President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty Tuesday in a Manhattan courthouse to eight violations of banking, tax and campaign finance laws in a federal investigation that scrutinized his business dealings and efforts to silence women with negative stories about Trump.
Cohen pleaded to five counts of tax evasion, one count of making a false statement to a bank and two campaign finance violations: making an unlawful corporate campaign contribution and making an excessive campaign contribution.
“Yes, sir,” Cohen answered when the judge asked if he pleaded guilty.
Cohen – long the self-professed “fixer” for Trump – agreed to the deal after prosecutors claimed he risked more than a dozen years in prison, according to a person familiar with the matter.
His guilty plea follow a months-long grand-jury investigation into Cohen’s activities, including his taxi business, as well as a hush-money payment that Cohen arranged.
Cohen has said he used a home-equity line of credit to finance a $130,000 payment to Daniels in October 2016, a month before the 2016 election.
Cohen is the fifth Trump associate to have pleaded guilty or be charged with criminal wrongdoing since Trump took office, including his former national security adviser, his deputy campaign chairman and a former campaign policy adviser.
Cable television played Cohen’s plea in an extraordinary legal split screen, as a Virginia jury convicted Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, on eight counts in his bank and tax fraud trial.
Reminded that he had previously vowed to “take a bullet” or “do anything” to protect the president, Cohen told ABC in July that Trump is not his top priority. “To be crystal clear, my wife, my daughter and my son, and this country have my first loyalty,” he said.
Last month, Cohen attorney Lanny Davis released an audio recording of a September 2016 conversation between Trump and Cohen in which they discussed a deal. The move was seen as a dramatic turn against Trump by the Cohen camp.
Trump’s current attorney and advisers have said he has nothing to fear from Cohen.
“If he gets indicted for something that has nothing to do with the president, well, I feel sorry for Michael, although I don’t know how sorry I feel for him, because he was tape recording the world and deceiving them, including his client,” Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani told Fox News on Monday.
“But it has nothing to do with us,” he added.
Cohen’s plea agreement comes just one day after the New York federal court overseeing the seizure of Cohen’s records finished its review of which documents were protected by attorney-client privilege.
The case against Cohen stems in part from a referral by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and examined Cohen’s role in at least two episodes involving Russian interests, according to people familiar with that probe.
However, special-counsel investigators have indicated to federal law enforcement officials that the office does not require Cohen’s cooperation for its probe, according to two people familiar with their work.
The Cohen investigation first burst into public view in April, when FBI agents searched his New York office, home and hotel room. The searches – in which agents collected all of Cohen’s phones and electronic devices – set off panic in the White House that federal investigators were looking into Trump’s business dealings and communications with Cohen.
Since then, the probe has led to revelations about how Cohen sought to squelch negative stories about Trump and then leverage his access to the president.
After the raid, Giuliani acknowledged that the president had made several payments reimbursing Cohen for the $130,000 settlement with Daniels. Trump had previously denied knowledge of the payoff.
Meanwhile, leaked documents showed that Cohen was paid millions last year by companies such as AT&T and Novartis to provide advice about the new administration.
Cohen had been under scrutiny by federal prosecutors starting in the fall of 2017, when Mueller’s team came across some unusual financial transactions and loans Cohen had obtained.
The special counsel referred the matter to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, which has been looking for evidence of possible bank fraud, wire fraud or violations of campaign finance laws in Cohen’s business dealings, according to people familiar with the matter.
The investigation has examined loans related to Cohen’s taxi medallion business and whether any laws were broken as part of an effort to stifle negative stories about Trump when he was running for president, according to people familiar with the matter.
A central focus of the probe has been on matters that have nothing to do with Cohen’s most famous client but rather Cohen’s attempts to borrow substantial sums of money against his taxi medallions and evidence suggesting he lied to get the money. On more than a dozen loan documents, according to two people familiar with investigators’ work, Cohen dramatically inflated the value of his medallion business year after year, even as the industry suffered from the rise of ride-hailing businesses.
In May, a New York taxi operator and former Cohen business partner agreed to cooperate with prosecutors as part of a plea deal in a separate New York state criminal tax fraud case.
Cohen is also under investigation for defrauding the IRS and failing to report his earnings, according to one person familiar with requests for information about Cohen’s financial records.
Cohen worked for Trump for more than a decade, starting in 2007. The raid on Cohen’s office enraged the president, who claimed prosecutors were violating attorney-client privilege.
Cohen also argued that prosecutors had violated attorney-client privilege by seizing what his lawyers said could be thousands or more items related to his work as a lawyer.
It is unusual for investigators to seize the papers of an attorney, but in court filings federal prosecutors maintained that Cohen was doing very little legal work and that they were investigating his business dealings to search for evidence of potential crimes.
U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood appointed a former federal judge to act as a special master and review the seized items to assess what material must be withheld from investigators because it is covered by attorney-client privilege.
In the end, only a tiny fraction of the seized material was found to be covered by the privilege, according to court filings.
Although Cohen has for years been portrayed as a lawyer who handled some of the most important and sensitive issues for Trump, the president has insisted to associates in recent months that Cohen was not that closely involved with him.
However, Giuliani said in May that Cohen was routinely asked to handle issues that could cause personal embarrassment for Trump, such as the claim of an affair by Daniels.
Trump has denied the affair, but Cohen directed that Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, be paid $130,000 just before the November 2016 election to ensure her silence, Cohen acknowledged this year.
“The agreement with Michael Cohen, as far as I know, is a long-standing agreement that Michael Cohen takes care of situations like this, then gets paid for them sometimes,” Giuliani said in May.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Devlin Barrett, Carol D. Leonnig, Renae Merle