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Why Michael Cohen's new lawsuit is surprisingly important

Michael Cohen is suing Donald Trump, Bill Barr, and the Bureau of Prisons in a civil suit that's a lot more important than you might think.


After several years of drama surrounding Michael Cohen and his former ties to Donald Trump, the lawsuit that Cohen filed last week wasn't taken too seriously in some circles. That's a shame, because this civil case is actually quite important. The Associated Press reported:

Michael Cohen claimed in a new lawsuit Thursday that Donald Trump retaliated against him for writing a tell-all memoir, saying his abrupt return to federal prison last year endangered his life and amounted to punishment for criticizing the president.... The new lawsuit, filed in Manhattan federal court, seeks damages for "extreme physical and emotional harm" and violations of Cohen's First Amendment rights.

As part of the case, Cohen is suing the former president, federal prison officials, and former Attorney General Bill Barr.

And why is this a case worth watching? In part because Cohen's argument appears to have merit, and in part because of the core allegation he's raised in the civil case.

It's been a while, so let's circle back to our earlier coverage. It was in May 2019 when Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney and fixer, was ordered to report to prison after helping his former client cover up illegal campaign contributions to alleged former mistresses.

About a year later, Cohen was released on a medical furlough, which was not altogether unusual given the pandemic. Like many non-violent prisoners at the time, Cohen received home confinement.

It did not last. Just weeks into home confinement, the lawyer arrived at a New York courthouse, expecting to complete some routine paperwork. What he encountered instead was probation officers asking him to sign a document that would prevent him from publishing a book or speaking to the media during the remainder of his sentence.

Cohen, working on an anti-Trump book, balked, insisting that the request was a violation of his free speech rights under the First Amendment. About 90 minutes later, Cohen was in handcuffs. The Bureau of Prisons had decided to revoke home confinement and sent him back to prison.

By all accounts, this was not normal for released prisoners, and it raised some unsettling questions. Was federal law enforcement punishing Cohen because he'd worked on a book critical of the then-president? Was there a special rule being applied just to him?

In July 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein agreed that it appeared federal officials were trying to silence Cohen. "I've never seen such a clause in 21 years of being a judge and sentencing people," the federal judge said. "How can I take any other inference but that it was retaliatory?"

He proceeded to return Cohen to home confinement, and the book was released as planned.

And now Cohen is suing over what transpired, which is important for reasons that may not be immediately obvious.

As Rachel explained on Friday night's show, we can't have a system in which a corrupt president can use the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Justice to retaliate against a political critic. Imprisoning Cohen because he wrote a book Trump didn't like, as is alleged in this case, appears to be indefensible in a country that takes the rule of law seriously.

American presidents are powerful, but not so powerful that they can use the weight of the federal government to retaliate against people who write negative books about them.

"The personalities here can get distracting, but take the personalities out of this," Rachel explained. "A president being a bad guy is one thing. A president being a bad guy and then being able to use the Bureau of Prisons and the Justice Department to go pluck his enemies out of their homes, shackle them and throw them in jail without legitimate cause, that is a blaring red siren — not just for what it means to have a bad person in power, but for what it means to have a government that is bent to that person's will, for what it means to have a government that is insufficiently independent and governed by ethics and law that an unscrupulous leader can employ the U.S. government in that way for their own purposes."

Watch this space.