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Mystery: What Was Cohen’s Deal?

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 27: Michael Cohen, former personal attorney for U.S. President Donald Trump, exits the Loews Regency hotel and walks toward a taxi cab, July 27, 2018 in New York City. According to recent news re... NEW YORK, NY - JULY 27: Michael Cohen, former personal attorney for U.S. President Donald Trump, exits the Loews Regency hotel and walks toward a taxi cab, July 27, 2018 in New York City. According to recent news reports, Cohen is prepared to tell special counsel Robert Mueller that then-candidate Trump knew about and approved the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between campaign officials and a Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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August 21, 2018 3:13 p.m.

This is a post which doesn’t so much provide answers as lay out the questions as we understand them. How is Michael Cohen pleading guilty to multiple charges with no deal for cooperation? What does it mean?

According to current reports, Michael Cohen has agreed to a plea deal in which he will plead guilty to a number of charges tied to charges related to most of the issues we’ve heard about: hush payoffs, bank fraud, taxes. The deal includes jail time, though we don’t know how much yet.

Here’s the question. There doesn’t appear to be a “deal”, at least in the sense of agreeing to cooperate. (There are actually conflicting reports on that – an issue we’ll come back to.) So why not? The Times says negations for that kind of deal “fell part.” But if that’s true, why is Cohen pleading guilty?

There are a few possibilities here.

One is that the Special Counsel’s Office just doesn’t need Cohen. So he’s, to put it baldly, screwed. They don’t need him so there’s really nothing he can offer to limit his sentence. Another version of that possibility is that everything he has to offer they already know. Again, he’s not useful enough to get a deal.

Another, related possibility is that our assumptions have wrong: He just doesn’t know anything. Or he doesn’t know anything about collusion. Mueller may be going after Manafort for stuff unrelated to collusion. But I think that’s because he has high confidence that Manafort knows the real, big story of what happened. Maybe they simply don’t think Cohen knows enough.

Another possibility – the most plausible one, I think, from people I’ve talked to – is that Cohen is caught so dead to rights on these corruption charges that prosecutors in the SDNY (presumably in consultation with the Special Counsel’s Office and the highest level officials in the Justice Department) that they don’t think they need to promise anything. A more formal deal to cooperate may emerge post-plea. But there’s no guarantee. In this scenario, Cohen has no protection. He will have to be as helpful as he can going forward to try to reach a deal and hopefully (for him) some accommodation from the government.

Somewhat bolstering this last possibility is the fact there are contradictory reports about whether he’s agreed to cooperate. I suspect these may be semantic distinctions between having a formal cooperation agreement (which seems not to exist) and just a factual statement that he is going to be cooperating.

Consider all of this tentative. We will try to get more insight on what is happening.

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