Back in February 2019, President Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen declared at a House Oversight Committee hearing that if Trump were to lose the 2020 election, “there will never be a peaceful transition of power.” Years of service as Trump’s bagman and consigliere — including participation in crimes that landed Cohen in prison with a three-year sentence — had provided him unique insight into the thoughts of the man he once called the Boss. With that in mind, New York asked Cohen to interpret Trump’s ongoing election meltdown.
Is there a strategy behind the tantrum Trump has been throwing since November 3?
It’s all a shameless con job. He sees his claims of fraud as driving up donations — there’s nothing behind it beyond greed. Trump is using the moment to raise money. The number is actually shockingly large, over $150 million, a majority of it from small-dollar donations. This money is not going to his Election Defense Fund; it’s to keep him relevant in the GOP and launch his media brand. It’s all about money and power, and you need one to get the other.
Does he really believe massive election fraud took place?
There is that part of him that cannot accept losing. In his mind, the only way Biden could have won is through fraud. He has convinced himself of a narrative and is being fed back what he wants to hear from sycophants. The only one of these scumbags who truly believes this crap is Sidney Powell, but she is legitimately insane.
Assuming he can be removed from the Oval Office, what next?
The money he’s raising is going toward the Save America PAC, which will be the base from which he establishes an entire parallel system of government. I call it the Republic of MAGAstan, and its capital will be in Florida at Mar-a-Lago. He’s also going to have his own 24/7 media platform with Trump TV, which will be an unholy alliance between Newsmax, OANN, and whoever he can drag from the swamp looking for relevance. He’ll continue to suck from the veins of his MAGA faithful while chipping away at the Biden presidency, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the election. All of this is in service of a Trump 2024 run for president and his return to power. If this happens, all bets are off. He will try to change the Constitution and give himself a third term.
Yesterday the New York Times reported that Trump has been discussing pardoning his three oldest children as well as Jared Kushner and Rudy Giuliani over concerns that the Biden administration may seek retribution against them. Do you think he’ll issue those pardons?
If Donald Trump believed the pardons would be a slam-dunk benefit to him, he would already have signed off. Unfortunately for him, he is painfully aware that there are negative repercussions to such an action that could place him, his children, and his company in significant legal trouble. It is why he is proceeding cautiously.
The idea that he’s concerned about “retribution” is what’s known as deflection. Donald Trump knows that he, his children, and Kushner have all violated the law. And it’s not about retribution; it’s about an investigation that would most certainly lead to a conviction. He’s doing an act in advance of what he knows is coming down the pipeline. He’s already laying the groundwork for the premise of why he believes he must pardon his family: not because of their own dirty deeds but because of retribution. It’s all about distraction and deflection.
In your book, Disloyal, you tell a fascinating story about the socialite Patricia Kluge and how Trump slyly leveraged his way into acquiring her $100 million estate by exploiting her weaknesses. You wrote that Trump “was constantly calculating and assessing how to take maximum advantage of every situation.” I wonder if, while most people see the lame-duck period as a time to pack up and go, he sees it as a valuable opportunity to create discomfort that he can then trade for something valuable.
Of course he does. Life is a zero-sum game to Donald Trump. Every moment is a moment to dominate and win. Where some would see a lame-duck presidency, Trump views an opportunity to leverage power by granting pardons, raising money, and setting himself up for the future.
You also wrote, “If something didn’t work out for Trump to his satisfaction, he dropped the whole project instantaneously, or at least after he’d wallowed in his outrage and anger.” You don’t think this will apply to his political career?
I don’t think he views himself as being done with politics. It will be fascinating to follow his second act through the political wilderness of Mar-a-Lago, where he’ll undoubtedly try to rewrite history and claim his four years were a miracle of prosperity and success. He’s going to have this massive Twitter following and his own media network to keep himself relevant. If he stays out of prison, he will continue to be a dangerous force in GOP politics until the day he dies.
Do you think he will be criminally prosecuted, and if so, by whom and for what?
I believe he will be indicted, along with his sons, by Cy Vance as part of the widening probe into criminality and fraud at the Trump Organization. The bill is coming due, and it’s going to be nasty.
Will he try to pardon himself?
I believe he will do anything and everything to stay out of prison. It terrifies him. If he can find a way to pardon himself, he will do it.
As someone who knows him really well, is there something you see him doing in the next two months that will surprise everyone but you?
The only thing surprising he could do at this moment would be to go away and quietly lead his life with dignity and respect. Otherwise, we are stuck with this monster. Nothing he does surprises me anymore.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story orginally appeared on December 3, 2020 in New York magazine.