Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen wields podcast in fight against ex-president

Key Points
  • Michael Cohen, who once was personal lawyer for Donald Trump, is using a podcast to promote both his criticism and fellow critics of the former president.
  • Cohen's "Mea Culpa" podcast premiered with Rosie O'Donnell, a longtime target of Trump. He recently had porn actress Stormy Daniels as a guest.
  • Trump faces a criminal probe by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., an investigation that Cohen has assisted.
Michael Cohen, the former personal attorney of President Donald Trump, departs the U.S. Capitol after testifying before a closed House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 28, 2019.
Joshua Roberts | Reuters

Podcasts sure make for strange bedfellows.

Michael Cohen, who for years toiled as Donald Trump's personal lawyer and fixer, is now allied with people who are criminally investigating the former president — and is using a podcast to promote both his criticism and fellow critics of Trump.

Cohen's ironically titled show "Mea Culpa" — a Latin phrase for "through my fault" — premiered last year with Rosie O'Donnell, a longtime target of Trump, who among other things made juvenile cracks about her personal appearance.

Cohen, 54, recently had as a guest on his show porn actress Stormy Daniels. In 2016, Cohen paid her $130,000 to buy her silence before the presidential election over her allegation that she once had sex with Trump years earlier.

"You and I both went through hell and back," Cohen told Daniels. "I'm sorry for the needless pain I put you through."

"Our stories will be forever linked with Donald Trump but also with one another," Cohen said.

That likely is an understatement.

Trump denies Daniels' allegation and also denies claims of an affair with another woman, Playboy model Karen McDougal, who herself received hush money from the Trump-friendly publisher of The National Enquirer before the 2016 election.

Trump and his company, the Trump Organization, reimbursed Cohen for paying off Daniels.

A spokesman for Trump did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Exposure of that payment led to a federal criminal investigation of Cohen, a Manhattan resident who pleaded guilty in 2018 to campaign finance violations for arranging both the Daniels and McDougal payoffs, and to other financial crimes unrelated to Trump.

Cohen, who was sentenced to three years prison, says Trump directed him to arrange the hush money deals to avoid harming his chances of winning the presidency.

Those payments likely were the first subject to be investigated by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.'s office, which eyed how the Trump Organization accounted for them.

But court records suggest that investigation has possibly since expanded to include potential bank and insurance fraud, and tax crimes.

Those areas became a focus after Cohen told Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., during testimony before Congress in early 2019 that Trump had provided inflated property asset values to insurance companies and had also undervalued assets in order to reduce his taxes.

"You deflate the value of the asset, and then you put in a request to the tax department for a deduction," Cohen told Ocasio-Cortez.

New York Attorney General Letitia James has credited Cohen's testimony for setting in motion her own ongoing civil investigation of the Trump Organization's asset valuations.

"I am ashamed because I know what Mr. Trump is. He is a racist. He is a con man. He is a cheat," said Cohen during his testimony. He also called himself "fool" for having worked for Trump and believed in him for so long.

Even was he was in prison, Cohen was helping Vance's probe, and he reportedly continued assisting it after he was furloughed early from prison last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"The concept of creating the podcast came when I was furloughed," Cohen told CNBC in an interview.

"Mea Culpa" promotes its host as a man who "once vowed to take a bullet for the President."

"But that was before the country was brought to its knees by the President's own lies and personal madness," the podcast's homepage says.

"Now, imprisoned in his home, his life, reputation and livelihood destroyed, Cohen is on a mission to right the wrongs he perpetuated on behalf of his boss."

Traffic and merchandise

For someone who was released from prison less than a year ago, Cohen's podcast, which now has more than 50 episodes in its archive, has done very well, ranking at times among the top 10 political podcasts in the United States on Apple and other platforms.

"We're increasing our listenership by over 20%, week over week," Cohen said.

"Am I surprised by it?" Cohen responded when asked if he was. "I'm happy about it. I would like to not be surprised."

Rob Ellin, CEO of digital media company LiveXLive, said of Cohen's podcast, "The traffic is just skyrocketing.

