It begins, as so many love stories do, with an all-consuming infatuation. The year is 2006, and Michael Cohen, a forty-year-old New York City personal-injury lawyer and real-estate investor who made his fortune in the shadowy taxi-medallion market, is summoned to meet with Donald Trump, the prominent American developer and star of the NBC reality show “The Apprentice,” on the twenty-sixth floor of Trump’s gilded tower on Fifth Avenue. Trump, who had apparently been told by his eldest son, Don, Jr., of Cohen’s reputation as a can-do fixer, needs help cowing a rogue board of directors at one of his residential properties Although an owner of units in Trump-branded properties and a longtime fan of “The Art of the Deal,” Cohen had previously met Trump only in passing. At their first face-to-face appointment, however, he finds himself irresistibly drawn to the hulking businessman, who is, by turns, complimentary and tough-talking. “Donald Trump’s seduction began the way it would continue for years, with flattery, proximity to celebrity and power, and my own out-of-control ambitions and desires,” Cohen writes in “Disloyal,” a memoir of his chaotic, more-than-decade-long tenure as Trump’s personal attorney. For Cohen, Trump’s presence is “irresistible, intoxicating, thrilling,” and his unembarrassed will to dominate everyone around him renders Cohen “incredulous, excited, overwhelmed.” As Cohen watches Trump bullying his building’s board at a meeting, a few days later, he becomes determined to match the great man’s aggression. He later thunders at the board members himself—“All eyes were on me, but the only pair that I really cared about was Trump’s,” he writes. When he’s done with his speech, Cohen gives a copy of it to the businessman, with the words “Here, Mr. Trump, now you will remember me forever.”
As any student of foreshadowing could tell you, such early bliss can only end in disaster. The romance between Trump and Cohen came to its unfortunate conclusion in 2018, when the once-faithful attorney pleaded guilty on eight criminal counts, including campaign-finance violations linked to hush money that he paid to the porn actress Stephanie Clifford, known professionally as Stormy Daniels, Trump’s alleged onetime lover. Cohen later testified before Congress, implicating Trump in the plot. The lawyer means the book to be a personal mea culpa, as well as a broader warning: he wants America to realize the kind of thuggish man it’s up against before it’s too late, cautioning that Trump will likely not leave office peacefully. But this professed greater-good reasoning is not what truly animates “Disloyal.” The book is written with all the heat of a spurned former lover, and much of its energy comes from the kind of disbelief, pain, and longing experienced by the wronged heroine of a bodice ripper, who is calamitously drawn into the arms of a heartless rogue, badly used, and tossed aside. The book traffics in several other genres, too: it’s the story of Trump as a Jim Jones-like figure, attracting sycophantic acolytes with his mesmeric charisma; it’s an office yarn, recounting the intrigues among a group of coworkers jockeying for influence under the watchful eye of a mercurial boss; and it’s a tale of criminal initiation, à la Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” in which an apprentice is drawn in by Trump’s mob-boss ways, and finds himself in over his head.
This makes for a pretty enjoyable mix, which is surprising, since “Disloyal” is not exactly a good book. It is awkwardly written, riddled with clichés, and often repetitive. (“I had taken leave of my senses,” Cohen writes several times, as an explanation for the many wrongs he committed as Trump’s right-hand man.) What the book does do well, however, is give a granular sense of the chaos that is life in the Trump vortex. In July, Mary Trump, a clinical psychologist and the President’s estranged niece, published “Too Much and Never Enough,” a book that purported to give readers an insider’s look at the goings-on within the Trump family, and to explain how the relationship dynamics therein helped form “the world’s most dangerous man.” But there was something thin and abstract about the book, which suffered from a dearth of close-at-hand reporting. One got the sense that the Trump family spent little time together, and that meaningful engagement was rare. In a way, this indirectly proved the book’s point: that Trump likely became the entitled, lawless individual that he is due to his family’s cruelty and distance.
