I’ve been covering the legal profession forever, so I’m hardly dewy-eyed about lawyers. I’ve been around lauded legends as well as lawyers in the cross-hair of criticism, but at the end of the day, I think everyone is just trying to do his or her best and make a living.
I accept the fact that lawyers can be tough and rough in advocating for their client, and that their clients might be unsavory. I don’t expect them to be Atticus Finch. They are hired guns—and I’m fine with that. Truly.
But how did lawyers morph from being skilled fixers into pimps?
Maybe it was always a slippery slope, but Michael Cohen seemed to have glided into that role with alarming alacrity.
I’m talking about his recent admission that he paid porn actress Stormy Daniels (real name: Stephanie Clifford) $130,000 in 2016 to keep her quiet about her alleged affair with President Donald Trump. The Wall Street Journal broke the news about that payment. Just recently, Cohen confirmed the payment to the New York Times with this statement:
Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly. The payment to Ms. Clifford was lawful, and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone.
How magnanimous. Cohen seems to be suggesting that he paid her off out of the goodness of his heart, perhaps out of a deep sense of patriotism. Note, though, that he didn’t say whether Don Jr., Ivanka or someone else in Trump’s orbit paid him back with cash or in kind. (The New York Times ran another article on Monday detailing Cohen’s role in stifling potentially damaging stories for Trump.)
Although there’s no indication that Cohen procured Daniels and other women for Trump’s pleasure or that he took a percentage of Daniels’ $130,000 payment, I think “pimp” captures the spirit of his job. He was the facilitator-extraordinaire of the sordid Trump-Daniels’ sexual transaction, albeit after the act. He might as well have cleaned up the soiled bed sheets too.
There’s a lot of speculation about whether Cohen did something illegal or unethical, but I don’t think we even need to go there to find his actions degrading—both to him and the profession. How is it that a (once) reputable lawyer (he was a partner at Phillips Nizer) be reduced to mopping up the mess left over from an affair between a presidential hopeful with a sordid past and a porn star?
Sadly, though, Cohen doesn’t seem to be the only lawyer who’s fallen into this line of work. In a recent New Yorker article by Ronan Farrow, lawyers played a key part in silencing another alleged Trump mistress Karen McDougal. In that episode, as Farrow reports, McDougal, a former Playboy model, was paid $150,000 just days before the 2016 presidential election by American Media Inc., which publishes The National Enquirer, for rights to her story, in order to bury it. (AMI’s owner David Pecker is a friend of Trump’s.) Brokering that deal was another lawyer Keith Davidson, who’s made a bit of a career of these arrangements.
Participating in the strategy, according to Farrow’s story, was Cameron Stracher, the general counsel of AMI, who communicated with McDougal about a possible contract renewal and magazine cover and was on a call where promises were made to boost her career. Stracher’s role is also described in another New Yorker article about AMI’s Pecker. (Fun fact: I know Stracher because he used to write a column for The American Lawyer. We were on friendly terms but lost touch over the years.)
The question that comes to me over and over again is why any decent lawyer would want to be part of this sordid business?
I know lawyering can be a dirty job, but does it have to be shameful?