Michael Cohen knows you don’t trust him. In his tell-all memoir, Disloyal, he frequently acknowledges that he is “the least reliable narrator on the planet.” Having spent more than a decade lying, cheating, and covering up for Donald Trump in his role as the president’s personal lawyer and fixer, and having recently served part of a 36-month prison sentence for campaign finance violations and tax evasion, Cohen is short on credibility. He belongs to a special club—he and James Comey are its only members—of people hated equally by the president’s supporters and detractors. “You will no doubt ask yourself if you like me, or if you would act as I did,” he writes. “And the answer will frequently be no to both of those questions.”
Still, the revelations in Disloyal are significant. The advance hype for the book focused primarily on its depictions of Trump’s racism. Blacks and Hispanics, in Trump’s view, are “too stupid” to vote for him. He routinely denigrated Black leaders, including Nelson Mandela. “Tell me one country run by a Black person that isn’t a shithole,” Cohen quotes Trump as saying. Barack Obama is singled out by a bigoted, jealous Trump, who even recorded a video of himself humiliating a “Faux-Bama” impersonator. (That video was recorded for the 2012 Republican National Convention but was never aired; Trump said at the time “the reason they didn’t put it on is because they thought it was too controversial.”)
Yet the book didn’t make as big a splash as another recent report based on the observations of those with access to Trump’s unfiltered thoughts. A cadre of anonymous military officials told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that the president had claimed that soldiers, particularly those killed in battle, were “losers” and “suckers.” This was shocking evidence—and it is a testament to Goldberg’s scoop that Trump’s words still have the power to shock—that the concepts of “heroism” and “service” and “honor” were foreign to the president. Trump’s unfeeling response to the sacrifices of these soldiers only underscored his venality and self-absorption.
The differing responses to these two respective bombshells is telling—about what issues the media and the establishment perceive to be important and which narrators are considered trustworthy.
Cohen freely admits throughout Disloyal that he idolized Trump. He portrays himself as a Mini-Me, imitating Trump as he stiffed vendors and paid off porn stars on behalf of his boss. This closeness to Trump, both literally and figuratively, has been off-putting for many in the media: Cohen simply isn’t credible, especially when compared to public servants, whether they are named or unnamed.
Cohen promises that he will provide a portrait of “the real real Donald Trump—the man very, very, very few people know.” Cohen’s links with Trump are indeed deeper and more intimate than those of other tell-all writers. One “reason why there has never been an intimate portrait” of the president, Cohen writes, is that Trump “has a million acquaintances, pals, and hangers on, but no real friends.… He has lived his entire life avoiding and evading taking responsibility for his actions. He has crushed or cheated all who stood in his way, but I know where the skeletons are buried because I was the one who buried them.”
A great many skeletons are excavated in Disloyal. The ins and outs of Cohen’s dealings with Stormy Daniels, which would ultimately lead to his imprisonment, take up much of the book’s second half. He claims that Jerry Falwell’s endorsement of Trump came in exchange for Cohen helping make topless pictures of Falwell’s wife posing on a tractor disappear. He sheds light on the relationship between the Trump campaign and the National Enquirer, revealing that he helped push the lie during the Republican primary that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And there are many, many examples of Trump’s racism, sexism, and disdain for his supporters, whom he regards as marks.
Disloyal is best understood as a bildungsroman, a story of Cohen’s gradual awakening to Trump’s lawlessness and selfishness and the threat he posed to the country. (The fact that Cohen was 39 years old when he met Trump gives this bildungsroman a particularly pathetic edge.) Cohen repeatedly sets himself up as a stereotypical Trump supporter, driven by the same furor you see at the president’s rallies. “Trump embodied an entire portfolio of ambitions and desires and resentments, for countless people including me,” Cohen writes. For Cohen, there is something transfixing about Trump’s flouting of norms and laws, his refusal to bend to reality. “Like a confidence artist, Trump was showing me that he inhabited a different type of reality, one that he would share with me alone, a world that was filled with wonder and excitement and power and intrigue and adulation,” he writes.
There is always the hope that the walls are finally closing in on Trump—that an especially damning revelation, like his contempt for the troops, could finally break the spell he has cast over millions of people. But Cohen makes it clear that it’s Trump’s very refusal to acknowledge reality that’s so entrancing. Trump’s promise is that he is the one political figure who won’t ever change, no matter what. And if he doesn’t have to change, neither do you. “I was part of the action, in on the joke,” Cohen writes.
Disloyal is as unsavory a book as Michael Cohen is a character. His unseemliness explains, in part, why the revelations from the book have received considerably less attention than those in the Atlantic article, even though the author of that piece relies heavily on anonymous sources who are reluctant to come forward publicly, and the author himself doesn’t exactly have a pristine journalistic record when it comes to accuracy. Furthermore, Cohen’s most damning accusations involve victims who traditionally haven’t been much valued by politicians or the media, whereas the victims of the Atlantic article, itself a not-so-subtle paean to military sacrifice and military honor, are paid tribute in election after election.
The drive to find the perfect contrast to Trump’s selfishness and cowardice overlooks the fact that the clearest indictments of the president often come from people who resemble him. As a result, Cohen is largely being treated like a clown. But in the upside-down world of Trump’s America, sometimes clowns have more insight than everyone else.