Gene “The Taxi King” Freidman’s bromance with Michael Cohen began in small claims court in the 1990s. The two men, sparring over a stolen client, had more in common than they knew: They owned rival taxi businesses, but were also both lawyers and came to court prepared to fight.
What played out in front of the judge was a legal dance better suited to a more intricate case than a $5,000 claim.
“The judge said, ‘It doesn’t even matter who wins. That was the most incredible bit of lawyering I’ve seen in small claims court,'” Freidman recounted, roughly 20 years later. The two men became close friends, and Cohen helped name Freidman’s oldest son, Dylan.
Michael D. Cohen has made a career out of brawling, most notoriously for his longtime boss Donald Trump. As special counsel and executive vice president of the Trump Organization, he’s repeatedly gone to bat for Trump against rivals, critics and the press, earning a reputation as the mogul’s “pit bull” and his “Karl Rove.”
Now, Cohen is taking on a new role as President Trump’s personal attorney. He won’t represent Trump in matters involving the White House, but rather cases involving the president as an individual, such as a defamation lawsuit filed just two days before the inauguration by a former contestant of “The Apprentice.”
The parameters of Cohen’s new role aren’t yet finalized, and he wouldn’t reveal where he will exactly work — just that he’ll be wherever the new president wants him.
“If (Trump) wants me to sit in the Oval Office, I’ll be at the Oval Office,” he said. “If he wants me in New York, I’ll be in New York.”
It’s common for presidents to hire personal attorneys to handle their own affairs, but Cohen will likely be busier than those who’ve held a similar position, due to Trump’s myriad business ties and the litigation that has already sprung up since he’s taken office.
“This is going to be a lot more complex,” said Richard Painter, who served as President George W. Bush’s ethics lawyer from 2005 to 2007 and filed a lawsuit against Trump in late January for not divesting from the Trump Organization or placing his assets in a blind trust. “He’s going to be running to this personal attorney for all his business affairs, and then see what he’s going to want to share with the White House.”
The Donald and I
Cohen’s loyalty to Trump springs from a few things. For one, he’s been on the Trump Organization’s payroll for more than a decade, so defending his boss is partly an act of self-preservation. But his dedication is also tied up in his reverence for the man who hired him, whose buildings he invested in, and whose presence in the global spotlight for more than 30 years has elevated his own perch.
“To those of us who are close to Mr. Trump, he is more than our boss,” Cohen told the Jewish Chronicle last year. “He is our patriarch.”
Roger Stone, a Republican political consultant and longtime Trump confidant, said Cohen is a “a guy you want in your corner. You want him in the trenches. The guy’s a fighter.”
Cohen, 50, grew up on Long Island, the second of four children. His mother was a nurse and his father, a Nazi concentration camp escapee, was a surgeon. By his own account, he was a bit of a troublemaker as a child, a perennial guest in the principal’s office. After college at American University and law school at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, he did a stint at a personal-injury malpractice firm and later made partner at Phillips Nizer.
Like his boss, Cohen had political aspirations of his own and, also like Trump, has hopped parties. He worked for Massachusetts Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis’ failed presidential campaign in 1988. He then ran as a Republican for a City Council seat on the Upper East Side in 2003, losing handily to incumbent Eva Moskowitz. He also briefly campaigned for a New York State Senate seat in 2009. He’s a registered Democrat and actually voted for Barack Obama in 2008, though he told ABC in 2011 that he became disillusioned with the president. Also like his boss, Cohen admired Hillary Clinton at one time, referring to her and Patrick Kennedy as “great Americans” in a 2014 tweet. (He also seems to share Trump’s proclivity for Twitter in general — though Cohen’s more of a retweeter and responder. Some favorite retorts to trolls include “ass clown” and “lib-tard,” though he’s lately taken to a simpler response: #troll #bye.)
As an investor, Cohen has dabbled in several ventures. In 2003, he bought into a Miami cruise ship under the name MLA Cruises, now inactive. He owns more than 15 taxi companies, whose medallions are managed by Freidman. Before that, another “Taxi King,” Simon Garber, managed the medallions, but that arrangement ended in an ugly contract dispute. Though Cohen’s medallions are incredibly valuable, the taxi medallion business has taken body blows of late from the likes of Uber and Lyft. Freidman is now in a legal quagmire of his own over defaulted loans.
Cohen’s been a Trump admirer since at least high school. In 2011, he told ABC that he’d read “The Art of the Deal” twice as a teenager.
“With Mr. Trump, I think he has developed a very close relationship and a deep loyalty for a man he considers sort of giant,” said Marc Kasowitz, another attorney who has worked for Trump for more than a decade. “Not just in the real estate business, but as an important figure in the U.S. and the world.”
Over the past two decades, Cohen has made several real estate deals of his own. He owns an Upper East Side rental building known as Stonehenge 63, which he bought from Ofer Yardeni in 2015 for $58 million. That same year, he sold three rental buildings at 237 Henry Street for $10 million.
“He’s one of those old-school people who, if he shakes your hand, the deal is done,” said Richard Guarino, a broker at Friedman-Roth Realty Services who met Cohen in 2010 when selling him the Rivington Street property. “He’s an all-around good guy.”
He’s also been a rabid bettor on Trump’s properties. He started with a Trump World Tower pad in 2001, and he convinced his parents and in-laws to buy there too, according to the New York Post. He later bought at Trump Palace And Trump Park Avenue.
