Why the Trump-Cohen tape is a big deal

You've likely heard the tape of President Trump and his then-attorney Michael Cohen allegedly discussing a payment to silence a former playmate. CNN's Chris Cillizza explains why the leak matters.

Posted: Jul 26, 2018 2:52 PM
Updated: Jul 26, 2018 3:15 PM

Turn CNN on Tuesday night and a familiar face was looking back at you. You might not have been able to recall his name immediately, or even remember his story. But you knew you knew the face: Tanned with sagging bags under the eyes and a sparse thatch of hair atop his head.

That face belongs to Lanny Davis, the man who, suddenly, is at the center of the burgeoning battle between Michael Cohen and President Donald Trump -- a fight with huge implications for the second half of the President's first term in office.

For Davis, who signed on as Cohen's lawyer earlier this month, his advocacy for Cohen -- on Tuesday night he handed over a secretly recorded conversation between Trump and his client to CNN -- is the latest odd iteration of a man who has spent a lifetime reinventing himself as a staple of political Washington. Depending on your view of him, Davis is either the ultimate survivor or a bad penny that just keeps turning up. (New York magazine's Jonathan Chait described Davis as a "buffoon" and a "sleaze merchant" in 2012.)

Either way, however, no one can deny that Davis is a man of (at least) nine lives.

Davis' career in politics began in the most mundane of ways: As a committeeman from Maryland to the Democratic National Committee. He entered the big time, in terms of national politics, in the mid 1990s thanks to -- who else -- the Clintons. (Davis had met Bill and Hillary Clinton at Yale Law School.) Davis was plucked from relative obscurity by Clinton to serve as special White House counsel -- a job that amounted to serving as Clinton's very public legal defender against a series of allegations, most notably the fundraising issues (think "Lincoln bedroom") surrounding the incumbent's 1996 re-election effort. (Davis, in a bit of good fortune, left the White House just before the Monica Lewinsky scandal began to come to light.)

Taking advantage of the high profile afforded to him by his former post at the White House, Davis became a sort of lawyer/consultant/communications adviser to celebrities and companies that were facing public relations crises. His clients included the Washington Redskins (Davis was tasked with taking some of the heat away from calls for the team to change its name), Alex Rodriguez, Martha Stewart and Penn State University in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal.

In a 2013 profile of Davis, The Washington Post's Paul Farhi describes Davis and his career this way:

"Since becoming Clinton's media snake charmer in late 1996, Davis has been an irrepressible public gabber. He has been working the news media on behalf of clients for years, while also appearing incessantly on cable news and radio as a reliable liberal talking head, popping off about just about everything. ... A Washington regulatory attorney and Montgomery County political operative until the Clinton gig raised his profile, he dropped much of his conventional law practice and reinvented himself as a consigliere to people and companies in 'crisis,' meaning anyone taking a whupping in the media."

Davis' willingness to defend -- and advocate for -- clients that, in the eyes of some, are indefensible, has turned him into a massive lightning rod, a man portrayed as willing to do or so anything for a buck. Of his clients, Davis says in a statement on his website:

"What I do for a living is crisis management, So people ask me, am I sorry that I defend people that are in trouble having a hard time getting the facts out? No. Is that a controversial line of work? Yes. But I think I have the ability to get facts out and do it successfully. It means sometimes I'm part of the controversy because I'm trying to help."

Davis returned to hard-core politics during the 2016 campaign, when he emerged as one of the leading -- and loudest -- critics of journalists (yours truly very much included) who wrote regularly about Hillary Clinton's decision to use a private email server during her time at the State Department. Any story tied to Clinton's email that sought to raise questions about her judgment and the possible implications on the 2016 contest was sure to be greeted by a fireball tweet from Davis.

In the wake of Clinton's stunning loss, Davis tried to understand why. And he offered his own opinion in a book entitled "The Unmaking of the President 2016: How FBI Director James Comey Cost Hillary Clinton the Presidency" which is, well, pretty self-explanatory. Clinton attended the Washington book party for Davis' book.

And then, at least by Davis' standards, not much of anything. A stray op-ed here defending Clinton -- and blaming Comey and the media -- for her loss. Then, suddenly, Cohen!

According to Davis, he was drawn to Cohen's statement in an early July interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos in which Trump's one-time personal lawyer/fixer seemed to walk away from his past undying loyalty to Trump.

"Like most of America, I have been following the matter regarding Michael Cohen with great interest," Davis told CNN to explain his decision to sign on with Cohen "As an attorney, I have talked to Michael many times in the last two weeks. Then I read his words published on July 2, and I recognized his sincerity. Michael Cohen deserves to tell his side of the story -- subject, of course, to the advice of counsel."

Within a month, Davis has suddenly become a prime mover in the unspooling drama between Cohen and Trump. Davis was the one who turned over to CNN the secretly-recorded tape of Cohen and Trump discussing the possibility of buying the story of a former Playmate who alleged an affair with the President. And it was Davis, tanned, rested and ready, who spent nearly a half hour Tuesday night with CNN's Chris Cuomo on "Cuomo Prime Time" making the case for Cohen.

"This man has turned a corner in his life, has hit a reset button, and he's now dedicated to telling the truth," Davis insisted, his face betraying zero irony or sarcasm.

The man is, after all, a professional.

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