From Michael Cohen to Michael Clayton: A Look at the Fixer

George Clooney in Michael Clayton. Photo: Castle Rock/Section Eight/Kobal/Shutterstock/Castle Rock/Section Eight/Kobal/Shutterstock

One Monday morning a few weeks back, as the opening salvo for a federal court case now active in the Southern District of New York, the FBI raided the Rockefeller Center office and Park Avenue hotel of Michael Cohen. In so doing, they not only opened a new legal front on Donald Trump. They also elevated Cohen — a fierce Trump loyalist — from minor player in the swirling White House melodramas into a full-on star. Reports have indicated that Trump sees the case against Cohen, which is focused on possible campaign finance violations relating to Cohen’s Stormy Daniels payoff, as more dangerous than Robert Mueller’s investigation. It sounds odd, but the logic here is blunt and trite and true: Michael Cohen knows where the bodies are buried.

Officially, as his email signature bragged after the election, Cohen was the “Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump.” Practically speaking, he was the guy who made the ugliest of Trump’s problems go away. He was Trump’s fixer.

Thanks to decades of procedurals and crime novels, the archetype of the fixer has long been with us. Generally, we see these people as hypercompetent. Infallible, really. Handed an impossible situation, they respond, instantly, with tactical brilliance. Michael Cohen reminds us that archetype is a lot of fun — and a lot of bullshit.

But what glorious bullshit! Over eight seasons of the recently wrapped Scandal, Kerry Washington played Olivia Pope with oodles of swag. Originally inspired by Judy Smith, a crisis consultant who worked with peak-scandal Monica Lewinsky, Pope was a ruthless, efficient, impeccable, and beautiful machine. It’s the recent high point for the fictional fixer archetype: Pope worked in the shadows, and did unseemly things, but in the end, she was beloved for it all.

In Spike Lee’s 2006 noir hit Inside Man, Jodie Foster plays Madeleine White, a fancy corporate fixer embroiled in a twisty pseudo-bank heist with historical implications. She oozes amoral competence. Facing down the central villain in the movie’s finale, White quips, “I’d love to tell you what a monster you are, but I have to help Bin Laden’s nephew buy a co-op on Park Avenue.”

In his five minutes of Pulp Fiction screen time, Harvey Keitel leaves us with the indelible character of Winston Wolf. Really, all that Wolf is doing is hanging around a suburban kitchen helping a couple of fuck-up hitmen figure out how to clean a car full of pieces of brain and skull. But he’s wearing a tuxedo, for some reason; he drives his car insanely fast. He’s a through and through cool guy.

To imagine a fixer as some sort of all-capable killer (metaphorically or otherwise) is enticing. We always want to ascribe competence to those operating in the shadows. But Cohen’s spin in the spotlight reminds us that real-life fixers are, ultimately, the people you pay to do the things no one else will. Which bring us — inevitably — to Michael Clayton.

Released just over ten years ago, Tony Gilroy’s directorial debut — starring George Clooney as the in-house fixer for a powerful and unscrupulous corporate law firm — was a critical darling upon landing. It nabbed six nominations at the 2008 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. And it has aged beautifully.

Michael Clayton — our title character, our hero — is forced to fix seedy, hopeless things. We understand that Clayton was at one point destined for greatness, but that his vices somehow propel him into a gray limbo, where he’s stuck hustling Knicks tickets and passing off salty bon mots. We are meant to believe that Clayton is good at his job. (It’s unclear if Cohen was really ever any good at his.) “What can I tell you,” he advises a client who’s being blackmailed out of a condo, “don’t piss off a motivated stripper.”

In one early scene, Clayton is dispatched to the home of one of the firm’s high-end clients. The client has just fled the scene of a hit-and-run. As Clayton calmly explains to the client his increasingly dire options, the client explodes.

“‘A miracle worker!’ That’s [the firm], on the phone, 20 minutes ago, direct quote. ‘Hang tight, [we’re] sending you a miracle worker.’”

