Michael Cohen: A Reckoning, Perhaps a Renewal, and After

Near the climax of his book Disloyal, Michael Cohen writes:

In the summer before the [2016] election, I told a reporter for Vanity Fair, Emily Jane Fox, that I’d take a bullet for Trump, and I meant it.

But not if Donald Trump pulled the trigger. . . .

Which of course, Trump did, in 2018. In May 2019, the betrayal landed Cohen in the federal prison at Otisville, New York..

Cohen, like most cons, thought his prison sentence was grossly unfair. He only pled guilty to tax evasion, he says, to prevent his wife from being indicted as well.

The real Stormy Daniels mugs with a fake Trump (Alec Baldwin) on Saturday Night Live.

That showed personal love and nobility; but Cohen had also lied to his wife about the money he took from their joint account to pay off pornstar Stormy Daniels for Trump; and it was his wife’s name on the account that made her vulnerable to indictment once the feds traced the money.

Besides, Cohen had also spent ten years aiding and abetting Trump in frauds and crimes too numerous to mention. Ten times his three year sentence would have been amply justified by the record he himself discloses.

Furthermore, the slammer was ironically an excellent locale for the reckoning Cohen was overdue for. He says.

The low security Otisville camp was like the worst summer camp you can imagine your parents sending you to. Otisville has a kosher diet available, as almost half the camp are Jews, with many Hasidic Jews. The camp is all white-collar crime, with accountants, doctors, lawyers, bankers, and Wall Street tycoons [and crooked politicians] all mixed in together.

The first bunk I got was the worst in the facility, located between two toilets, with the scent of locked-up inmates performing their ablutions, no matter which way you turn your head . . . . It was quite a scene. . . .

It was prison, but if you’re going to be in prison, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I’d never been away from my wife and children before, so that caused melancholy, along with the fact that I truly didn’t believe that I belonged there. . . .

There was a saying in prison: The days go by slow, but the weeks go by fast. Every Friday night, there was a Sabbath dinner, which I attended, so that was a good way to measure time. . . .

But there was another reality [to prison], as I developed serious hypertension problems, leading to my hospitalization twice, accompanied twenty-four-hours-a-day by two prison officers. The hospitalizations, along with pre-existing blood clotting conditions from years earlier, eventually provided the basis for my early release during the COVID-19 crisis. . . .

In Otisville, Cohen was surrounded by a religious culture he had identified with but had bent into a shape that fit his lawless career:

I knew I would go to law school, just as my parents wished, a typical well-mannered Jewish boy pleasing his family. Inside, though, I belonged to another tradition: the Tough Jew. I wanted to be like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky and Roy Cohn—or Downtown Burt Kaplan .

The sketch of his gangster manqué teen years early on in Disloyal is almost self-parodying. Mobsters, he thought he saw, inhabited a world of flashy cars, opulent restaurants, and rough talk. Now, in his bunk, inhaling the odors other inmates left in the adjoining toilets, he could consider the other end of this idealized archetype.

Take Burt Kaplan, who was a regular at El Caribe, while the callow Michael Cohen was flipping pizzas there in the summer.

Cohen: I liked how wise guys moved, talked, thought. I liked how they resolved issues and commanded a room. I would practice law, I determined as a kid, but I’d practice it like a gangster.

By the time Cohen landed in Otisville, “Downtown Burt” had been sentenced to 27 years on a drug charge, and was only pulled out of his cell to serve as a “rat” in the 2004 trial of two murderous New York City cops, who had moonlighted by doing contract killings for the mob. After that trial, Kaplan entered the federal witness protection program, and spent the rest of his life in hiding, til he died in 2009. So cool; some kind of life, Mike.

While he spent time in a hospital bed, hooked up to IVs and monitors, it’s fair to wonder if Cohen took this opportunity, as so many of us do there, to grapple with the spectre of mortality, which is unmoved by bluster and swagger.

The question is speculative, but not without basis. In an earlier post we noted that Cohen said Trump’s appeal to him

“. . . was physical, emotional, not quite spiritual, but a deep longing and need that Trump filled for me. . . . the chance for my salvation . . . this day was etched on my soul—even as I gave that soul over to the man I worshipped . . . for me [it] represented something mystical. . . .“ And:  Because here’s the thing: When you sell your soul, you do exactly that: sell your soul

Almost spiritual? Salvation? Worship? Mystical? Selling his soul? There’s no pornstars here, no mobsters, crooked pols or real estate scams, not even profanity (though some might detect more than a whiff of blasphemy and idolatry).