Sources said Cohen first caught Trump’s eye when he began investing in his properties. Cohen clarified that Donald Trump Jr., who he got to know through his investments, recommended him as an attorney to his father. He joined the Trump Organization in 2006.
“He has invested in my buildings because he likes to make money – and he does,” Trump told the Post in 2007. “In short, he’s a very smart person.”
New year, new job
Good-looking in a former fraternity brother sort of way, with dark brown eyes, a symmetrical face, and a full head of lightly graying hair, Cohen is a practiced schmoozer. At a party the day before the inauguration, guests remarked that he’d have to get used to being in the limelight now that his boss had ascended to the nation’s highest office. He replied that Trump hired him because they share a similar personality; he’d be able to handle the extra attention.
But when it comes to talking to the media — when he doesn’t want to — Cohen can be taciturn. In both phone and in-person interviews with TRD, Cohen paused for several seconds before answering in slow, deliberate sentences, as if dictating a legal brief to a sluggish typist. When asked what his new job will entail, Cohen answered: “Whatever is personal to him that necessitates handling.”
Witkoff noted that Cohen likely had other job opportunities over the years but chose to stay with Trump — a decision that has clearly paid off.
“He’s trusted by the president because he’s been with Donald for a long period of time,” Witkoff said. “That’s exactly the kind of person you want around you. He’s fiercely protective of those who are his friends and those he represents.”
Before Cohen announced his new gig, some friends had speculated that he coveted the chief of staff position. At the time, Freidman said he hoped Cohen would stay with the Trump Organization to help Trump’s sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, keep the business running smoothly.
“I got children, and I’m a businessman,” Freidman said. “You love leaving your business to your children, but you always want at least one guy to stay around and make sure everything’s okay.”
But Cohen resigned from the Trump Organization to avoid any perceived conflicts of interest, and he denied that he ever went for the chief of staff gig.
Kathleen Clark, a government ethics expert at Washington University in St. Louis, noted that keeping Cohen out of a White House position was likely a deliberate move by Trump to maintain attorney-client privilege with one of his most trusted employees.
“There’s nothing more than an illusion of separation with Trump’s businesses,” she said.
As legal counsel at the Trump Organization, Cohen has primarily served as a liaison with other attorneys – he rarely appears in court himself, a review of Trump-related litigation shows. Instead, his role involves serving as Trump’s fixer on a wide range of matters.
For example, he helped Trump manage Affliction Entertainment, a mixed martial arts entertainment company that collapsed in 2009, according to Politico. In 2012, when Trump was mulling a presidential run, Cohen launched a website, “Should Trump Run?” to gauge interest.
He’s also frequently Trump’s media enforcer. In 2013, he told the New Yorker that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman would probably have to resign after deciding to pursue a $40 million fraud lawsuit against Trump University. In 2015, a reporter at the Daily Beast got a taste of his wrath, when asking about a divorce deposition that accused Trump of raping ex-wife, Ivana Trump. At first, Cohen asserted that “you can’t rape your spouse.” When that line of argument didn’t work, he threatened the reporter.
“I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?” He later apologized for the remarks.
“He’s taken his lumps now and then,” Stone said. “He’s not a politician. He’s a straight talker.”
Cohen shot to national fame in August after a heated exchange with a CNN reporter went viral. The reporter, Brianna Keilar, noted that Trump was down in the polls, prompting Cohen to respond with “Says who?” Keiler responded with “Polls. Most of them. All of them.” He again responded with “Says who?” At the time, the exchange was portrayed as the equivalent of an interrogation with a child who will only respond with “I know what you are, but what am I?”
Most recently, various media reports alleged that Cohen worked as a Russian collaborator, based on an unverified dossier that officials later confirmed referred to a different Michael Cohen.
“None of this bothers me at all,” Cohen told TRD. “Why worry about something that has no basis in truth? It’s just another attempt to malign a good man.”
During the 2016 campaign, Cohen helped lead Trump’s African-American outreach efforts and now serves as co-chair of the National Diversity Coalition for Donald Trump. The president has had a precarious — to say the least — relationship with the black community, punctuated by an endorsement from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and his suggestion that a Black Lives Matter protester perhaps deserved to be “roughed up” by his supporters. But in September, Cohen gave a spirited speech in Trump’s defense at a church in Cleveland. Channeling Jimmy Cannon’s famous description of Joe Louis, he said Trump “believes that all people are part of one race, the human race.”
Cohen’s also shown a willingness to fight for himself. In July 2014, he tweeted angrily at American Airlines after a stewardess accidentally tore his Dolce & Gabbana suit jacket. A month later, Cohen took aim at Hamptons landlord Ali Guy, suing him for renting him a Sagaponack home that Cohen alleged came with child-size beds and broken air-conditioning. Cohen permanently dropped the lawsuit in June 2016, but court documents provide a taste of what it’s like to square off with him.
“As I warned you, I am not going to waste another second on this,” he wrote in an August email to Guy. “I will handle this the only way I know how. Be warned.”
In one exchange with Guy, the landlord told Cohen that he could simply open the windows. He also noted that the house was equipped with precisely the beds promised in his lease. He requested Cohen to not “threaten” him anymore, and ended the email with: “by the way, you got a bargain with this house.”
Eleven minutes later, Cohen replied: “If you want to sleep with the windows open, that’s your choice,” he wrote. “Don’t choose for me as you did by telling me to have my six-foot-tall 14-year-old to sleep in a bed for Lilliputians.”
The email ended with an exclamation right out of the book of Trump: “Your bargain is no bargain. Disgusting!”