealings. But he could theoretically cut a deal with Mueller to help himself out in his own case in New York, legal analysts say.
Some analysts speculate that Cohen may be angling for a presidential pardon, and that he is using the threat of cooperation with Mueller as a kind of cudgel.
“I think his aim is not to appeal to the court of public opinion but to the court of one, and that is President Trump,” said Steve Vladeck, a national security law professor at the University of Texas.
“If you have changed your position and you want to start cooperating with prosecutors, you don’t go on national television,” Vladeck said. “If he’s trying to appeal to Mueller, he has more direct and less self-aggrandizing ways to do it.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to address the matter at a briefing Monday afternoon.
“I’m not going to answer questions on this topic and would refer you to the president’s outside counsel,” Sanders said.
Cohen has been pushing for Trump to pay his legal bills and has expressed private frustrations that the president has not yet offered to do so, according to The Wall Street Journal.
It’s not clear how much of a risk Cohen’s possible cooperation with prosecutors would pose to Trump.
Cohen has known and worked with Trump for more than a decade. He stepped down as executive vice president of the Trump Organization when the president took office in January 2017 but stayed on as the president’s personal lawyer.
“I’m the guy who protects the president and the family. I’m the guy who would take a bullet for the president,” Cohen told Vanity Fair in an interview published in September.
He is seen as a key figure in the investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, thanks both to his work on a proposed Trump Tower deal in Moscow and his appearance in a dossier full of incendiary, unverified allegations about Trump and Russia.
Cohen’s name appears in numerous allegations in the dossier — all of which he has fiercely denied to congressional investigators — including an alleged secret meeting with Kremlin officials in August 2016 in Prague.
The dossier also claims that Cohen was deeply involved in a “cover up and damage limitation operation in the attempt to prevent the full details of Trump’s relationship with Russia being exposed.”
Cohen has also come under scrutiny for his role in promoting a stalled Trump development project in Moscow that the Trump Organization was pursuing during the campaign.
In January of 2016, he emailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal spokesman to ask for help with speeding along languishing negotiations, according to emails reported by The Washington Post.
The project was envisioned as a licensing deal, in which a Moscow-based developer would have paid Trump for the use of his name. Trump signed a letter of intent with the developer in October 2015, according to the Post.
At the time, the Republican primary campaign was well underway and Trump was surprising observers with his unusually warm rhetoric about Putin.
Cohen has said that he did not receive a response from the spokesman and the deal fell through two weeks later. He characterized the deal as nothing more than a routine business proposal in a statement to the Post.
Then, in a dramatic turn of events in April, prosecutors in New York raided Cohen’s office, home and hotel room to seize documents, including those reportedly linked to a payment to Stephanie Clifford — an adult-film actress better known as Stormy Daniels.
Daniels alleges that Trump, through Cohen, paid her $130,000 to keep quiet about an affair she had with Trump in 2006. In a May interview with Fox News, Trump admitted to reimbursing Cohen for the payment, though he fought back against allegations that campaign funds were involved.
Prosecutors in New York on Monday obtained over a million files seized in the raid out of the roughly four million a federal judge has ordered to be released to investigators; only a fraction were determined to be subject to attorney-client privilege.
“The big question is how much Cohen actually knows,” Turley said. “This is certainly not good news for the Trump team, but it’s not clear how much damaging info Michael Cohen may have.”
Trump in April expressed confidence that Cohen would not “flip,” calling him “a businessman for his own account/lawyer who I have always liked & respected.”
“Most people will flip if the Government lets them out of trouble, even if it means lying or making up stories. Sorry, I don’t see Michael doing that despite the horrible Witch Hunt and the dishonest media!” he tweeted.
But the president has also tried to distance himself from Cohen in recent months, telling "Fox & Friends" that Cohen handled “a percentage of my overall legal work — a tiny, tiny little fraction.”
Cohen on Saturday told ABC that “once I understand what charges might be filed against me, if any at all, I will defer to my new counsel, Guy Petrillo, for guidance.”
The White House is likely to be watching closely.
“There’s nothing more dangerous than a fix-it man in a fix,” Turley quipped.