Updated at 7:03 p.m. ET
Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, has pleaded guilty to eight counts in federal court in New York, federal prosecutors announced Tuesday evening.
They include five counts of tax evasion, one count of falsifying submissions to a bank and two counts involving unlawful campaign contributions.
Cohen’s conduct “reflects a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time,” said Robert Khuzami, deputy U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan.
The counts related to campaign finance violations involved payments that were made to keep two women quiet during the campaign, Khuzami said, noting that Cohen was “repaid at the direction of the candidate.”
Khuzami noted that Cohen was repaid by the campaign with invoices for “services rendered.” Those “invoices were a sham,” Khuzami said. They were “merely reimbursement for illegal campaign contributions.”
With Cohen’s admission, he is implicating the president of the United States in what would be a major violation of campaign finance law. Trump admitted in May to reimbursing Cohen — after first denying any knowledge of at least one payment. But he noted that the reimbursement to Cohen had “nothing to do with the campaign.”
The blockbuster set of guilty pleas from Cohen comes on the same day Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was found guilty by a jury in Virginia on eight federal counts as well. The twin events mark what could be a consequential day in the Trump presidency. Trump continues to face pressure from the special counsel investigation, led by Robert Mueller, into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign that was intended to help Trump win the presidency.
After the Manafort verdict, Trump again referred to the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt.” But there are now seven people who have either pleaded or been found guilty of charges stemming from the investigation. (Cohen’s case was prosecuted by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, but Mueller referred the case to that office.)
“There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the President in the government’s charges against Mr. Cohen,” Rudy Giuliani, counsel to the president, contended in a written statement, despite the potential campaign-finance violation. “It is clear that, as the prosecutor noted, Mr. Cohen’s actions reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time.”
Lanny Davis, Cohen’s attorney, had a different perspective.
“Michael Cohen took this step today so that his family can move on to the next chapter,” Davis said in a statement. “This is Michael fulfilling his promise made on July 2nd to put his family and country first and tell the truth about Donald Trump. Today he stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election. If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”
Cohen said in court that he made the excessive contributions in the summer of 2016, and in October of 2016 — at the direction of a federal candidate. While Cohen did not name President Trump, it’s clear that is who he is referring to given the timeline and circumstances.
One of the unlawful campaign contributions involved a corporation. Cohen said he and the CEO of a media company made a payment to stop an individual from releasing information damaging to a federal campaign in the summer of 2016.
While Cohen did not name them, this matches up with the circumstances around former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who settled a lawsuit with American Media, Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer. McDougal sued for allegedly purchasing exclusive rights to her story for $150,000 in August of 2016. McDougal says she had a 10-month affair with Trump a decade ago, which the White House has denied.
The other excessive contribution Cohen pleaded guilty for appears to be a payment to adult film star Stephanie Clifford, whose stage name is Stormy Daniels. Cohen said the payment was later repaid to him by the candidate. While he didn’t mention Trump, the president has acknowledged repaying Cohen for a $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels to keep an alleged sexual relationship, which Trump denies, private.
“He worked to pay money to two women who he believed would be detrimental to the 2016 presidential campaign,” Khuzami said.
It was unclear what — if any — cooperation Cohen might offer as a result of Tuesday’s plea or what punishment he might finally face.
Cohen — who worked for Trump on a range of real estate, political and personal matters — knows as much or more as anyone in the president’s inner circle.
Cohen hinted weeks ago that he might cooperate with federal prosecutors, but it isn’t clear where those negotiations stood on Tuesday.
Specifically, Cohen reportedly was willing to tell special counsel Robert Mueller that Trump authorized the much-discussed June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York City between top Trump campaign aides and a delegation of Russians.
The president has repeatedly denied he had any advanced knowledge of that meeting.
Cohen, who described himself in past as Trump’s “pit bull,” became well-known for his elbow-throwing and sometimes full-on threats as he worked to move the ball forward for Trump or protect him.
Cohen was an adviser and sometime media surrogate for Trump during the 2016 campaign but he also continued to handle sensitive assignments like managing the payments to McDougal and Clifford.
Trump and the White House have acknowledged that Trump reimbursed Cohen for the payment to Clifford but the president’s camp denies the underlying allegations about the affairs.
Cohen, evidently mindful about the need someday to substantiate what he says he’s done for Trump, recorded some conversations with the then-candidate in which they talk about the arrangements.
After Trump’s victory and his inauguration, Cohen did not come into the new administration with other insiders or family members. Instead, Cohen stayed at arm’s length officially but promised a number of big clients that he could broker access to Trump and advocate on their behalf.
Cohen made millions of dollars from these arrangements but when they were revealed after the FBI raids on his home and office, the companies involved — which included AT&T and pharma giant Novartis — were chastened.
Since the raids, which yielded a huge trove of documents and other materials, it has become clear that Cohen was facing the prospect of serious criminal liability in his federal case.
The Russia matter
Tuesday also brought an update to the public understanding about Cohen’s role in the Russia investigation. He is described in the infamous, partly unverified Russia dossier as having played an important role in an alleged conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians who attacked the 2016 election.
Cohen has strenuously denied that and he said as much to the Senate intelligence committee last year. But Cohen also has reportedly said he would be willing to tell investigators that he — and Trump — knew beforehand about the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower between top Trump campaign aides and a delegation of Russians.
That got the attention of the intelligence committee’s leaders, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who said on Tuesday they’ve asked Cohen whether he wanted to change the statements he has made to their panel. The committee leaders said Cohen’s answer was no.
“Mr. Cohen had testified before the committee that he was not aware of the meeting prior to its disclosure in the press last summer. As such, the committee inquired of Mr. Cohen’s legal team as to whether Mr. Cohen stood by his testimony. They responded that he did stand by his testimony.”
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