Trump Sues Michael Cohen, the Key Witness Against Him

Donald J. Trump on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against his former fixer, Michael D. Cohen, just weeks after being indicted in a case in which Mr. Cohen is expected to serve as a star witness.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Florida, accuses Mr. Cohen of revealing Mr. Trump’s confidences and “spreading falsehoods” about him. It directly references Mr. Cohen’s role in the Manhattan district attorney’s criminal case against Mr. Trump, which stems from a hush-money payment Mr. Cohen made on the former president’s behalf in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

The case, while potentially far-fetched, suggests that Mr. Trump may be seeking to silence Mr. Cohen.

“It could be an attempt to pressure Michael Cohen not to testify, but that pressure is unlikely to work,” said Ellen C. Yaroshefsky, a professor specializing in legal ethics at Hofstra University’s law school.

She added that she did not think the lawsuit amounted to witness tampering under New York law, as it was not a direct attempt to interfere with Mr. Cohen’s testimony, and other legal experts concurred.

Yet in a statement on Wednesday, Mr. Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny J. Davis, argued, “Mr. Trump appears once again to be using and abusing the judicial system as a form of harassment and intimidation.” He added that Mr. Trump was apparently “terrified by his looming legal perils and is attempting to send a message to other potential witnesses who are cooperating with prosecutors against him.”

Christopher M. Kise, a lawyer representing Mr. Trump in a civil case that was brought by the New York attorney general and that Mr. Cohen’s testimony helped initiate, lashed out at Mr. Cohen, suggesting that he had lied in the past to various officials.

“He’s lied to everyone he’s ever come in contact with,” Mr. Kise said. “So at some point someone needs to hold this serial liar accountable.”

Mr. Trump’s lawsuit, brought by Alejandro Brito, a lawyer in Coral Gables, Fla., seeks significant punitive damages against Mr. Cohen, but it seemed possible that the case would backfire. Last year, when the former president filed the lawsuit against the New York attorney general, Letitia James, who has sued Mr. Trump and his family business, some members of his legal team objected. There was similar dissent among his lawyers over whether to sue Mr. Cohen, people with knowledge of the matter said.

Ultimately, Mr. Trump withdrew the suit against Ms. James, which came before U.S. District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks. Judge Middlebrooks had previously fined Mr. Trump and one of his attorneys nearly $1 million for filing a frivolous lawsuit against a number of political enemies, including Mr. Trump’s 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton.

But Mr. Trump, who has experienced decades of scrutiny from law enforcement and regulators, has a long habit of trying to use the court system for his own ends and has been furious with Mr. Cohen in recent weeks.

Mr. Cohen, who broke from Mr. Trump in 2018 while facing a federal investigation into his own role in the hush-money deal, testified twice in front of the grand jury that ultimately voted to indict the former president. Last week, the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, unveiled 34 felony charges, which center on the $130,000 hush-money payment that Mr. Cohen made to the porn star, Stormy Daniels.

Mr. Trump has been eager to file the suit for some time, according to a person familiar with his thinking, even as some members of his legal team have discouraged him from doing so.

Stephen Gillers, a professor emeritus at the New York University School of Law who specializes in legal ethics, said that he saw no problems with the appropriateness of the lawsuit on its face.

“The theory of the lawsuit is that Cohen, as Trump’s former lawyer, had fiduciary and professional obligations to Trump that he breached and caused damage to Trump,” Mr. Gillers said. “That theory, without the names of the parties, is quite plausible.”

But he added that while lawyers could not ordinarily do what the lawsuit said Mr. Cohen had done in speaking about a former client, Mr. Cohen would have had certain rights to defend himself when he became a target of a criminal investigation.

Like Ms. Yaroshefsky, Mr. Gillers did not think that the suit amounted to witness tampering, nor did Bruce Green, a law professor at Fordham University.

Mr. Trump has been blaming Mr. Cohen for his legal issues not just with Mr. Bragg, but with Ms. James, whose office is set to question him under oath on Thursday. In a recent interview with the Fox News host Sean Hannity, Mr. Trump maintained that what Mr. Cohen had been saying about him was false and accused him of trying to “ingratiate” himself with Mr. Trump by taking ownership of the payment to Ms. Daniels in a letter to the Federal Election Commission in early 2018.

The lawsuit represents an escalation of the attacks on Mr. Cohen, whom Mr. Trump has also denounced as “a rat” and a liar.

It accuses Mr. Cohen of lying about the former president while also breaching attorney-client privilege — as well as a confidentiality clause he signed while working for Mr. Trump’s company.

Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to campaign finance violations for arranging the hush money as well as a variety of other charges, including lying to Congress about a plan for a Trump property in Moscow. Those admissions are likely to be among the things that Mr. Trump’s lawyers will seize on when cross-examining Mr. Cohen at a trial.

Yet Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors could argue that Mr. Cohen told those lies and others for Mr. Trump, and not himself.

It is not guaranteed that the case will proceed to the discovery phase, during which lawyers for Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen would be required to exchange relevant case material and answer questions under oath. But if it does, it could potentially be damaging for Mr. Trump, who in addition to facing a criminal trial in Manhattan is also under criminal investigation in Georgia and Washington, and for Mr. Cohen, who would be likely to be deposed.

Mr. Cohen had previously sued Mr. Trump, and the current situation between the two men is the latest example of a pattern for Mr. Trump: He has often become locked in litigation with people who were previously allies, with each side suing or countersuing.

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