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Redemption may be elusive for Michael Cohen

Eric Mink

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University.  He is a former columnist for the St.  Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York.  Contact him at ericmink1@gmail.com.

“On the Waterfront,” a classic 1954 American movie featured in a film studies course I teach at Webster University, opens with the murder of Joey Doyle.

A young longshoreman who loads and unloads cargo ships on the docks of New York, Doyle has stood up to organized crime by talking to the Waterfront Crime Commission about the mob’s takeover of his union local. He told the commission about the syndicate’s use of violence, threats, extortion, and control of jobs to steal union funds, rob shippers and intimidate workers into silence.

As the fact-based movie begins, Terry Malloy, a former professional boxer and low-level union enforcer, tricks Doyle into going to the roof of his neighborhood tenement building. Malloy believes that the mob muscle waiting there for Doyle will pressure him to “dummy up.” Instead, two goons throw Doyle off the roof to his death on orders from Johnny Friendly, the corrupt union boss. He “ratted on us,” Friendly later explains.

Terry’s unwitting participation in Doyle’s murder haunts his conscience. The feelings of guilt intensify after he meets Edie Doyle, Joey’s sister, a kind and fearless young woman determined to see Joey’s murderers brought to justice. Initially, Edie doesn’t know that Terry played a role in Joey’s death.

The rest of the movie explores Terry’s attempts to deal with his guilt at the same time that he and Edie are falling in love.

“The film is about redemption,” said its director, the late Elia Kazan. “It’s about a dumb innocent kid [Terry] who’s done terrible things and wants to be redeemed. And the girl redeems him.” 

Last week, Michael Cohen testified under oath before a House of Representatives committee in Washington about terrible things he has done. Cohen, who was Donald Trump’s personal lawyer for more than 10 years, said he wants to be redeemed.

In an exhausting televised hearing lasting 7 hours, Cohen told members of the Committee on Oversight and Reform about terrible, criminal things he did for personal advantage and enrichment. He also spoke of terrible, criminal things he did with the knowledge of, at the direction of and for the benefit of Donald Trump the businessman and Donald Trump the president.

Among the detailed narratives, apologies, confessions of misdeeds and admissions of shame scattered throughout Cohen’s comments, there was this:

“I hope my appearance here today, my guilty plea, and my work with law enforcement agencies are steps along a path of redemption that will restore faith in me and help this country understand our president better.” 

The president must want us to understand him better, too. Back in December, after Cohen had pleaded guilty in two federal courts to multiple counts of terrible things he had done for himself and the president, Trump coughed up a Twitter post about his former lawyer. 

Cohen, Trump wrote, was a rat. That certainly helped us understand the president better.

In fact, Cohen had spent most of 2018 dealing with two investigations into his activities by federal law enforcement agents looking for evidence of criminal acts. They found it. Cohen agreed to cooperate with investigators, and subsequent negotiations between the government and Cohen’s lawyers produced agreement on guilty pleas and reduced prison time (three years) in sentencing.

So on Aug. 21, Cohen pleaded guilty to charges brought by the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York: eight counts of tax evasion, making false statements to banking institutions and violating campaign finance laws. The latter involved secret payoffs made by Cohen at Trump’s direction just before the 2016 presidential election. The payoffs purchased the silence of two women who said they had had affairs with Trump. After becoming president, Trump arranged for Cohen to be reimbursed.

And on Nov. 29, Cohen pleaded guilty in a case brought by the Office of Special Counsel under former FBI Director Robert Mueller to one count of lying to Congress in testimony he gave in 2017. Cohen admitted falsely testifying that Trump’s efforts to secure Russian government approval for a Trump-branded hotel in Moscow ended early in 2016. Actually, the efforts continued through several months of the presidential election campaign.

Trump’s “rat” crack about Cohen came two weeks later. It was exactly what John Friendly, the corrupt “On the Waterfront” union boss, would have said.

But let’s be honest. The “On the Waterfront” comparisons only go so far. Director Kazan, remember, described the fictional Terry Malloy as a dumb, innocent 

kid. The real-life Michael Cohen is none of those. He’s a street-smart guy who for years enjoyed playing Trump’s legal tough guy and made a lot of money doing it. And some of his testimony last week didn’t quite hang together.

Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., for example, asked Cohen, “What was the breaking point at which you decided to start telling the truth [about Trump]?” 

Cohen replied that there were several factors. They included Trump’s defense of white supremacists in their violent 2017 demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va.; Trump’s embarrassing deference toward Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin at their summit in Helsinki last year; racist comments Trump has made privately about African Americans; and insults Trump aimed at the late Sen. John McCain and at the Muslim parents of a U.S. Army captain, also a Muslim, who died in combat in Iraq, among other factors.

Sorry, but there’s no way that it took Cohen, who joined Trump’s company in 2006, 12 years to realize the kind of person he was working for. It just took 12 years for the consequences of all those bad things Trump did and the bad things Cohen did for him to start catching up with them.

It’s much more likely that when FBI investigators began closing in, Cohen knew with every fiber of his being that the last thing Trump would care about was the best interests of Cohen and his family.

A different answer in Cohen’s testimony felt more honest: 

“Over the past year or so, I have done some real soul-searching. I see now that my ambition and the intoxication of Trump power had much to do with the bad decisions I made.” 

Money, status and proximity to power aren’t exactly exotic motivations, but history is full of bigger and better people than Michael Cohen doing more and worse than he did in pursuit of the same ends.

Even so, Republicans’ desperate claims that Cohen continues to lie because he has nothing to lose are blatantly false. If Cohen knows nothing else, he knows that new lies or new crimes will nullify any deals prosecutors made in connection with his cooperation, including the leniency he received in sentencing.

I don’t know whether all this will add up to redemption for Cohen someday. I do know there was no future for him at all doing what he had been doing, and no one was coming to his rescue.