Michael Cohen’s Twitter persona once mirrored that of his longtime boss, featuring brash attacks on “#haters” and “#trolls.” But lately, President Trump’s embattled former attorney has adopted a more subdued, zen-like approach.
Meditation may have healing qualities, but the Buddhist quotations Cohen’s been tweeting won’t relieve the massive financial burden he’s facing while under federal investigation, which he’s reportedly said is “bankrupting” him.
And when it comes to crazy legal bills, Cohen’s got plenty of company. Past and present members of the Trump team are collectively racking up millions in lawyers’ fees as special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign grinds on.
“The legal fees were suffocating.”
“I don’t make enough money to withstand an onslaught from the federal government,” former Trump campaign communications aide Michael Caputo, who’s been called before both Mueller’s team and Congress as a witness, told VICE News. “The legal fees were suffocating.”
Those massive costs add to the boa constrictor-like pressure Mueller is using to squeeze Trump’s allies, legal experts told VICE News. Now, with the probe in its second year, that financial strain may play a role in determining whether those charged with crimes choose to fight in court, or cooperate, they said.
“It can have a very significant, if not determinative, role in case strategy.”
“There are times when people plead guilty because they just don’t have the money to go on,” said Renato Mariatti, a former federal prosecutor turned defense attorney. “It can have a very significant, if not determinative, role in case strategy.”
Fighting criminal charges lodged by Mueller could easily cost over $1 million, white-collar defense attorneys told VICE News. The cheaper approach, pleading guilty and seeking a deal, may still cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, with qualified white-collar defense attorneys charging anywhere from $500 to over $1,000 per hour.
Caputo said the financial burden looms large in the minds of even those called to testify as witnesses before Congress, which itself takes hours of preparation.
“Every hearing costs between $20,000 and $30,000, if you’re ready for it,” Caputo said. “If you’re paying less, I believe you’re in jeopardy. And Mueller is even more expensive, because there’s more at stake.”
At least two former Trump team members have publicly cited financial pressures after deciding to plead guilty and strike a deal with Mueller’s investigators: Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn and former campaign aide Rick Gates.
Flynn is selling his townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia, outside Washington, reportedly asking $895,000, to help cover his legal bills.
After Gates struck a deal with Mueller in February, he wrote to his family: “The reality of how long this legal process will likely take, the cost, and the circus-like atmosphere of an anticipated trial are too much.”
“There are times when people plead guilty because they just don’t have the money to go on.”
Former Trump aide and political provocateur Roger Stone — who hasn’t been charged, but said this week he might be — has predicted his legal bills will top $1 million.
“I have already looted my grandchildren’s college fund,” Stone wrote on his website Monday. “My legal expenses against a running away federal prosecutor seeking to ‘flip me’ against Donald Trump, a man I have known intimately for 39 years, threaten to bankrupt me and destroy my family.”
Big costs for the big shots
Legal experts said the financial pressures appear to be intensifying around two men in particular: Cohen and Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chief.
Cohen has complained that Trump hasn’t offered to cover those costs despite Cohen’s years of loyal service, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.
Cohen has been subject to a rare and particularly expensive legal procedure: a review of 3.7 million documents seized by the FBI to determine which should be shielded from investigators by attorney-client privilege.
That process alone could cost Cohen $250,000, Mariatti estimated. The court-appointed “special master,” who’s been screening those same files, recently invoiced the government $338,421 for one month’s work.
Cohen’s attorney, Stephen Ryan, declined to comment.
Manafort’s financial situation remains cloudy: Court filings made by Mueller’s team suggest he could either be worth tens of millions, or running on fumes. In May 2016, Manafort supposedly declared assets worth an eye-popping $136 million, but months later fell more than 90 days behind on a $300,000 delinquency on his American Express card, according to court filings by Mueller’s team.
Mueller moved to seize three bank accounts in the Manafort probe last year, according to court filings.
“A lot of his accounts are locked up by the investigation, and he has no access to that money,” Caputo said. “And he’s also unable to make a living. He has zero revenue, even before he went inside.”
In late 2017, Manafort switched legal teams, reportedly in part due to spiraling costs.
Earlier this month, Manafort’s attempts to pledge over $10 million worth of real estate as collateral to secure release from house arrest failed when the judge revoked his bail, sending him to jail pending his trial. Manafort has pled not guilty to charges of filing false statements and committing financial crimes related to his work as a political consultant to the former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych.
A spokesperson for Manafort declined to comment.
Pass the tin cup
Several of the biggest names in the Mueller probe are crowdfunding their costs through the site GoFundMe and have set up websites for legal trusts.
Manafort, Gates, Flynn, Stone, and Caputo have all been seeking donations.
Most haven’t disclosed the size of their haul, but Caputo appears to have been strikingly successful. He said he’s managed to raise about $350,000 through thousands of donations at an average of less than $50 each. That’s been enough to both cover his costs and even help meet those of another former Trump campaign advisor who’s been called to testify, J.D. Gordon.
Others are getting institutional support. The Trump 2020 re-election campaign has been burning through about $1 million per quarter in legal bills. And the Republican National Committee has been roped into the sprawling probe as well, recently paying $451,780 to a law firm representing former White House communications director Hope Hicks and others, according to a federal filing in late May. Even Cohen reportedly received a quarter-million from the Trump campaign to help cope with the legal fees.
But the establishment’s largesse doesn’t seem to be changing the embattled lawyer’s trajectory.
Cohen recently switched lawyers, dropping a big global firm for a smaller one that legal experts said might be cheaper. The move raised speculation that Cohen may be considering cutting a deal, because he opted for a firm staffed by former federal prosecutors.
Cohen hired Guy Petrillo, former head of the criminal division of the U.S. attorney's office in the Southern District of New York.
“The U.S. attorney’s office will say, ‘This is someone we could work with,’” said Mimi Rocah, a former assistant U.S. attorney out of that same Manhattan office. “It’s a smart choice. It may be the smartest thing this guy’s ever done.”
Cover image: Michael Cohen arrives to court in New York, Wednesday, May 30, 2018. Lawyers for President Donald Trump and Cohen, his personal attorney, appear again before a judge in New York as part of an ongoing legal tussle about attorney client privilege and records seized from Cohen by the FBI.