NEW YORK — Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer, pleaded guilty Tuesday to eight counts, including violations of campaign finance rules during the 2016 presidential race — and implicated his former boss in the process.
The former lawyer and businessman pleaded guilty to five counts of tax fraud, one of bank fraud and two counts of violating campaign finance laws during the hearing before US District Judge William Pauley in Manhattan.
Questioned by the federal judge, Cohen said he had paid sums of $130,000 and $150,000 each to two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump, acting at his boss’s request, in a bid to buy their silence “with the purpose of influencing the election.”
Cohen did not specify the women’s names, but the sums correspond to a payment known to have been made to porn star Stormy Daniels just before the election to silence her claims of a one-night stand with Trump — and another destined for former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
Cohen said the first payment was “in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office,” and the second was made “under direction of the same candidate.” The payments were made to prevent publication of information that would have harmed that candidate’s campaign.
The payments, described by prosecutors as campaign contributions, would be a violation of campaign finance laws
Cohen’s explosive assertion — which suggests Trump may have committed a crime — was all the more spectacular coming from a man who once declared he was so loyal he would “take a bullet for the president.”
Following the plea, Cohen’s lawyer suggested Trump should face criminal charges for his actions. Lanny Davis tweeted: “If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”
Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani sought to cast the blame solely on Cohen in a statement, saying: “There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the President in the government’s charges against Mr. Cohen.”
Most of the counts against the 51-year-old Cohen carry maximum prison terms of five years, with the exception of making false statements to a financial institution, which carries up to 30 years.
Guilty pleas are common in the United States when it appears prosecutors have sufficient evidence for a conviction if the case goes to trial.
The FBI raided Cohen’s home and office on a referral from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is looking into whether Trump sought to obstruct the Russia meddling probe.
The plea deal came comes days after The New York Times reported that Cohen was also under investigation for tax and bank fraud, possibly exceeding $20 million via loans obtained by the taxi medallion business he owns with his family.
Just minutes earlier, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was found guilty of eight counts, in the first trial resulting from the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
A jury found Manafort guilty of five counts of making false income tax returns, two counts of bank fraud and one of failure to report foreign bank and financial accounts.
Each of the bank fraud counts carries a significant maximum sentence and the 69-year-old Manafort could theoretically live out the remainder of his years in prison — though a legal expert told AFP it would run to under a decade in reality.
US President Donald Trump waves, as he arrives at the White House in Washington, DC, August 19, 2018, after spending the weekend at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)As cable networks were showing split-screen coverage of the dueling conviction and plea bargain by two former loyalists, Trump boarded Air Force One in the afternoon on the way to a rally in West Virginia. He ignored shouted questions to reporters about both former aides, retreating to his private stateroom on the airliner.
Cohen’s plea follows months of scrutiny from federal investigations and a falling-out with the president, whom he previously said he would “take a bullet” for.
The FBI raided Cohen’s hotel room, home and office in April and seized more than 4 million items. The search sought bank records, communications with Trump’s campaign and information on a $130,000 payment to Daniels and a $150,000 one to McDougal. Both women claimed Trump had affairs with them, which he denies.
Trump denied to reporters in April that he knew anything about Cohen’s payments to Daniels, though the explanation from the president and his attorney Rudy Giuliani have shifted multiples times since.
The president has fumed publicly about what he felt was government overreach, while privately worrying about what material Cohen may have after working for the Trump Organization for a decade. Trump branded the raid “a witch hunt,” an assault on attorney-client privilege and a politically motivated attack by enemies in the FBI.
“Obviously it’s not good for Trump,” Sol Wisenberg, who conducted grand jury questioning of President Bill Clinton during the Whitewater investigation, said of Cohen plea bargain.
“I’m assuming he’s not going to be indicted because he’s a sitting president, Wisenberg added. “But it leads him closer to ultimate impeachment proceedings, particularly if the Democrats take back the House.”
The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice and guidance to executive branch agencies, has held that a president cannot be indicted while in office. Trump’s lawyers have said that Mueller plans to adhere to that guidance, though Mueller’s office has never confirmed that. There would presumably be no bar against charging a president after he leaves the White House.
Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, noted that the deal does not require Cohen to cooperate, but does not preclude it from happening, which should be worrying to the president and his allies.
“What it shows is that the people close to the president have criminal exposure and it may mean they don’t need Cohen to cooperate,” she said.
Levenson argued that the deal also knocks back the argument that the investigations swirling around Trump are a “witch hunt.”
“No longer can you say Mueller is on a witch hunt when you have his own lawyer pleading guilty to things that were designed to impact the election,” she said.
Mueller’s team is looking into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. The team referred the case involving Cohen’s financial dealings to federal prosecutors in Manhattan.
Before the election, Cohen had been a trusted member of the Trump organization, working out of an office in Trump Tower next to one used by his boss.
He raised millions for Trump’s campaign and, after being interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee last year, told Vanity Fair that Trump had no part in the suspected Russian conspiracy to tamper with the election.
The president’s initial support for Cohen after the raid soon degenerated into a public feud, prompting speculation that, to save himself, Cohen might be willing to tell prosecutors some of the secrets he helped Trump keep.
When Cohen’s team produced a recording he had made of Trump discussing one of the hush-money payments, Trump tweeted: “What kind of lawyer would tape a client? So sad!”