For the past four years, Michael Cohen has been the bane of my existence.
It’s not easy to write about politics and share the same name as the president’s fixer and coconspirator.
So suffice to say, I’m not overly sympathetic to the other Michael Cohen.
But, no matter my personal feelings, what President Trump and Attorney General William Barr sought to do to Cohen earlier this month is a travesty of justice and a chilling example of how the Department of Justice is being been warped into a political cudgel to be wielded against the president’s enemies.
The latest saga for Cohen began in May, when he received a medical furlough from federal prison and was allowed to serve the remainder of his three-year prison sentence at home due to the coronavirus pandemic. Cohen’s lawyers argued that severe hypertension and respiratory issues put him at acute risk if he were to contract COVID-19.
Cohen then met with probation officers, in early July, to sign routine paperwork supervising his release, and that’s when he discovered a clause that would prevent him from publishing a book or having “engagement of any kind with the media” until his sentence had ended. Cohen, who is indeed writing a tell-all book about his time working for Trump, not surprisingly balked at the request. However, because he was fearful of being returned to confinement he didn’t refuse to sign the agreement. Rather he asked his probation officers to narrow the provision.
Instead, he was immediately returned to prison, where he was placed in solitary confinement. His lawyers sued and, last week federal judge Alvin K. Hellerstein reversed the decision and released Cohen back to his home.
Hellerstein determined that sending Cohen back to prison was a “retaliatory” move carried out because of Cohen’s “desire to exercise his First Amendment rights to publish a book and to discuss anything about the book or anything else he wants on social media and with others.” Had Cohen agreed to this provision of his supervised agreement, it would have prevented him from publishing his book before the presidential election in November.
In his ruling, Hellerstein noted that in “21 years of being a judge and sentencing people,” he had “never seen such a clause” as part of a supervised release agreement.
It’s not difficult to read between the lines: A federal judge ruled that the Trump administration threw Cohen back into prison because they wanted to protect the president from any adverse publicity that might come from his former lawyer’s memoir.
This behavior is, unfortunately, consistent with the Trump administration and the Justice Department’s approach to protecting Trump.
Earlier this year, DOJ went to court to stop publication of a book by former national security advisor John Bolton that painted the president in a negative light. Under the leadership of Barr, the Department of Justice has, in effect, become the key member of the president’s legal team, when its actual duty is to represent the citizenry and “defend the interests of the United States according to the law.” Barr has interfered in criminal cases dealing with former Trump aides Michael Flynn and Roger Stone. His department has filed dubious amicus briefs on behalf of the president’s efforts to block House subpoenas of his taxes. He even tried to prevent the inspector general for the director of National Intelligence from turning over a whistle-blower report to Congress that eventually led to Trump’s impeachment.
After lying about the conclusions of the Mueller Report in the spring of 2019, Barr is still refusing to turn over to Congress key materials from the investigation. And he now appears to be engaged in a department-wide effort to discredit the report and its conclusions of presidential criminality.
While it’s impossible to know with certainty if Barr was behind the decision to return the president’s former lawyer to prison, it’s difficult to believe that a highly unusual provision, aimed at silencing Cohen, magically appeared without input from the higher-ups at the Department of Justice. In congressional testimony on Tuesday, Barr denied any knowledge of the issue, but we have long passed the point of granting the attorney general the benefit of the doubt. At the very least, Barr must bear responsibility for the efforts of those in his department to keep Cohen quiet.
The move against Cohen has ominous implications. There is a chasm between using the Justice Department to protect Trump’s political allies (which is odious enough) and weaponizing it to punish those who cross the president.
Could this be a harbinger of a second Trump term — using the Department of Justice as a tool to coerce, silence, and ultimately punish the president’s enemies? Considering the track record so far, it seems a logical and terrifying next step in the president and attorney general’s assault against the rule of law. Let’s hope we don’t find out.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.