Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and general-purpose fixer, is now under federal investigation for possible criminal business activities. That investigation could have major implications for the president—and Cohen’s history suggests investigators will have a lot to look at.
Cohen’s business dealings have spanned big-city taxis and real estate in addition to a legal practice focused on personal injury cases. A new examination of Cohen’s record by the New York Times finds that he has frequently crossed paths with unsavory characters. In one case, Cohen was reportedly tasked with delivering a payment to one Vitaly Buslaev, who has been tied to the Mafia. That’s just one of Cohen’s many connections to individuals from former Soviet states. Those connections are of particular relevance given special counsel Robert Mueller’s focus on the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia, and Cohen’s personal role in exploring Trump Organization deals in Russia in the midst of the 2016 campaign.
Cohen also helped set up a half-dozen clinics and medical billing companies in the early 2000s, including registering medical practices headed by doctors Alexsander Martirosov and Zhanna Kanevsky. Just a few years later, Martisorov and Kanevsky were charged with defrauding insurance companies by faking auto accidents. Cohen was not implicated in those allegations, and charges against Martirosov were later dropped. But according to the Times, the scam was of a kind dominated by criminal organizations from former Soviet countries.
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Cohen has also made real estate deals that experts described to the Times as suspicious. In one transaction, Cohen sold four Manhattan buildings for $32 million in cash in a single day, nearly three times what he paid for them just a few years before. A former banker commenting on those transactions described Cohen as “the type of person you’d see most bankers steer clear of.” The identity of the buyers in those deals is unknown.
Cohen has also both made and received large loans on the basis of questionable collateral. In 2014, Cohen borrowed at least $20 million against the value of taxi medallions he owns. Those loans were refinanced to delay repayment just last month, even as taxi medallions have lost a great deal of value thanks to the rise of ride-hailing services like Uber. Cohen’s taxi businesses owe more than $375,000 in taxes and fines in New York and Chicago, according to the Times. But Cohen and his father-in-law have nonetheless made millions of dollars in loans to the manager of Cohen’s Chicago taxis, with few assets to back them up.
All of this fits a pattern common to Donald Trump and others in his orbit. Jared Kushner’s family business faces massive, potentially catastrophic debt related to its Manhattan real estate holdings, and signs that Kushner has sought financing in Russia may have contributed to the recent downgrading of his national security clearance. Trump’s own business obligations, not all of which are understood because he has not made customary financial disclosures, have figured heavily in discussions of his own possible conflicts of interest as president.
As speculation mounts that Cohen could turn on the president to defend his own interests, what may have initially brought them together could wind up tearing them apart.