Let me suggest an image from the near future and see what your reaction is. It's a few months from now, and Michael Cohen is being led into a police station in Manhattan in handcuffs, his jacket slightly askew, his face wearing an expression that's two-thirds defiance, one-third fear.
In fact, you might have pictured that already yourself. If you look at Cohen on the news and say, "Oh yeah, that guy's definitely going to jail for something," you are not alone.
While Cohen is usually described as "Donald Trump's personal lawyer," in fact he was much more: a deal-maker, a problem-solver, and the guy Trump would turn to if he wanted to threaten somebody. "If somebody does something Mr. Trump doesn't like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr. Trump's benefit," Cohen once told ABC News. "If you do something wrong, I'm going to come at you, grab you by the neck and I'm not going to let you go until I'm finished." If there are shady things going on in the Trump organization, there's a good chance Cohen was involved.
This has always been President Trump's greatest fear: that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election will extend into Trump's businesses, which we already know involve a web of scams and sketchy characters. As The New Yorker's Adam Davidson put it, "I am unaware of anybody who has taken a serious look at Trump's business who doesn't believe that there is a high likelihood of rampant criminality."
And Michael Cohen is right at the center of it, which is why a story that came out last Friday about a major Republican donor having recently paid a former Playboy model $1.6 million to secure her silence about an affair and a pregnancy was so interesting.
The deal was negotiated by Michael Cohen, and the woman was represented by an attorney named Keith Davidson. By sheer coincidence, Davidson just happened to also represent adult film actress Stormy Daniels when she obtained a $130,000 payment from, yes, Michael Cohen to secure her silence about her affair with Donald Trump. You've also probably heard of Karen McDougal, another former Playboy model who was paid $150,000 by American Media, Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer, to stay quiet about her affair with Trump. McDougal now alleges that her then-lawyer was in secret communication with Michael Cohen while he was negotiating with AMI on her behalf. That lawyer? Keith Davidson.
It almost looks like Davidson and Cohen had a little operation going whenever some woman needed to be paid hush money: Davidson represents the woman, Cohen represents the man (Trump or someone else), they work out a deal that works for the man, and they take their cut of the settlement. Bada bing, bada boom.
We don't know enough yet to say if any of that was illegal. What we do know is that when federal agents raided Cohen's home, office, and hotel room, one of the things they seized was recordings Cohen made of his conversations with Davidson. Cohen, who has apparently been under investigation for months for what looks to be a variety of potentially criminal activities, seems to have had an enormously helpful habit of recording himself and other people. Who knows what's on those tapes.
Or, for that matter, what is in Cohen's files, on his computers, and on his phones, all of which were seized. Raiding a lawyer's office is highly unusual, which is why Justice Department rules require that the decision to do so involve multiple layers of approval, to demonstrate that there is a strong reason to believe the search will produce evidence that the lawyer has committed crimes.
That's just one part of the trouble Cohen is in, and the trouble that Trump is in along with him. On Friday evening, Peter Stone and Greg Gordon of McClatchy published a story that, if it's eventually confirmed, could be the single most significant development in the entire Russia scandal.
Back when news of the Steele dossier broke in early 2017, one of the intriguing details was a report that in August or September of 2016, Michael Cohen had met in Prague with Russian officials to discuss "how deniable cash payments were to be made to hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the CLINTON campaign and various contingencies for covering up these operations and Moscow's secret liaison with the TRUMP team more generally."
Former British spy Christopher Steele was relating what he had been told by Kremlin sources, and it sounded like a scene from a cheap spy novel. That made many people skeptical, even those critical of Trump. Cohen immediately issued a vociferous denial, saying he had never even been to Prague. He even showed his passport to journalists to prove it.
But according to the Friday McClatchy story, "The Justice Department special counsel has evidence that Donald Trump's personal lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen, secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to two sources familiar with the matter."
The reporters were appropriately tentative about this information; we're going to have to wait to see if it's confirmed. But if it is, it would be an absolute blockbuster. It would mean Cohen lied about having gone to Prague, which would almost certainly mean he was there for nefarious reasons (as for the passport, he could have entered any European Union country, then traveled to the Czech Republic without getting it stamped; investigators reportedly believe he went through Germany). And if he were, and if he met with representatives of the Kremlin, there's no way he wasn't there on Donald Trump's instruction. You want collusion? That's collusion.
Of course, it's entirely possible that this report will turn out to be mistaken. It's also possible that on everything else he's being investigated for, Cohen is an innocent man who just likes to act like a mobster, and once prosecutors go through all the evidence, he'll be exonerated.
It's been a while since we thought about some of the Trump associates who are either under indictment or pled guilty to minor charges and are cooperating with Mueller's investigation: Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos. We don't know what stories they'll have to tell. But if anybody has something damaging on Trump, it's Michael Cohen. If I were the president, I'd be awfully nervous.