“Disloyal” is more satisfying, perhaps because it arrives not from Trump’s family but from within the palpitating walls of his chaotic, teetering business empire. The book is full of stories that are by now familiar. Cohen alleges that Trump approved the hush-money payment to Daniels; that he knew about a catch-and-kill operation arranged with the National Enquirer, which was meant to buy the silence of Karen McDougal, a Playboy model with whom Trump had an affair; that he knew about a meeting in Trump Tower, in June, 2016, when members of his campaign attempted to procure damaging information about Hillary Clinton from a Russian source; that he has spoken disparagingly of Black Americans and of African political leaders, including Nelson Mandela. (Trump has denied the book’s allegations.) Where “Disloyal” becomes truly engaging, however, is in its more quotidian details, which reveal the sleazy, petty, combative ambiance of the Trump Organization, and, later, of the Trump Administration. In this, reading Cohen’s book is almost fun. (Though, admittedly, this might be fun of the “if we didn’t laugh, we’d cry” variety.)
The mundanity of the skirmishes that Cohen describes suggests the ubiquity of grift and underhandedness in Trump’s world. Cohen attempts to threaten his way out of paying Benjamin Moore for paint used in renovating a golf resort. (Trump had “decided to go with the absolute cheapest level-one paint, which is pure garbage,” and then, when the poor results were revealed, demanded his money back.) Cohen leans on venders to settle their claims after Trump University has fallen apart, coercing them into accepting twenty cents for every dollar owed to them. More than once, he calls Trump’s wife, Melania, at his boss’s direction and attempts to convince her that her husband has not cheated on her, or has not sexually assaulted someone. (Of one such conversation with Melania, Cohen writes, “We performed a game of kabuki theater, each of us aware of the deception but following an unspoken rule that we wouldn’t acknowledge that reality.”) At one point, Cohen fires his office nemesis, Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, after he is caught leaking salacious stories about Ivanka and Jared Kushner to the press. (“Lewandowski entered with his usual cocky strut, a Red Bull in hand, as if he was jacked for whatever was coming his way. But the smirk on his face didn’t last long.”) For good measure, Cohen adds a picture with the caption “Lewandowski, drunk.”
There is fun, too, in the rendering of Cohen himself. Cohen has always struck me as a figure straight out of central casting. Wearing a loud checked sports jacket, his salt-and-pepper hair a bit unruly, with a cell phone to his ear, speaking in a marked Long Island accent, he was the perfect embodiment of a culturally familiar trope: the crooked, fast-talking, wheeling-and-dealing attorney, always at the ready to cajole or threaten. In “Disloyal,” Cohen leans into this role. Much like Trump’s onetime attorney Roy Cohn, Cohen is menacing, but unlike his predecessor, who seemed almost satanically unruffled, Cohen is also a bit of a schmoe. Early on in his tenure, Cohen tries to find a legal loophole to get Trump, whom he consistently refers to as “Boss,” out of a contract, all the while hectoring himself: “Think, you dope, I said to myself. Think, you dope.” When he is displeased with someone, he refers to him as a “jerkoff” or a “real charmer.” At one point, he gears up to twist a contractor’s arm: “You know who you’re taking to, buddy boy, I thought. Fuck you. Game on.” There is something so guileless in his performance of toughness, so nearly naïve, that, despite its very real, very unfortunate effects on almost everyone whom Cohen came into contact with in his time as Trump’s lackey, I couldn’t help but feel a little touched. In 2018, as the F.B.I. closed in, Trump distanced himself from his attorney, which must have hurt enormously. That hurt still pulses on every page of “Disloyal.” “What worried me . . . was that Trump had described me as ‘one of my personal attorneys,’ ” Cohen writes. “All of a sudden I didn’t have a name? All of a sudden I’m only one of his attorneys?” This sense of betrayal gives “Disloyal,” for all its sliminess, a certain gravitas, and an atmosphere of impending doom. “If I stayed loyal to Trump, he would stay loyal to me. I had to stay the course. Always stay the course. Be loyal. I was going to be fine,” Cohen writes, before adding, “But in the back of my mind, I knew trouble was coming.” Trump, as Cohen soon finds out, and as anyone who has observed his Presidency knows, is loyal only to himself.