When Lanny Davis ’67 LAW ’70 received a call from Michael Cohen this summer, he took a breath and asked, “the Michael Cohen?”
“Yessir, the Michael Cohen,” Cohen responded. “Is this the Lanny Davis?”
Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer — often referred to as his “fixer” — was thrust into the national spotlight this year as allegations of campaign finance misconduct, among other corruption charges, surfaced against him. Over a series of phone calls, Cohen told Davis, a crisis management lawyer and former chairman of the News, that he needed legal help to make his side of the story public, Davis recalled in an interview with the News.
“Michael said to me, ‘I had my doubts before he became President. I never thought he would ever become President,’” Davis said.
On Aug. 21, Cohen pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws during the 2016 election, as well as to tax evasion and bank fraud.
In the interview, Davis said Cohen’s case has been “the highest-profile assignment I’ve taken on, with the greatest level of risk.” But Cohen is far from Davis’ first controversial client. His work as a crisis management specialist has placed him in the service of a plethora of embattled figures, including Harvey Weinstein and Equatorial Guinea’s longtime dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
Davis told the News that he decided to take Cohen on as a client in July — for a nominal fee, he said, because he considers the case to be “for the public interest.” According to Davis, the former Trump attorney claimed that his once-firm loyalty to the president had eroded. Davis challenged him to prove it.
“Was the change deeply felt or was it more in the level of expedient because he needed to support his family and he couldn’t do so continuing to defend Donald Trump?” Davis told the News, reflecting on his thought process at the time. “The outcome of very intense conversations … was a positive impression on the phone that he was genuine, that he had strong emotional reasons for recognizing Donald Trump as dangerous to the country as president.”
Satisfied that Cohen had reconsidered his highly publicized unyielding allegiance to Trump, Davis set about devising a strategy to overcome public skepticism of Cohen’s transformation.
As the two developed a public-relations strategy, Davis warned Cohen to expect blowback from the Trump White House.
“Now, he’s got the power of the presidency to destroy you,” Davis recalled telling his client. “They will stop at nothing to destroy you.”
Tensions flared last week after Cohen pled guilty to campaign finance violations and claimed that Trump instructed him to pay off two women to stay quiet about their alleged affairs with the president. Behind the scenes, Davis was busy at work coordinating stories with reporters and giving interviews regarding Cohen’s change of heart about Trump. And, this week, Davis himself became the subject of the national news cycle when he told media outlets that he was “not certain” about the accuracy of information he anonymously provided to CNN reporters. He had told them that Cohen would be willing to testify that the president knew of his son’s meeting with a Russian lawyer to discuss potentially damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
“When I spoke to reporters in recent phone calls, I was trying to be helpful, but I wasn’t sure of my facts,” Davis told the News. “I think that people that I’ve heard from credit me with immediately following my own advice and admitting to a mistake, and learning from it — I don’t think anyone has ever seen me as immune from making a mistake.”
Following the controversy, Trump tweeted, “Oh well, so much for CNN saying it wasn’t Lanny. No wonder their ratings are so low, it’s FAKE NEWS!”
To that, Davis said it was an “honor” to be the subject of a Trump tweet.
Long before he represented the president’s former lawyer, Davis planted his roots at Yale. He was an undergraduate in Davenport College, though he stressed that his time in college was spent more at the News than in any lecture halls.
Josh Galper ’94 LAW ‘99, a former editor for the News and one of Davis’ coworkers, said he believes Davis’ time at the News “helped shape his career in politics and the law.”
“I graduated the Yale Daily News, not Yale University,” Davis said in the interview.
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