Michael Cohen Sentenced To 3 Years In Prison Following Plea That Implicated Trump

Dec 12, 2018
Originally published on December 13, 2018 8:25 am

Updated at 4:13 p.m. ET

A federal judge sentenced Donald Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen to three years in prison on Wednesday following Cohen's guilty pleas to a number of political and finance crimes.

Those three years would be followed by three years of supervised release, and Cohen also is subject to forfeiture of $500,000, restitution of $1.4 million and fines totaling $100,000.

Cohen had asked for leniency. He said in court, however, that he accepts responsibility for his actions.

"This may be hard to believe, but today is one of the most meaningful days of my life," Cohen said. "Today I get my freedom back."

He said he had been "living in personal and mental incarceration ever since I agreed to work for a business mogul." It was "blind loyalty to this man," he said, "that led me to choose a path of darkness, not light."

Cohen said the president had been right to call him "weak," but not for the reasons that Trump believes.

"I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds," Cohen said. "I was weak for not having the strength to refuse his demands. Owning this mistake will free me to be once more the person I am."

Also Wednesday, prosecutors dropped a potential bombshell in a press release about the sentencing. They said they have reached a nonprosecution agreement with tabloid publisher American Media Inc., for its role in one of the campaign finance violations at issue in Cohen's case. AMI also appears to have agreed to cooperate with investigators going forward.

Feds asked for "substantial" punishment

Prosecutors had asked Judge William Pauley to give Cohen some consideration for the information that he has provided but argued that Cohen nonetheless still deserved a "substantial prison term."

Pauley appeared to agree, saying Cohen had admitted "a veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct. Each crime involved deception, and each crime appears to have been motivated by personal greed and ambition."

The judge noted that Cohen had a comfortable childhood and loving parents.

"But somewhere along the way, Mr. Cohen appeared to lose his moral compass," Pauley said. "As a lawyer, Mr. Cohen should have known better."

From Trump's right hand to federal prison

Cohen's sentence marked the latest drop in a precipitous fall from the elbow of the powerful man whom Cohen served for years, sometimes as a brutal but fiercely loyal fixer.

Now, Trump's former lawyer has broken completely with his onetime boss and handed the president's political opponents new weapons that could have serious implications for Trump.

First, Cohen told authorities that Trump had directed him to arrange payments to two women ahead of Election Day in 2016 to keep them quiet about sexual relationships they said they had had with Trump — allegations Trump denies.

Federal authorities call that a violation of campaign finance law — one for which Trump also may be culpable.

Later, Cohen admitted that he and other Trump aides continued negotiations with powerful Russians about a potential real estate project in Moscow well into the 2016 presidential campaign.

Cohen had told Congress in 2017 that the talks ended in January 2016, but his subsequent admission meant that Trump's aides had a channel open with Russia even as Trump was becoming the GOP front-runner and was denying he had any ties to Russia.

Feds make deal with tabloid publisher

Prosecutors in New York City announced separately on Wednesday that they've signed a deal with tabloid publisher American Media Inc., in which they've agreed not to prosecute the company for its role in one of the payments Cohen arranged.

In exchange, AMI has admitted that it helped arrange a payment to onetime Playboy model Karen McDougal in order to help Trump's campaign keep her quiet. Earlier, the company had denied doing so.

AMI also appears to have agreed to cooperate with investigators going forward, and it may change its practices in terms of paying people. Here's how the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York described the deal:

The agreement also acknowledges, among other things, AMI's acceptance of responsibility, its substantial and important assistance in this investigation, and its agreement to provide cooperation in the future and implement specific improvements to its internal compliance to prevent future violations of the federal campaign finance laws.

Continuing to tell the truth

Cohen "continues to tell the truth about Donald Trump's misconduct over the years," Lanny Davis, an adviser to Cohen, said in a statement issued after the sentence was handed down.

"Michael has owned up to his mistakes and fully cooperated with [Justice Department] special counsel [Robert] Mueller in his investigation over possible Trump campaign collusion with Russian meddling in the 2016 election," Davis also said.

"While Mr. Mueller gave Michael significant credit for cooperation on the 'core' issues, it is unfortunate that SDNY prosecutors did not do the same. To me, their judgment showed a lack of appropriate proportionality."

Davis also suggested Wednesday that once the special counsel's Russia investigation was complete, Cohen would "state publicly all he knows about Mr. Trump – and that includes any appropriate congressional committee interested in the search for truth and the difference between facts and lies. Mr. Trump's repeated lies cannot contradict stubborn facts."

Trump: Nothing to do with me

Trump has dismissed Cohen's allegations. Although he has acknowledged arranging the hush-money payments to one of the women, he denies the underlying allegations by both women of sexual encounters with him years before the 2016 presidential race.

Trump called the payments a "simple private transaction" that had been elevated into something more serious by Democrats who are frustrated they haven't been able to find anything damaging to Trump in the Russia investigation.

The president argued on Twitter that if Cohen broke the law in the payments, it had no meaning for him and might not even be a federal crime anyway.

