CULTURE & ARTS
03/01/2019 16:20 EST

Michael Cohen And The Art Of The Right-Wing Book Deal

Donald Trump’s former lawyer is selling, but is anyone buying?

Alex Wong via Getty Images

On Wednesday, during hours of testimony in front of the House Oversight Committee, Donald J. Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen faced questions from Democratic representatives about Trump’s reported hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels, his negotiations to build a Moscow Trump Tower, and whether or not the president had advance notice of the Wikileaks dump of hacked DNC emails.

But Cohen also faced tough questions from Republican representatives as well ― specifically, about whether he is now or ever will be seeking a book deal.

“Can you commit under oath that you will not — that you have not and will not pursue a book deal?” queried Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.).

“I will not do that, no,” responded Cohen breezily.

Republican lawmakers insinuated repeatedly that his testimony against Trump was motivated by the desire to remain in the spotlight and earn a lucrative publishing contract. They asked whether he would ever pursue such a deal, whether he would commit to not pursue such a deal, whether he would promise to donate any proceeds from such a deal to charity.

Again and again, Cohen refused to abdicate his American right to turn his embarrassing life story into a book.

The fixation on a potential book deal began to feel farcical as the hearing wore on. For one thing, it exposed how narrow the GOP’s options were. To discredit Cohen without simultaneously discrediting his longtime client, Individual 1, Republicans were cornered into tightly circumscribed inquiries into Cohen’s personal peccadilloes. In this context, the whiff of self-interest ― rather than redemptive civic motives Cohen ascribed to himself ― was perhaps the best strategy for Republicans to tarnish Cohen’s credibility without implicating the president.

All of which raises a question: Who in the world thinks that committing multiple felonies, accepting a 3-year prison sentence and generally blowing up one’s life is the best way to ink a lucrative book deal and end on the on top the New York Times bestseller list and the lecture junket?

Well… a lot of conservatives, actually ― especially the Trump-adjacent variety. Trump’s administration has been the subject of numerous gloating political books by both loyal pundits and scathing never-Trumpers. And, just two years in, a steady stream of mostly disgruntled ex-staffers and -officials have also cashed in with tell-alls.

Having turned on his boss and angered Trump’s base, can Cohen, who remains toxic to liberal readers, convince any constituency to buy his book?

Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former “Apprentice” star and Trump’s director of African-American outreach, was a vigorous surrogate during the campaign. “Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump,” she famously told Frontline months before the election. A March 2017 article in the Washington Post described her as “fiercely loyal” to the president. She had an office in the White House and a hazy role that seemed to involve publicly insisting, against substantial evidence, that Trump’s policies were good for black Americans. By December of that year, she had been forced out, and within two months she was whispering disturbing predictions about America’s downfall under Trump into the ears of fellow contestants on the set of “Celebrity Big Brother.”

Manigault Newman didn’t win “Big Brother,” but other revenue streams emerged. In August 2018, Gallery published a spicy tell-all entitled Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House, in which she alleged, among other things, that she’d learned from multiple sources that a tape existed of Trump repeatedly saying the N-word. Her advance was reportedly in the seven figures.

On the more bootlicking end of the spectrum, there’s Cory Lewandowski, Trump’s one-time campaign manager who mostly seemed interested in managing the bodies of inconvenient reporters and protesters. Since leaving the president’s employ, he’s remained a loyal pro-Trump commentator ― for a brief stint, he worked for CNN as an on-air pundit ― and has published two slavering pro-Trump manifestos with co-author David Bossie, also a former campaign staffer: Let Trump Be Trump: The Inside Story of His Rise to the Presidency and Trump’s Enemies: How the Deep State Is Undermining the Presidency. (“It was a perfect day to talk about Trump’s enemies,” Lewandowski and Bossie reminisce in one heartwarming and extremely convincing passage in the latter work. “America was working again, and we were safer than ever.”)

In January, Chris Christie published a book featuring his own unique blend of backstabbery mingled with ingratiation. Let Me Finish bemoans the low-rent scammers and crooks with whom Trump filled his administration, particularly his nemesis Jared Kushner, while plying Trump himself with flattery. In Dwight Garner’s New York Times review, he deems the book “a master class in sucking up and kicking down.”

