Playing a risky game, Trump predicts Cohen won't 'flip' on him

Image: Michael Cohen at Federal Court
epa06673911 Attorney Michael Cohen, (C) US President Donald J. Trump's long-time personal attorney exits federal court in New York City, New York, USA, 16...

It's been a couple of weeks since the FBI raided the office and hotel room of Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's "fixer," as part of a criminal investigation into the New York lawyer. By all accounts, the developments rattled the president and his team -- because as they see it, the Cohen probe may be even more dangerous to them than Special Counsel's Robert Mueller's investigation.

It's against this backdrop that the New York Times  reported the other day that Trump has mistreated Cohen for years "with gratuitous insults, dismissive statements and, at least twice, threats of being fired, according to interviews with a half-dozen people familiar with their relationship."

The article prompted quite a Twitter tantrum from the president.

"The New York Times and a third rate reporter named Maggie Haberman, known as a Crooked H flunkie who I don't speak to and have nothing to do with, are going out of their way to destroy Michael Cohen and his relationship with me in the hope that he will 'flip.'"They use non-existent 'sources' and a drunk/drugged up loser who hates Michael, a fine person with a wonderful family. Michael is a businessman for his own account/lawyer who I have always liked & respected."Most people will flip if the Government lets them out of trouble, even if it means lying or making up stories. Sorry, I don't see Michael doing that despite the horrible Witch Hunt and the dishonest media!"

There's probably no point in unpacking all of this, but there are a couple of broader takeaways that are worth keeping in mind. First, Trump's online reaction is emblematic of a president who appears quite nervous -- and probably for good reason.

As Rachel noted on the show last week, there's a lot about the FBI's raid on Cohen properties that we don't know, but one of Cohen's lawyers conceded in court that the investigation relates directly to the president.

We don't know why or in what capacity, at least not yet, but we do know that the FBI raided the home and office of Trump's personal attorney, and among the things the FBI was looking for were documents related to Trump.

It puts the president's panicky tweets in an important context. It also may raise questions about whether Trump is engaging in some witness tampering.

Second, I'm also intrigued by Trump's multiple references to Cohen "flipping." In case this isn't obvious, witnesses "flip" when they stop being targeted by investigators and instead begin to cooperate with them. Former White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, for example, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI last year, and as part of his deal with prosecutors, he also agreed to provide information to Robert Mueller's special counsel team.

But in order for someone to be "flipped," two elements are necessary: (1) someone who's facing serious legal jeopardy has to be willing to provide pertinent information to criminal investigators; and (2) that person has to have worthwhile information that investigators want.

All of which makes the president's choice of words notable. Trump seems to be effectively saying that he expects Cohen to be indicted, but he's counting on Cohen not to provide prosecutors with incriminating information about the president.

I won't pretend to know what Cohen will do; maybe he'll turn on Trump, maybe not. But it's curious that so many people in the president's orbit -- including Trump himself -- tend to talk about this controversy in a way that presumes guilt.

The Atlantic's David Graham had a good piece along these lines last week, noting several Trump allies fretting over the possibility of Cohen creating trouble for the president by sharing what he knows.

Even Cohen, in his frantic effort to demonstrate his loyalty, has made the error. "I'd rather jump out of a building than turn on Donald Trump," he told Donnie Deustch.Turn on him with what, exactly? As Chait and Barro write, these people are at least aspirationally standing up for Trump, and yet their comments have a clear subtext of guilt. They all start with the premise that Trump has something to hide. You can't flip on someone unless you've got something to offer prosecutors. Usually, the defenders of suspects in prosecutors' cross-hairs loudly proclaim their innocence, and insist that the investigation will ultimately vindicate them. But Trump's chorus is singing from a different hymnal.

Over the weekend, the president himself seemed to join that chorus, raising questions anew about what it is Trump doesn't want Cohen to share.