As far as the negotiations over a possible Trump Tower in Moscow, the president acknowledged he had "lightly" looked into the project at the same time as he was campaigning but said he had done nothing wrong; he decided not to pursue the project.

Trump says the accounts Cohen has given to investigators are lies made up in order to reduce the sentence he was facing for other crimes. Cohen also pleaded guilty to tax evasion and bank fraud, which added to the potential sentence for which he was eligible.

"Neither a hero nor a patriot"

An attorney for adult film star Stormy Daniels, one of the women who received a hush-money payment arranged by Cohen, said in an impromptu press conference outside the Manhattan federal courthouse Wednesday that Cohen "is neither a hero nor a patriot."

Attorney Michael Avenatti also said the scheme alleged by Cohen that formed the basis of the campaign-finance violations amounted to seeking to effectively buy an election back in 2016.

In a tweet posted before the sentencing, Avenatti also said that Cohen would learn his punishment "for his role in the Trump criminal enterprise and the rigging of an election." After saying he intends to depose Cohen, Avenatti added, "Trump is in a lot of trouble."

Authorities said Cohen's case demonstrates that even powerful people can't get away with this kind of criminal conduct.

"Michael Cohen is a lawyer who, rather than setting an example of respect for the law, instead chose to break the law, repeatedly over many years and in a variety of ways," said Deputy U.S. Attorney Robert Khuzami, whose office in Manhattan prosecuted Cohen.

"His day of reckoning serves as a reminder that we are a nation of laws, with one set of rules that applies equally to everyone," the federal prosecutor also said of Cohen.

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It's been eight months since FBI agents raided the office and residences of President Trump's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen. Since then, Cohen has pleaded guilty to several crimes, including lying to Congress and campaign finance violations. Today, in a New York courtroom, a federal judge sentenced Cohen to three years in prison.

NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas was there. He joins us now. And, Ryan, I understand you were actually in the courtroom today for the Cohen sentencing. Can you describe what the scene was like?

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Well, the room itself was packed. Reporters began lining up about three hours ahead of time. They took up about half the benches in the courtroom. Cohen's family was there in force as well to show their support. Most of them were dressed in black or dark gray almost as though they were there for a funeral.

His mother and his father were both there. His father is a Holocaust survivor. He was in a wheelchair in the courtroom. When Cohen walked in, he kissed both of his parents on the cheek. At one point, Cohen actually asked his father how he was feeling, and his father answered, OK.

Now, Cohen's wife and his son and his daughter came in with Cohen to the courtroom. Cohen was wearing a dark suit, light blue tie. And I have to say, after this whole ordeal, he definitely looked gaunt and exhausted from it.

CORNISH: Right. I mean, there's been so much attention on this case. I understand that he gave a pretty emotional address.

LUCAS: He did indeed. He talked to the court for about 10 minutes. He took responsibility for his actions. And he said, ironically, today is actually one of the most meaningful days of his life because he said that today, I get my freedom back. And he went on to explain what he meant by that. He said that he'd been living in what he called mental and personal incarceration since he began working for Donald Trump. And his blind loyalty to Trump led him to choose what Cohen described as a path of darkness, not light.

The president has called him weak on Twitter. Cohen said that's right. He was weak, but he was weak for not having the strength to refuse Trump's demands. He viewed it as his duty to cover up Trump's dirty deeds, Cohen said. And he says that he's ashamed that he dragged his family into all of this, that his wife and kids don't deserve to go through this, that Cohen's parents don't deserve to go through this. It's been quite an ordeal. And Cohen also apologized to the American people. He apologized to them for lying to them. And he said that they deserve to know the truth.

CORNISH: Did the judge provide any insight into his thinking behind that three-year sentence?

LUCAS: Judge William Pauley did. He said that the crimes that Cohen has pleaded guilty to were serious offenses, and he described it as a smorgasbord of fraudulent activity. And then he rattled off what Cohen had indeed pleaded guilty to - so tax evasion, lying to a bank, campaign finance violations. And those of course are related to the hush money payments to two women who said that they had affairs with Trump. And then the last count would be lying to Congress about efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. And the judge said that as a lawyer, Cohen should have known better.

The judge at the same time, though, acknowledged that Cohen has cooperated with special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. He said that merited consideration when it came to his sentencing, but it doesn't wipe the slate clean. Now, in addition to the three years in prison that Judge Pauley gave Cohen, he also ordered Cohen to pay nearly $1.4 million in restitution. And as the judge read out his sentence, Cohen stood somberly. He listened to it. His daughter, however, began to sob. And afterwards, Cohen walked over and kissed her on the forehead.

CORNISH: About those hush money payments, I understand there's more news on that front.

LUCAS: That's right. Prosecutors here in the Southern District of New York have reached a deal with American Media, Inc. That's the parent company of the tabloid the National Enquirer. Under the agreement, AMI won't be prosecuted for its role in the payment made to former Playboy model Karen McDougal, one of the women who says she had an affair with Trump. And AMI also admits that it made the payment in coordination with the Trump campaign, and the goal was to influence the election by not having this damaging information out about Trump.

CORNISH: NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas out of New York, thanks for speaking with us.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.