Michael Cohen: From the White House to the Sewage Plant

I’ve finished Michael Cohen’s book, Disloyal, but I’m not through with it.

In part that’s because the book itself isn’t finished.

Not that Cohen has shortchanged readers. He simply ran out of time to get the book out in the market before the coming election, and I don’t fault him for that. Nor has he, as far as I can see, skimped on damning details, especially about himself and the unbelievable journey to the dark side he was on for so long.

No, Cohen’s book isn’t finished because the story it tells is not finished. It charts his rise, and the wild, destructive, ego-tripping ride with Trump into the White House, and his sudden fall, when the feds collared him and Trump coldly dumped him.

After the fall came a dramatic personal turn. But we don’t yet know where that turn will lead Cohen. Perhaps he doesn’t know yet either.

In any event, the fall happened abruptly: on April 9, 2018, Cohen  woke up in his luxurious Manhattan digs, had coffee and oatmeal, and saw his son off to school.

Then there was a knock at the door. Peeping into the hallway, he saw a crowd of men in suits, some holding up badges, and heard a line From so many mob movies:

“FBI, Mr. Cohen. Please open the door.”

Agents barged in, showed a search warrant, and spent most of the day ransacking every room, collecting phones, computers, and carrying out boxes of  documents and other belongings.

As soon as the agents left, Cohen bought a new phone and called the White House. Trump soon called back. “’They’re coming after all of us,’ Trump said. “This is all part of the witch hunt. Stay strong. I have your back. You’re going to be fine.”

But like so much else in those ten years, that was all a lie. Soon Cohen saw Trump dismissing him to reporters as “one of my personal attorneys. . . .”

“This was how Trump distanced himself from people,” he wrote. “I was still blind to the implications, unable to actually acknowledge and confront what I knew in my heart, but a sense of dread began to shroud my thoughts.

That was the last time I ever spoke to Donald Trump.”

The investigation dragged on through the summer, with no word from prosecutors. Finally in mid-August Cohen’s lawyer told him he was about to be indicted on tax evasion charges. The  Lawyer added that his wife Laura would be indicted too if he didn’t plead guilty.

That was too much for Cohen:

“I knew that the [prosecutors] would be ruthless. I knew that they’d stop at nothing to convict me and my wife, who is the furthest thing from a criminal you can imagine. She’s the personification of sweetness and innocence, and they were threatening to put her behind bars?”

Laura, along with their children, had never liked Trump and had often begged Michael to quit and work for someone else.

He took her hand; they were both crying.  “I made up my mind to plead and took Laura home, both of us in a state of shock. . . .”

Cohen read the plea allocution in court on August 21, 2018. “I was told to return in sixty days for sentencing, and the rest, as they say, was history.”

His lawyer told Cohen that he would have to pay hefty fines, but it was unlikely he would serve prison time.

The lawyer was wrong. Cohen was sentenced to thirty-six months behind bars.

He was to report on May 16, 2019.

Otisville prison camp, Hudson Valley, New York

The prison he reported to could have been worse. Here’s how the Associated Press described it:

The Federal Correctional Institution, Otisville is 70 miles from New York City where white-collar and D-list scoundrels can do time while playing bocce ball and noshing on rugelach.

Forbes once ranked Otisville as one of “America’s 10 Cushiest Prisons,” but former employees and inmates say it’s hardly “Club Fed.” Inmates are still doing time and they’re still separated from their families and friends — save for occasional visits.

Tucked in the lush countryside south of the Catskill Mountains, Otisville is actually two federal facilities with a total of about 800 inmates: a medium-security prison where former NFL star Darren Sharper is serving a 20-year rape sentence, and a satellite camp for non-violent offenders like Cohen.

There, he’ll be serving his sentence with the likes of “Jersey Shore” star-turned-tax fraud convict Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino and Fyre Festival’s Billy McFarland.

The camp does have its allure. About 115 inmates sleep in bunks lined up in barrack-style halls, instead of individual or two-man cells like in higher-security facilities. There are lockers to store personal belongings, washers and dryers for laundry, microwaves to heat up food and ice machines to keep cool.

