December 12, 2018 04:51 PM
NEW YORK (AP) — Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's one-time fixer, was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison for crimes that included arranging the payment of hush money during the presidential campaign to conceal his boss' alleged sexual affairs, telling a judge that "blind loyalty" led him to cover up Trump's "dirty deeds."
Separately, the legal and political peril surrounding Trump appeared to deepen when prosecutors announced that another piece of the investigation had fallen into place: The parent company of the National Enquirer acknowledged dispensing some of the hush money in concert with the Trump campaign to fend off a scandal that could have damaged his White House bid.
Cohen, 52, shook his head slightly and closed his eyes as a judge pronounced his sentence for evading taxes, lying about Trump's business dealings and violating campaign-finance laws in buying the silence of two women who claimed they had sex with the candidate. Cohen and federal prosecutors have said the payments were made at Trump's direction to influence the election.
"It was my own weakness and a blind loyalty to this man that led me to choose a path of darkness over light," said Cohen, a lawyer who once boasted he would "take a bullet" for Trump. "Time and time again, I thought it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds rather than listen to my voice."
The twin developments represented a double dose of bad news for the president, who ignored reporters' questions about Cohen during an appearance at the White House later in the day.
Cohen is the first and, so far, only member of Trump's circle during two years of investigations to go into open court and implicate the president in a crime, though whether a president can be prosecuted under the Constitution is an open question.
In a possible sign of further trouble for the president, Cohen said he will continue cooperating with prosecutors, and one of his legal advisers said Cohen is also prepared to tell "all he knows" to Congress if asked.
At the sentencing, defense attorney Guy Petrillo pleaded for leniency in light of Cohen's cooperation with investigators, saying, "He came forward to offer evidence against the most powerful person in our country."
U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III said Cohen deserved modest credit for his decision over the summer to admit guilt and cooperate in the federal investigation of efforts by Russians to influence the 2016 presidential election, but his assistance "does not wipe the slate clean."
"Somewhere along the way Mr. Cohen appears to have lost his moral compass," the judge said.
The judge also ordered Cohen to pay $1.39 million in restitution to the IRS, forfeit $500,000 and pay $100,000 in fines. He was ordered to report to prison March 6 and left court without comment.
The prison sentence was in line with what prosecutors asked for. Sentencing guidelines called for around four to five years, and the government asked in court papers that Cohen be given only a slight break.
Cohen got choked up near the end of his remarks and paused briefly to compose himself. His daughter, seated behind him, sobbed throughout. As he returned to his seat, he ran his hand across her cheek.
The sentence was the culmination of a spectacular rise and fast fall of a lawyer who attached himself to the fortunes of his biggest client, helped him get elected president, then turned on him, cooperating with two 'interconnected investigations: one run by federal prosecutors in New York, the other by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the Russia investigation.
Cohen pleaded guilty in August to evading $1.4 million in taxes related to his personal businesses. In the part of the case with political repercussions, he also admitted violating the law in arranging payments in the closing days of the 2016 election to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal.
Last month, he pleaded guilty to lying to Congress by concealing that he was negotiating a proposal to build a Trump skyscraper in Moscow deep into the presidential campaign season. He said he lied out of devotion to Trump, who had insisted during the campaign that he had no business ties whatsoever to Russia.
Beyond the guilty pleas, it is unclear exactly what Cohen has told prosecutors or what he has left to say, though a prosecutor in Mueller's office, Jeannie Rhee, said in court Wednesday that Cohen has "provided consistent and credible information about core Russia-related issues under investigation." She did not elaborate.
Legal experts said Cohen could get his sentence reduced if he strikes a deal with prosecutors to tell them more.
In the hush-money case, prosecutors said, Cohen arranged for American Media Inc., the parent of the pro-Trump National Enquirer, to pay $150,000 to McDougal to buy and bury her story. He also said he paid $130,000 to Daniels and was reimbursed by Trump's business empire. Prosecutors said those secret payments were not reported as campaign contributions and violated the ban on corporate contributions and the $2,700 limit on donations by an individual.
Shortly after Cohen's sentencing, federal authorities announced a deal not to prosecute AMI, which has been cooperating in the investigation. As part of the deal, AMI admitted making the payment to McDougal "in concert" with the Trump campaign to protect him from a story that could have hurt his candidacy.
Trump had denied any sexual relationship with the women and argued on Twitter earlier this week that the payments to the women were "a simple private transaction," not a campaign contribution. And if it was a prohibited contribution, Trump said, Cohen is the one who should be held responsible.
"Lawyer's liability if he made a mistake, not me," Trump wrote, adding, "Cohen just trying to get his sentence reduced. WITCH HUNT!"
Trump's legal culpability could hinge on whether the payments to the women were, in fact, made at his direction, and whether he intended them to influence the election.
In a case with some parallels, prosecutors in 2011 charged former Sen. John Edwards with funneling nearly $1 million in under-the-table campaign contributions to hide his pregnant lover during his 2008 run for president. Edwards had argued that the payments were a personal matter — intended to keep the matter secret from his wife — and had nothing to do with the election.
A jury acquitted the Democrat on one charge and deadlocked on other counts. He wasn't retried.
Daniels' lawyer, Michael Avenatti, who played a major role in exposing the hush-money discussions, said outside the courthouse: "We will not stop until the truth is known relating to the conduct of Donald Trump."
But he added: "Let me be clear, Michael Cohen is neither a hero nor a patriot" and "deserves every day of the 36-month sentence he will serve."
Associated Press writer Jim Mustian contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to fix "felt" to "thought" in Cohen's quote about covering up "dirty deeds."
By LARRY NEUMEISTER and TOM HAYS
Updated: December 12, 2018 04:51 PM
Created: December 12, 2018 04:24 PM
(Copyright 2018 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)