“YOU RUINED MY CAMPAIGN! THIS WAS MY WHOLE STRATEGY! YOU BETTER FIX THIS!”
When I was able to put my ear closer to the phone, Michael Cohen’s voice quieted down to a normal decibel level. He was extremely pissed.
What did I do? It was 2003, and the community newspaper I owned and published, Our Town, was the largest weekly newspaper on the East Side of Manhattan. Cohen was running a quixotic campaign as a Republican against the East Side’s then-Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz. The future Trump fixer had booked the back page for the issue right before the election and through some mishap our art department forgot to place the ad.
The only thought that rattled through my brain as Cohen continued his rant: Ugh, I just lost $2,000 in much-needed revenue.
“HOW ARE YOU GOING TO MAKE THIS UP TO ME?”
A light bulb went on. “How about I Xerox 50,000 copies of your ad and I then get our delivery drivers to put piles of 50 right next to our newspaper in each apartment building?”
We had a proprietary distribution list of more than 1,000 doorman buildings and almost every candidate advertised in Our Town.
“YOU CAN DO THAT?” Cohen bellowed. “SURE, BUT YOU BETTER DO IT RIGHT AWAY!”
Thus began a quirky relationship. To say that Cohen and I are friends would be an overstatement. But as a publisher of local publications over the years, I have collected a variety of professional relationships with the good, the bad and the ugly. I once asked Sydney Biddle Barrows, the recently indicted “Mayflower Madam” – so named for being a well-bred WASP running a prostitution ring on the Upper West Side – to be a sex columnist for my newspaper. I stayed in touch with Anthony Weiner until he went to prison.
I guess you could say I have a soft spot for felons, particularly if they’re connected to New York’s rough-and-tumble political world.
After Cohen got trounced by Moskowitz, he made an aborted run for state Senate on the East Side, this time as a Democrat. But challenging the ever-popular Liz Krueger in the primary was a mountain even Cohen wasn’t eager to try to climb.
A few years later, I discovered that Cohen was working for Harry Winston, a large jewelry company, as the in-house counsel. In addition to Our Town newspaper, my company also owned AVENUE magazine, the glossy monthly that catered to the .01 percent. It was distributed in Park and Fifth Avenue buildings and its readers had the highest median income of any publication in the United States. Seeking advertising dollars, I contacted Cohen to see if he could help us. I don’t remember whether we were successful in securing the jewelry ads, but I do recall that, when I visited Cohen at his office there, he and his brother had their desks situated in the vault. The company may have been tight on space – or maybe they just wanted the Cohen brothers to be the first line of defense against any thievery.
After his jewelry stint, Cohen landed at the Trump Organization in 2009. We lost touch for awhile, but in 2012 Cohen called me one day. It wasn’t a casual check-in.
“Mr. Trump is very mad at you,” he informed me.
“Really? What did I do?” I wondered, unable to guess what I had done to offend Trump.
“You left him off the list of the 200 Most Influential New Yorkers in your last issue,” Cohen explained. “And he was also ticked off that you left Melania off the list of the 25 Sexiest New Yorkers.”
“Michael,” I told him, “I’m the president of the company. I don’t get involved with our lists, but let me check what happened and I’ll get back to you.”
Cohen set up a meeting for the next day to hash things out. I entered the gilded lobby of Trump Tower with our editor to explain our editorial decision. I had done business with Trump a few times over the past two decades, so he knew me and treated me with respect because I was a media owner. Despite his current anti-media act, I always found Trump to be not only obsessed with his coverage but eager to flatter journalists and publishers in hopes of winning them over. We explained our reasons for leaving Trump off the list that year and mollified him with a deal to put Melania on a future cover.
When Trump was running for president in 2016, like most New Yorkers I was skeptical of his intentions and chances. But I warned those around me not to underestimate him. I had watched his master manipulation of media for the past three decades and had been on the receiving end of his pitches. You had to give him credit for garnering lots of publicity. He subscribed to the view that any press is good press, and look how that turned out.
Cohen called me the summer of 2016 out of the blue: “I’m thinking of running for mayor next year and would love your advice.” Having run my own aborted campaign for mayor in 2013 I wasn’t sure that I was the best person to ask, but he seemed to think I might have some wisdom to impart.
He never followed up on that conversation and never ran for mayor.
I did see him one last time for breakfast last year, after his conviction, and he appeared to be a changed man. The cocky and bombastic demeanor was replaced by a man whose eyes were glazed, who seemed downcast and beaten down. Fully aware that he had done a lot of bad things the last decade, I couldn’t help but feel some pity for someone who seemed like an ex-member of a cult. He told me why he turned on his former idol. Although some of the reasons didn’t ring true – like the claim that seeing Trump’s deference to Vladimir Putin was a factor, despite the fact that Cohen had previously eagerly pursued Trump’s interests in Russia – it did appear that there was some recognition on his part that he had followed a dark path and now it was time for penance.
Watching his testimony before Congress on Wednesday, like everyone, I was riveted. But I couldn’t help having a bit of a nagging feeling.
If we hadn’t screwed up that campaign ad in 2003, maybe he would have won and become a city councilman – and perhaps Donald Trump wouldn’t have had an attack dog lawyer who helped pave his way to the White House.
Correction: Anthony Weiner contacted City & State to point out that he was not carted off to jail, as was originally written. "I drove myself," he said.
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