Alums include accountant Kenneth Starr, who was accused of bilking celebrities like Uma Thurman with bad investments, and former Cendant chairman Walter Forbes and ex-Connecticut Gov. John Rowland. New York Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff wanted to go to Otisville, but the Bureau of Prisons sent him to North Carolina instead.

Otisville is also known as a favorite among prison-bound Jews for its Kosher meals and Shabbat services.

Add in recreational amenities like tennis courts, horseshoes and cardio equipment, and it sounds like the closest thing the federal prison system has to sleepaway camp.

“Prison is disrespectful. It’s impersonal,” said former Otisville case manager Jack Donson. “He’s never going to get any sleep because there’s always lights on, there’s always inmates snoring. There are officers walking around jingling keys. You shower out in the open. It’s very demeaning.”

Cohen could also be a target of bullying, harassment or worse for his cooperation with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and other probes, and that could make him a candidate for the prison’s protective housing unit, said Donson. Trump himself has branded Cohen a “rat.”

Factor in the camp’s design — off a secluded two-lane road, without much fencing or security — and Cohen could find himself easily harassed by paparazzi or ambushed by someone looking to do harm, said Donson.

“He’s not a good fit,” said Donson.

Cameron Lindsay, a retired warden who oversaw Otisville as deputy regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, said he would “think long and hard about placing Cohen in a general population, at least in the beginning,” given the “intense media coverage and extreme type of support the president receives from some of his supporters.”

A prison handbook advises inmates to carry themselves in a “confident manner at all times,” to trust their instincts and to “choose your associates wisely.”

As for a typical day: During the week, it’s lights on at 6 a.m., followed by breakfast. Work duties, such as mowing the grounds or cleaning up the prison, are performed from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., with a break for lunch at 11. Dinner is served beginning at 4:15 p.m. It’s lights out at 11:30 p.m.

On the weekend, inmates get to sleep in. Lights on isn’t until 7 a.m.

Otisville, within 35 miles (56 kilometers) of the Orthodox Jewish communities of Kiryas Joel and Monsey, is “definitely sought out by Jewish offenders,” said Matthew Perry, executive director of Jewish Prisoner Services International.

The commissary sells more than 100 kosher items, more than most federal prisons. (Matzo goes for $3.15 and gefilte fish costs $5.15. Need a yarmulke? It’s $6). A rabbi on staff full-time leads the chaplainry. At Passover, the prison puts on an elaborate Seder.

“It really makes a difference if you’re Jewish because a lot of guys want to say certain prayers you can only say with 10 Jewish men,” said Lawrence Dressler, a former Otisville prisoner who served 18 months for mortgage fraud, referring to the Jewish quorum known as a minyan. “You have Sabbath services on Friday night, and the prison even allows inmates to bring in food from the outside.”

All Jewish holidays are observed, Dressler said, including Hanukkah, when men gather in the chapel to sing. “Everyone had their own menorah,” he said.

Cameron Lindsay, a retired warden who oversaw Otisville as deputy regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, said he would “think long and hard about placing Cohen in a general population, at least in the beginning,” given the “intense media coverage and extreme type of support the president receives from some of his supporters.” 

Rep. Elijah Cummings

In Disloyal, Cohen says that many of the Otisville staff hated him, because they loved Trump.

Assigned to work in the prison’s sewage treatment plant, Cohen writes he had plenty of time to reflect on his life. Ultimately these reflections led him to agree to testify before the U.S. House Oversight Committee, February 24, 2019 in an electrifying, nationally televised hearing chaired by the late Rep. Elijah Cummings. And he began writing the book.

At Otisville Cohen also had, as we have seen, many opportunities to become reacquainted with his Jewish religious heritage. What he made of the latter is not overtly described in Disloyal; but the text is suggestive, and a closer look is possible, and we will take it in the next, concluding post.

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’s& Trump: Something a Bit Lighter

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