Is Michael Cohen behind bars because he wants to release a book?

A new lawsuit alleges that the Trump administration sent Michael Cohen back to prison as part of a scheme to block his upcoming book about the president.
Image: Michael Cohen, former lawyer for President Donald Trump, reads his opening statement during testimony on Capitol Hill on Feb. 27, 2019.
Michael Cohen, former lawyer for President Donald Trump, reads his opening statement during testimony on Capitol Hill on Feb. 27, 2019.J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Get the Msnbc newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Steve Benen

Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's former personal attorney and fixer, was released from prison in May on a medical furlough, which was not altogether unusual given the coronavirus crisis. Two weeks ago, however, he was locked up again -- and the reason why is proving to be quite interesting.

As the New York Times recently reported, Cohen arrived at a New York courthouse on July 9, expecting to "complete routine paperwork related to his home confinement." 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 balked, insisting that the request was a violation of his free speech rights under the First Amendment. About 90 minutes later, federal marshals, after conferring with higher-ups, took Cohen back into custody.

By all accounts, this is 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 president? Was the White House responsible for orchestrating Cohen's re-imprisonment? Was Team Trump pulling levers to silence the president's former fixer ahead of the election?

It was against this backdrop that a new lawsuit was filed last night, challenging Cohen's re-confinement and contending that politics landed him back behind bars. NBC News reported overnight:

The habeus petition and motion for a temporary restraining order seeking Cohen's immediate release was filed by The American Civil Liberties Union and law firm Perry Guha LLP.... It names U.S. Attorney General William Barr, Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal and the warden of the federal prison where Cohen is being held, Federal Correctional Institution Otisville, as respondents.

The lawsuit is asking a judge to, among other things, release Cohen from a federal prison and allow him to return to home confinement.

The case is worth watching for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is what the controversy may tell us about the scope of Team Trump's legal abuses, and the White House's willingness to manipulate federal law enforcement -- repeatedly -- to reward the president's allies and punish the president's perceived enemies.

In the meantime, the lawsuit makes clear that Cohen has, in fact, worked on a book. “Disloyal: The True Story of Michael Cohen, Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump" will apparently feature Cohen's "firsthand experiences and observations based on my decade-long employment and relationship with Mr. Trump and his family, both before and after he was elected.”

As part of the new court filing, Cohen added, “In particular, my book will provide graphic and unflattering details about the President’s behavior behind closed doors.” The memoir will also describe "the President’s pointedly anti-Semitic remarks and virulently racist remarks against such Black leaders as President Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela, neither of whom he viewed as real leaders or as worthy of respect by virtue of their race."

Watch this space.