In his federal court sentencing hearing Wednesday, President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen cut a tragic figure of his own making as he tried to convince a judge to spare him from prison for a host of crimes ranging from tax fraud to bank fraud to lying to Congress. He claimed he was a trusting soul undone by the ambition and the machinations of an evil man – Donald Trump. It played out like a modern take on the Tennessee Williams play “A Streetcar Named Desire.” All that was missing was that signature line of the character Blanche DuBois: “Whoever you are … I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Blanche was describing her life of woe to a doctor escorting her to a mental hospital. But her line could have been easily added to Cohen’s plea to U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III in New York City. The former Trump “fixer” and lawyer – who made millions of dollars off his connection to Trump and illegal business dealings – is now a disgraced confessed criminal facing three years in prison (set to begin March 6) and $2 million in fines, forfeitures and restitution. His legal career is over and he easily fits the role of the type of train-wrecked characters that Tennessee Williams loved. In “A Streetcar Named Desire” Blanche DuBois is a riveting character – imperfect, degraded and ultimately destitute. According to his narrative before Judge Pauley, Cohen has lived much of his professional life like a modern Blanche DuBois. Cohen’s tragedy was presented as a tale of affairs gone bad and women scorned, with a cast of opportunists and sycophants. Cohen latched onto Trump as a powerful man who was his ticket to fortune and the good life. But Cohen’s good life shattered when he was caught up in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether the Trump presidential campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election. Mueller’s probe has widened like spider’s web, growing larger and larger and ultimately snaring Cohen for conduct having little to do with Russia. Indeed, most of the crimes were not even linked to Trump. Cohen’s sentencing Wednesday came on his earlier guilty pleas to multiple counts of business and tax fraud. He also pleaded guilty to making an excessive contribution to the Trump campaign involving two women who claimed they had extramarital affairs with Trump – claims Trump denies. Cohen also pleaded guilty to making false statements to Congress regarding unsuccessful efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. When Trump didn’t protect Cohen with a pardon or intervention, Cohen turned to Mueller and began to publicly praise him while criticizing Trump. For his part, Mueller was clearly receptive to Cohen entreaties. While federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York portrayed Cohen as a liar, manipulator and felon, Mueller undermined their effort to secure a longer prison sentence against Cohen by saying that Cohen is now redeemed and cooperative. Indeed, this remake could be called “A Special Counsel Named Desire.” Mueller’s desire to build a case against President Trump – the man who Cohen described as being responsible for his undoing and leading him into “darkness” – is so overwhelming that he undercut other federal prosecutors. In the end however neither Mueller nor the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York would recommend a sentence of zero jail time. Cohen sought mercy based on the kindness of another stranger, Judge Pauley. The tragic story of Cohen is fascinating precisely because it is so grotesque. He made a career as a legal thug who bluffed and bullied his way into millions. Even as prosecutors were closing in on him for tax fraud, bank fraud and perjury, Cohen got companies like AT&T to give him millions of dollars for access and influence over President Trump. It didn’t matter that Cohen was bluffing about his great influence over the president of the United States and that he couldn’t deliver on his extravagant claims of being an influence peddler worth millions to his clients. As Blanche said: “I know I fib a good deal. After all, a woman’s charm is 50 percent illusion.” Few saw much charm in Cohen, but prosecutors laid out how his business and legal practices were virtually 100 percent illusion. At his sentencing hearing, Cohen described his tragic Blanche-like life as being undone by a man who was no good. He proclaimed: “I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the day that I accepted the offer to work for a real estate mogul whose business acumen that I deeply admired.” Falling for Trump led Cohen to choose “darkness over light,” Cohen said. Fighting back tears, he said that he is a “weak” man who “felt it was my duty to cover up his (Trump’s) dirty deeds.” For Tennessee Williams fans, it all seemed too familiar. Blanche explained how she rode a streetcar named Desire to her doom: “It brought me here. Where I’m not wanted and where I’m ashamed to be.” And it was the same unrestrained desire that brought Cohen to this moment. His desire for money and power – matched by an endless willingness to lie and break the law to achieve it. Like Blanche, Cohen had no difficulty making threats – in his case to journalists, students or anyone Trump wanted out of the way. And Cohen had no difficulty lying about everything to everyone. After all, like Blanche, he seemed to accept that “I don’t tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth.” At his sentencing, Cohen threw himself on the kindness of the stranger judging his fate by saying that, after his long and sleazy journey: “I promise I will be better.” The only thing missing was the coquettish flick of a fan and the sound of a rattling streetcar. Yet in the end, Cohen seemed surprised by the relatively lenient three-year prison sentence Judge Pauley gave him. Some media commentators concluded that Cohen actually hoped that his cooperation and plea for mercy would leave the judge entirely disarmed and charmed. It didn’t, though three years in prison was substantially below what Cohen deserved for years of defrauding the public, banks and the government – as well as lying to Congress. Cohen will now seek to please Mueller with the same abandon as he sought to please Trump. The disgraced lawyer could implicate figures in the White House in the creation of his false narrative given to both Congress and investigators. And he could then return to federal court with a motion for a further reduction of his prison sentence. In truth, Cohen has already benefitted from the kindness of strangers with the help of Mueller and the generous sentencing reduction given by Judge Pauley. Cohen is not done, because like Blanche DuBois he’s “got to be with somebody” or he is just a nobody doing time. Mueller is now that somebody, but he might want to consider Blanche DuBois’ secret to attracting strangers: “I want to deceive him enough to make him – want me.”
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro professor of public Iiterest law at George Washington University and a practicing criminal defense attorney.