Besides the weekly Sabbath meals, in Otisville all the Jewish holidays were observed, and reportedly heavily attended.  I wonder, did Cohen take part? In particular, he was there for the high Jewish holidays, which are about to begin for 2020, and which will culminate September 27-28 in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  One source says that that “Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year—the day on which we are closest to G‑d and to the quintessence of our own souls. It is the Day of Atonement—”

For observant Jews, much of that day is spent in ceremonies which involve as many as ten repetitions of “Al Chet,” a long prayer of confession of an exhaustive list of sins. Even skipping the many items which relate to sins of the flesh, there is plenty here which prisoner Cohen could (yes, I’m speculating) have pronounced accurately, whether or not with shame:

From “Al Chet”: For the sin which we have committed before You under duress or willingly. . ..
And for the sin which we have committed before You openly or secretly.
For the sin which we have committed before You with knowledge and with deceit.
And for the sin which we have committed before You through speech.
For the sin which we have committed before You by deceiving a fellowman. . . .
For the sin which we have committed before You by using coercion.
.. . .
For all these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.
For the sin which we have committed before You by false denial and lying.
And for the sin which we have committed before You by a bribe-taking or a bribe-giving hand. . . .
And for the sin which we have committed before You by evil talk  [about another].
For the sin which we have committed before You in business dealings. . . .
And for the sin which we have committed before You with impudence.
For all these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us. . .
For the sin which we have committed before You by scheming against a fellowman.
And for the sin which we have committed before You by obduracy, obstinate impenitence.
For the sin which we have committed before You by running to do evil.
And for the sin which we have committed before You by tale-bearing. . .
For the sin which we have committed before You by embezzlement.
And for the sin which we have committed before You by a confused heart.
For all these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.

Let us imagine Michel Cohen, disgraced, his blood pressure at a dangerous level, in prison, away from his family, repeating this prayer in a group of peer convicts, ten times over 24 hours. Might it have made any impact?

A learned Jewish friend, Dr. Henry Bloom, reminds me that in Judaism, unlike Christianity, there is no supernatural redeemer, no “substitutionary atonement” to take the rap for human sins. It is up to the sinner to repent and make amends. Nor will the ritual fasts and burnt offerings of the Hebrew scriptures suffice today.  Instead the emphasis is on a telling verse from the prophet Isaiah, Chapter 58:

“Can such be [G*d’s] chosen fast, the day of man’s self-denial? To bow down his head like a bulrush, to sit-in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call fasting, a day acceptable to the Lord? Behold, this is the fast that [G*d] esteems  precious: Loosen the chains of wickedness, undo the bonds of oppression, Let the crushed go free, break all yokes, of tyranny!  Share your food with the hungry, take the poor to your home. Clothe the naked when you see them, never turn form your fellow. Then shall your light dawn, your healing shall come soon…” 

Or as another prayer, U’Netaneh Tokef, from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, puts it:

REPENTANCE, PRAYER and CHARITY, [can] Remove the Evil of the [divine] Decree [of judgment for sins]! . . . for You do not wish the death of one deserving death, but that he repent from his way and live. Until the day of his death You await him; if he repents You will accept him immediately.

So let us suppose that Michel Cohen underwent such a personal reappraisal, and has resolved to change his ways. From my Quaker perspective, it’s certainly possible. One major sign thereof, in my estimation, would be giving up the cornerstone of his career, not simply Trump (too late for that; he had been dumped), but more fundamentally, the ingrained habit of lying. As he wrote:

This was the pattern that I had grown accustomed to, not just since Trump entered politics, but in all the years I had represented the Boss. If you’re caught in a lie, double and triple down.

It was the opposite of Occam’s Razor: instead of the simplest explanation being the likeliest, this strategy involved complicating the narrative, throwing sand in the eyes of the onlooker, claiming that transparently implausible stories were true unless proven otherwise, and even then denying the obvious truth.

