EXCLUSIVE: Michael Cohen says family and country, not President Trump, is his 'first loyalty'
Michael Cohen told George Stephanopoulos that his family is his "first loyalty."
Michael Cohen -- President Donald Trump’s longtime personal attorney and a former executive vice president at the Trump Organization -- has always insisted he would remain loyal to the president.
He was the fix-it guy, the pit bull so fiercely protective of his boss that he’d once described himself as "the guy who would take a bullet" for the president.
But in his first in-depth interview since the FBI raided his office and homes in April, Cohen strongly signaled his willingness to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller and federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York -- even if that puts President Trump in jeopardy.
“My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will,” Cohen told me. “I put family and country first.”
We spoke for 45 minutes Saturday evening at a Manhattan hotel, where Cohen has been staying for the past several months. And during that time, the question of whether Cohen might flip on the president has been the subject of intense speculation.
Even the president weighed in, tweeting in April that “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.”
He described Cohen as a “fine person with a wonderful family.”
But Cohen did not praise the president during our conversation -- and pointedly disagreed with Trump’s criticism of the federal investigations.
When I asked Cohen directly what he would do if prosecutors forced him to choose between protecting the president and protecting his family, he said his family is “my first priority.”
Cohen added: “Once I understand what charges might be filed against me, if any at all, I will defer to my new counsel, Guy Petrillo, for guidance.”
But when I pointed out to Cohen that he wasn’t repeating past vows to “take a bullet” and “do anything” to protect the president, the longtime Trump loyalist left little doubt about where he stands now, saying simply: “To be crystal clear, my wife, my daughter and my son, and this country have my first loyalty.”
Cohen recently retained Petrillo, a highly regarded former federal prosecutor who once led the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan -- the very same office currently conducting the criminal investigation of Cohen.
Petrillo is expected to take over as Cohen’s lead counsel in the coming days. And Cohen makes clear that his decision about whether to cooperate will be based not on any previous loyalty to Trump -- but on Petrillo’s legal advice.
Once Petrillo fully assumes his role, a joint defense agreement Cohen shared with the president, which allowed their lawyers to share information and documents with each other, will come to an end, ABC News has learned.
At that point, the legal interests of the president of the United States and his longtime personal attorney could quickly become adversarial.
When I asked Cohen how he might respond if the president or his legal team come after him -- to try and discredit him and the work he did for Mr. Trump over the last decade -- he sat up straight. His voice gained strength.
“I will not be a punching bag as part of anyone’s defense strategy,” he said emphatically. “I am not a villain of this story, and I will not allow others to try to depict me that way.”
Prosecutors in New York’s Southern District are investigating Cohen for alleged violations of election law and possible financial crimes associated with his personal business dealings.
He has not been charged with any crime. But on the advice of his attorney, Cohen declined to address specific questions about matters currently under investigation.
“I respect the prosecutors. I respect the process,” Cohen said. “I would not do or say anything that might be perceived as interfering with their professional review of the evidence and the facts.”
One subject the prosecutors are surely exploring: that $130,000 payment Cohen made to adult-film star Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels, less than two weeks before the 2016 election, in exchange for her silence –- a possible violation of campaign finance law.
I asked Cohen if the president directed him to make that payment or promised to reimburse him. In the past, Cohen has said that he acted on his own initiative.
Not this time.
“I want to answer. One day I will answer,” he said. “But for now, I can’t comment further on advice of my counsel.”
On issue after issue, Cohen did, however, separate himself from President Trump -– starting with the president’s criticism of how the government has conducted its investigation.
After federal agents searched Cohen’s New York properties, Trump described the raid as a break-in, an “attack on our country, in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.”
“I don’t agree with those who demonize or vilify the FBI. I respect the FBI as an institution, as well as their agents,” Cohen told me. “When they searched my hotel room and my home, it was obviously upsetting to me and my family. Nonetheless, the agents were respectful, courteous and professional. I thanked them for their service and as they left, we shook hands.”
Cohen also refused to criticize the Mueller investigation.
"I don’t like the term witch hunt,” he said, adding that he condemned Russia for interfering in the 2016 election.
“As an American, I repudiate Russia’s or any other foreign government’s attempt to interfere or meddle in our democratic process, and I would call on all Americans to do the same,” he said.
And in a direct rebuttal to President Trump, who sent out a tweet last week repeating Vladimir Putin’s claim that Russia did not interfere in our election, Cohen added this: “Simply accepting the denial of Mr. Putin is unsustainable.”
“I respect our nation’s intelligence agencies’... unanimous conclusions,” he said.
Cohen also repeated his previous denials of any personal involvement with Russian attempts to interfere in our election, declaring that he never went to Prague, as alleged in the Steele dossier, and never colluded with the Russians in any way.
Although he has not been interviewed yet by Mueller’s team, he says he has provided documents and added that he would fully cooperate with them, just as he says he has with the Senate and House committees investigating the matter.
“I appeared under oath before the House Select Intelligence Committee for over six hours and to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee for over eight hours,” he says.
Cohen believes Mueller will not find any evidence that he had any illegal or improper dealings with the Russians.
But Cohen did criticize those members of the Trump campaign who participated in that now infamous Trump Tower meeting in June of 2016 with several Russians after being promised dirt on Hillary Clinton.
“I believe it was a mistake by those from the Trump campaign who did participate,” he said. "It was simply an example of poor judgment.”
When I asked Cohen if President Trump knew about that meeting before it happened, he declined to answer.
“I can’t comment under advice of my counsel due to the ongoing investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York,” Cohen said.
After months of silence, Cohen seemed relieved to be telling more of his story. He visibly relaxed over the course of the interview after telling me -- with some understatement -- that the last year has been “difficult, upsetting and unpleasant.”
When I asked if he had any regrets about how he handled any of the matters under investigation, he said “as an attorney and as an employee, I tried to make good faith judgments in the past. I also acknowledge that I am not perfect. I would prefer not to be in this situation at all, obviously.”
This interview, he hopes, will be a first step towards his ultimate goal: “Resolution.”
“I want to regain my name and my reputation and my life back," he said.
Jim Hill, Eliana Larramendia and the ABC News specialized units contributed to this report.