“I’m not a miracle worker,” Clayton answers, softly. “I’m a janitor.”

This, we know now, is much closer to the lived experiences of real fixers. As ProPublica’s Ilya Marritz and Andrea Bernstein have reported, Cohen got his law degree from a third-rate Michigan college, Thomas M. Cooley Law School, and ran his law office out of a bright-yellow taxi garage tucked under the 7 train in Queens and decorated in part with “posters of hockey players” and a “framed photo of the late Hasidic rabbi Menachem Schneerson.” The garage was the New York headquarters of Simon Garber, a Russian national who liked to plug his taxi business with very rad TV ads.

Cohen made his money in part by dealing in taxi medallions (through now-debt-riddled companies called things like Mad Dog Cab Corp and Smoochie Cab); he also raised funds, ProPublica insinuates, through sketchy car insurance lawsuits. Eventually, Cohen made enough from his hustles to start snapping up real estate in Trump Tower buildings. That’s how, in 2007, he met his beloved Donald. Not long after, Cohen helped Trump crush a revolt against a group of demanding owners in one of the Trump Tower buildings — a revolt that, according to the Times, “culminated in a standoff between [Trump’s] security detail and private guards hired by the disgruntled owners.” That’s when Cohen won his place as Trump’s fixer.

During the presidential campaign, Cohen was deployed on grunt work: handing out hush-money payments, screaming at reporters. While reporting a 2015 piece about Ivana Trump and Donald’s divorce — specifically, her 1989 statement that Trump had once raped her — reporters for the Daily Beast reached out to Cohen for comment. When informed of the direction of their piece, Cohen exploded: “I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?”

Maybe I’m losing it, but even physically, now, I see resemblances between Clayton and Cohen. Both represent a certain long-ago physical spark, gone to seed. Clayton, yes, is Clooney. But relative to the non-Clooney, fiftysomething American male population, Cohen is not an unhandsome man. He, too, is burdened by a permanent hangdog expression. He, too, seems to always be making eye contact by dropping his head and peering up from below. He, too, seems to be floating around in his dark, expensive suits.

Last week, Cohen was back in U.S. District Court in lower Manhattan for a pretrial hearing. Eager to see the infamous fixer in the flesh, I sat in on the hearing. Just a little before noon, Cohen walked in and sat down with a nod and a smile towards … someone. Unclear who. Behind him, his extensive legal team filed in pulling roller suitcases of files that they would never use. Waiting for the proceedings to begin, Cohen stood and surveyed the scene, his lips slightly turned up at the edges. The court sketch artist took out what looked like a pair of binoculars to catch the details. Cohen then sat down and gave his lead attorney, Stephen Ryan, one of those back-slaps that kind of linger and then turn into back-rubs. Over Cohen’s right shoulder sat Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, his tormentor.

Once court was in session, Cohen never spoke. In his place Ryan evinced confidence. “We’re in a good place!” he said. “We’re ready to roll!” After an hour or so court was adjourned and Cohen and his team filed out. A tabloid reporter shouted out, “Michael, how are you doing? How are you doing, Michael?!” No response. I hung in my pew, waiting for Cohen to go by, idly staring at him as he marched. He noticed and turned to look at me, perhaps waiting to see if I was going to shout something too. He didn’t seem too bothered.  Maybe he was just resigned. Maybe he was just bored. Maybe he was doing a good job of pretending.

The hearing was serious and to-the-point. Judge Kimba Wood announced that she was appointing a “special master” to review all the documents seized from Cohen in the FBI raid. At one point a prosecutor ticked off a quick list of of the materials now in the government’s possession: hard drives, iPads, BlackBerries, over sixteen cell phones. All of the contents of Cohen’s strange, sullen, secret life as a fixer.

From Michael Cohen to Michael Clayton: A Look at the Fixer