"The competition of podcasts is way harder than it used to be," Ellin said. But, he added, "I can't think of one that has come up as fast as his."

Ellin's publicly traded company owns PodcastOne, which distributes and handle sales for "Mea Culpa," and also owns another firm that handles merchandising for the podcast. Another unaffiliated company, Audio Up, produces "Mea Culpa."

Cohen's show this week added a new line of apparel for sale, one that reflects his current view of Trump.

The items include a jumpsuit in prison inmate orange, which can include the initials "DJT" — which also happen to be Trump's initials — or the seal of the president of the United States above the left breast pocket.

Cohen told CNBC the merchandise was inspired by a crack he made about Trump last week, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the ex-president in his effort to keep the DA's office from getting his tax returns and other financial records from his accountants as part of its criminal probe.

"He should start maybe speaking to someone about getting a custom-made jumpsuit, because it does not look good for him, that's my prediction," Cohen told MSNBC's Katy Tur.

Ellin said Cohen's critique of Trump, coupled with the quickening pace of the DA and New York AG's probes is a vindication for his friend and a driver for interest in "Mea Culpa."

"Michael has called a lot of this on the nose," Ellin said.

"A lot of people didn't believe him before, and are starting to believe him."

Two years before the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters who sought to undo the confirmation that day of the election of President Joe Biden, Cohen warned Congress, "Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 that there will never be a peaceful transition of power."

Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives shortly before leaving office Jan. 20 for inciting the invasion of Congress with false claims of election fraud. He was acquitted by the Senate at a trial last month.

Cohen's podcast discussed the Capitol riot on an episode that also included an interview with actor and filmmaker Ben Stiller. Another episode was entitled "Why Trump Must Be Impeached."

Friendship and opportunity

Rob Ellin, LiveXLive Media
Source: LiveXLive Media

Ellin has been friends with Cohen since they played tennis together in high school on Long Island,

Both Cohen and Ellin wryly describe that time, which includes playing doubles against opponents who included Patrick McEnroe, brother of tennis legend John McEnroe and himself a future professional player.

"I think we won 2 points," said Ellin of that match, which featured Cohen screaming at him to adjust to McEnroe's shots.

"Wasn't this when I smashed the racket?" he asked Cohen during a call with CNBC.

Cohen and Ellin both recall coming up with the phrase "hug it out, b----," to smooth over their sometimes volatile disputes with one another on the tennis court.

Ellin's brother, Douglas Reed Ellin, later used it as one of the signature phrases for the HBO television series that he created, "Entourage."

Despite the fact of their four-decade-long friendship, the connection between Ellin's company and Cohen's podcast was the product of happenstance.

Months after launching "Mea Culpa" last summer, the podcast's distribution platform was shifted to PodcastOne. That company, started by radio giant Westwood One founder Norm Pattiz, in the meantime had become acquired by LiveXLive, Ellin's firm.

Cohen said he was on a call one day with PodcastOne when he was told Ellin happened to be in the room.

"I said, 'Put him on speaker phone with me,'" Cohen said.

Cohen said that having a business relationship with Ellin has been "incredible."

"But it brings back a lot of nostalgia for me, which is equal," Cohen added.

Ellin likewise has warm personal feelings for Cohen, whom he called "a great father, and great husband."

"I think Michael's been humbled," by the fallout from his association with Trump, Ellin said. "This has been painful."

But Ellin also sees the business opportunity from his friend's podcast.

"We now have the ability to help Michael" by bringing in more high-profile guests, and expanding marketing opportunities, Ellin said. "Who knows? There could be a second podcast."

Adam Carolla, a radio host and comedian, recently did crossover appearances with Cohen on "Mea Culpa" and his own highly ranked podcast, which is distributed by PodcastOne.

"It was just a great engagement between the two of them," Ellin said. "Michael, as a beginning radio host, did a great job of staying in the ring with him."

Ellin credits Cohen for having the moxie to reinvent himself as a podcast host.

"He's not afraid to take a swing," Ellin said. "I think he's been doing an extraordinary job of driving this."