The San Juan Daily Star
Trump sues Michael Cohen, the key witness against him
By Maggie Haberman, Ben Protess, William K. Rashbaum and Jonah E. Bromwich
Donald Trump earlier this week filed a lawsuit against his former fixer, Michael Cohen, just weeks after being indicted in a case in which Cohen is expected to serve as a star witness.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Florida, accuses Cohen of revealing Trump’s confidences and “spreading falsehoods” about him. It directly references Cohen’s role in the Manhattan district attorney’s criminal case against Trump, which stems from a hush-money payment Cohen made on the former president’s behalf in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
The case, while potentially far-fetched, suggests that Trump may be seeking to silence Cohen.
“It could be an attempt to pressure Michael Cohen not to testify, but that pressure is unlikely to work,” said Ellen C. Yaroshefsky, a professor specializing in legal ethics at Hofstra University’s law school.
She added that she did not think the lawsuit amounted to witness tampering under New York law, as it was not a direct attempt to interfere with Cohen’s testimony, and other legal experts concurred.
Yet in a statement Wednesday, Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, argued, “Mr. Trump appears once again to be using and abusing the judicial system as a form of harassment and intimidation.” He added that Trump was apparently “terrified by his looming legal perils and is attempting to send a message to other potential witnesses who are cooperating with prosecutors against him.”
Christopher Kise, a lawyer representing Trump in a civil case that was brought by the New York attorney general and that Cohen’s testimony helped initiate, lashed out at Cohen, suggesting that he had lied in the past to various officials.
“He’s lied to everyone he’s ever come in contact with,” Kise said. “So at some point someone needs to hold this serial liar accountable.”
Trump’s lawsuit, brought by Alejandro Brito, a lawyer in Coral Gables, Florida, seeks significant punitive damages against Cohen, but it seemed possible that the case would backfire. Last year, when the former president filed the lawsuit against New York Attorney General Letitia James, who has sued Trump and his family business, some members of his legal team objected. There was similar dissent among his lawyers over whether to sue Cohen, people with knowledge of the matter said.
Ultimately, Trump withdrew the suit against James, which came before U.S. District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks. Middlebrooks had previously fined Trump and one of his attorneys nearly $1 million for filing a frivolous lawsuit against a number of political enemies, including Trump’s 2016 rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But Trump, who has experienced decades of scrutiny from law enforcement and regulators, has a long habit of trying to use the court system for his own ends and has been furious with Cohen in recent weeks.
Cohen, who broke from Trump in 2018 while facing a federal investigation into his own role in the hush-money deal, testified twice in front of the grand jury that ultimately voted to indict the former president. Last week, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg unveiled 34 felony charges, which center on the $130,000 hush-money payment that Cohen made to porn star Stormy Daniels.
Trump has been eager to file the suit for some time, according to a person familiar with his thinking, even as some members of his legal team have discouraged him from doing so.
Stephen Gillers, a professor emeritus at the New York University School of Law who specializes in legal ethics, said that he saw no problems with the appropriateness of the lawsuit on its face.
“The theory of the lawsuit is that Cohen, as Trump’s former lawyer, had fiduciary and professional obligations to Trump that he breached and caused damage to Trump,” Gillers said. “That theory, without the names of the parties, is quite plausible.”
Trump has been blaming Cohen for his legal issues not just with Bragg, but with James, whose office is set to question him under oath Thursday. In a recent interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity, Trump maintained that what Cohen had been saying about him was false and accused him of trying to “ingratiate” himself with Trump by taking ownership of the payment to Daniels in a letter to the Federal Election Commission in early 2018.
The lawsuit represents an escalation of the attacks on Cohen, whom Trump has also denounced as “a rat” and a liar.
It accuses Cohen of lying about the former president while also breaching attorney-client privilege — as well as a confidentiality clause he signed while working for Trump’s company.
Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to campaign finance violations for arranging the hush money as well as a variety of other charges, including lying to Congress about a plan for a Trump property in Moscow. Those admissions are likely to be among the things that Trump’s lawyers will seize on when cross-examining Cohen at a trial.
Yet Bragg’s prosecutors could argue that Cohen told those lies and others for Trump, and not himself.
It is not guaranteed that the case will proceed to the discovery phase, during which lawyers for Trump and Cohen would be required to exchange relevant case material and answer questions under oath. But if it does, it could potentially be damaging for Trump, who in addition to facing a criminal trial in Manhattan is also under criminal investigation in Georgia and Washington, and for Cohen, who would be likely to be deposed.