It was a variation of the old joke: Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes? It was surprisingly effective over time, if you’re willing to be brazen and relentless. It helped if you never truly thought about the past, or the consequences of lying, and if you always lived in the present tense, like a shark swimming through water, only able to survive through constant motion.

Constant motion, abetted by endless amounts of money. Both were denied Cohen in prison, lying awake in a bunk at night, while the toilets flushed. So if he did resolve to turn, moving from lies to truth-telling would be a key. That is what he says he has done in Disloyal, as well as his February 27, 2019 Congressional testimony. In the latter statement, he said he hoped his testimony would put him on “a path to redemption.”

So there it is: After selling his soul Michael Cohen is, he hopes, on a path to redeeming it.

Assuming he’s not still conning us, even following an utterly sincere “revival” and writing this book, even from the most forgiving Quaker disposition I can muster, Cohen’s “path to redemption” looks quite long, from here at least.

Keep in mind that beyond the multitude of individuals who were swindled and cheated by Trump-Cohen business scams, there is the matter of his catalyst’s part in foreseeing, encouraging and promoting Trump’s presidential ambitions. This has plunged an entire nation into chaos, now in the midst a murderous pandemic, and facing an election cliffhanger. Even should a new regime take  power next January, if Cohen takes his moral heritage with any seriousness, there is yet a mountain of atoning to be done.

On the other hand, if Trump manages to stay in the White House, it is easy to imagine Cohen having to flee with his family into some foreign equivalent of the witness protection program. For he says more than once in Disloyal that Trump wants him dead, and the president himself has called him a “rat,” the lowest (and most at-risk) form of life in mob-argot.

But this story is all I have left for my wife, my children, and the country I love so much. . . .

The reason the President wanted a new head prosecutor in the Southern District [of New York], I knew better than anyone, was so that while in office, he could arrange to be federally indicted. In the event he loses the election in November, he could then pardon himself, as he’s long claimed to be his right.

The reason behind that unprecedented and serpentine thinking was that Trump knows perfectly well that he is guilty of the same crimes that resulted in my conviction and incarceration. He also knows that I would be a star witness in that case, and my book a fundamental piece of evidence for his guilt.

Without the immunity from prosecution granted to the president, Trump will also almost certainly face New York State criminal charges. He would likely be convicted on both the Federal and State charges and face serious prison time. That is Donald Trump’s greatest fear in life, believe me, and if he fails to get reelected, that will be his fate—and he knows it—so silencing me was an essential part of his overall plan to evade the law and avoid that outcome.

In the year 2020, these posts and Cohen’s book read like samples from a highly implausible crime thriller. But except for a few speculations, they are leaves from the crumbling history of our time. Your time, my time, and Michael Cohen’s, long after he finishes doing time.

Previous posts on “Disloyal”:

1. Michael Cohen’s “Disloyal”, A Theological Review:

2. Thursday: Beginning Portrait of the Greatest Con Artist:

3. Michael Cohen, Trump: & the Right Price for Selling Your Soul:

4. Trump Meets Jesus & Other Chumps:

5.  Michael Cohen & Trump: Something a Bit Lighter

6. Michael Cohen: From the White House to the Sewage plant:


One thought on “Michael Cohen: A Reckoning, Perhaps a Renewal, and After”

  1. Thanks Chuck for another fascinating insight into someone few wish to even think about. Your describing the possible effect of him praying with the Chasidick prisoners helped me go back to my very young
    days when I lived and prayed with one of their groups in Brooklyn in 1951. (for about 2 months).

    I was raised. a
    s an orthodox Jew to understand that the Day of Atonement is not just about ask if forgiveness from God. it is also about asking foregiveness from the people we have harmedcsince the last Day. of …. I always thought (and still do) that the requirement to NOT repeat the harm was crucial and also the toughest part.

    Recall that the Jewish people lived as nomads in relatively small groups “wayyy back then”. And. also in that Chasidick community. (I recommend the movie”UnOrthodox” on Netflix for an amazing insider look at life in that much maligned group of Mystics.))

    One would certainly interact “with all the people in their “tribe” many times before . next Day of Atonement arrived. I also imagine people knew each other much much better than we can imagine.

    The message for me is to learn from my mistakes. “Go and sin no more” is saying: Keep working at it! No one is perfect. And also remember to forgive the ‘sinner”

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