Along with Christie’s craven, self-serving memoir, January saw the publication of an exposé by a former aide named Cliff Sims, Team of Vipers. Sims, a one-time right-wing blogger who worked on Trump’s communications team, scored a rumored seven-figure advance for the book, which also tries to thread the needle between juicy tell-all and pro-Trump puffery by mostly targeting others in the administration. In the introduction, he waxes embarrassingly romantic about the story he plans to tell, the story “of a Southerner who came to Washington with high expectations, only to leave the White House uncertain of whether anything I did really mattered, or whether I lost myself along the way.” Having established himself as a winsome idealist, he goes on to depict Trump’s White House as a fetid den of incompetence, thuggery, and deceit ― all truly shocking stuff.

So, could Cohen be the next turncoat to capitalize on all the seamy dealings and incompetence he witnessed behind the scenes? He certainly seems interested! Throughout the hearing, he boasted about how many people had approached him about book, TV, and other projects.

But his value may already be on the downswing. Last year, he lost his $750,000 offer from Hachette after the publishing house apparently grew spooked by Cohen’s mounting legal troubles. “The last thing editors want is to be part of a PR campaign to rehabilitate someone’s image, so there’s no guarantee of a major book deal,” Keith Urbahn, president of the literary agency Javelin, told HuffPost in an email.

One editor who works with major political nonfiction books told HuffPost that he thought it “delusional that anyone would want a Michael Cohen book now that he’s switched sides.” Cohen’s best chance for a large advance, he suggested, was as a “pro-Trump insider.”

Having turned on his boss and angered Trump’s base, can Cohen, who remains toxic to liberal readers, convince any constituency to buy his book?

And does that even matter to most publishers and agents? On Thursday, The Washingtonian asked some literary agents who offered specific, jaw-dropping amounts ― one suggested that Cohen could snag a $1.5 million deal for the right book.

If the book has new revelations and a tone of remorse, it could go for seven figures,” Urbahn told HuffPost. “Cohen did himself some favors in that regard yesterday.”  

While actual writers often struggle to find publishers, the book industry has blossomed as a clearinghouse for celebrities, influencers, ascendant and semi-disgraced political figures and media blowhards looking to leverage their budding platforms or convert their brands into cash payouts. The conservative media offers fecund soil here for a right-wing figure with a hook and a dream. It’s a platform-generating machine, and it efficiently trades on the fears and resentments of its target demographics in order to sell questionable supplements, survival kits ― and, of course, books. Fox News, an empire sustained by Sean Hannity’s hot air and infomercials for gold bars, has fostered the careers of media personalities as varied as Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck ― many of whom have parlayed their platforms into bestselling works of identity-based grievance and unintentionally fictionalized history.

But it’s not just Fox. Authors peddling pro-Trump or virulently anti-left screeds also stand a good chance at appearing on conservative radio, YouTube channels and podcasts ― basically everyone has a podcast now, including Hannity, Sean Spicer, Dana Loesch, Hugh Hewitt, Mark Levin, and Rush Limbaugh ―  to promote their products. Conservative authors have been called out for being particularly avid gamers of The New York Times bestseller list; their books often take up much of the nonfiction list, though many are accompanied by daggers indicating that their numbers were boosted by bulk purchases.

The current president is no stranger to the book as brand enhancer. Decades before entering politics, Trump leveraged his real estate business into a book deal for The Art of the Deal, which in turn augmented his brand as a savvy businessman. Soon, the Trump brand ― the name he slapped on buildings, steaks, vodka ― was his greatest asset. He popped up in movies and on TV. He sold more books; The Art of the Deal itself has reportedly sold over a million copies. He starred in a TV show. He won the presidential election.

This cycle happens across the political spectrum, to some extent. Al Franken elevated his political profile with a series of books excoriating conservative media. Barack Obama’s acclaimed 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father proved a political asset, as did his bestselling 2006 follow-up, The Audacity of Hope. Since then, quite a few Obama staffers have landed lucrative book deals.

The entire system is, perhaps, a bit of a revolving door of escalating grifts ― but there’s a difference. Most of the Obama alums wrote glowing, even humorous accounts of their time in the White House, and few of them fled the administration for a quick payday. These are books written by political workers who, for all their flaws, appear to believe in good governance, to have some higher values than personal profit alone.

For the Trumpian right, personal profit is the end game. When your ideology stipulates that the government is inherently a scam and cashing out is the highest goal for any individual, the natural outcome is a parade of tell-alls and incendiary garbage. Cohen’s just might be the next in line.