Embattled Former Trump Attorney Michael Cohen Pleads Guilty

With dozens gathered outside the Manhattan federal courthouse, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen declined to make a statement on Aug. 21, 2018, after pleading guilty to eight counts. (Josh Russell, Courthouse News Service)

MANHATTAN (CN) – Ramping up pressure on the White House over Russia’s tampering with the 2016 U.S. election, President Donald Trump’s longtime fixer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal charges, admitting in court that he made two payments in 2016 with the purpose of interfering with an election.

After reports of Cohen’s plea surfaced earlier with credit to unnamed sources, the 51-year-old formally entered his plea at 4 p.m. in New York before U.S. District Judge William Pauley III.

The longtime former lawyer to Trump pleaded to eight charges in total: five counts of tax evasion, one count of making a false statement to a financial institution, one count of unlawful corporate contributor and one count of excessive campaign contribution.

Cohen’s charges had not previously been public, but court filings associated with the federal raid of his home, hotel and office indicated that the lawyer was being investigated for fraud.

Since then months of reports about Cohen’s increasingly public fissures with Trump have brought doubt on Cohen’s previous boasts that he would “take a bullet” for Trump.

Back in June when Cohen resigned from the Republican National Committee, the longtime personal attorney to the president highlighted his opposition to Trump’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border.

Former Trump lawyer exits the Manhattan federal courthouse on Aug. 21, 2018, after pleading guilty to eight counts. (Josh Russell, Courthouse News Service)

That same month, Cohen hired new counsel, including Guy Petrillo, who served as chief of the criminal division for the Southern District of New York in 2008 and 2009.

With Petrillo and Amy Lester at his side this afternoon, Cohen pleaded guilty to making an unlawful corporate contribution of $150,000 and a separate excessive campaign contribution of $130,000, both knowingly and with the intent of influencing a federal election.

Cohen also told Judge Pauley he’d had a Glenlivet 12 scotch on the rocks Monday evening, but was in sound condition to give his plea.

At the 40-minute hearing, Cohen grew increasingly more emotional, appearing to choke up as he pleaded guilty to each individual count before Judge Pauley.

The $150,000 figure from count seven matches with the figure paid to former Playboy model Karen McDougal as hush money over an alleged affair with Trump; the $130,000 from count eight is the sum paid to porn star Stormy Daniels to buy her silence on an alleged affair with the president.

The federal complaint notes Cohen’s payments to the two women were made to ensure they “did not publicize damaging allegations before the 2016 presidential election and thereby influence that election.”

Cohen pleaded guilty to five counts of tax evasion for concealing more than $4 million in personal income from the Internal Revenue Service on personal tax returns over a five-year period from 2012 through 2016.

Cohen also pleaded guilty to making false statements to a federally insured lending bank in New York in connection with a $500,000 home equity loan.

The plea agreement makes no reference to Cohen cooperating in any other investigation or probe.

Another member of Cohen’s defense team, Lanny Davis, is said to have consulted John Dean, the former White House counsel whose testimony in the Watergate scandal helped end the presidency of Richard Nixon.

Cohen also hinted at cooperation with the government in July, telling ABC: “I put family and country first.”

Davis offered the following statement after Tuesday’s proceedings: “Michael Cohen took this step today so that his family can move on to the next chapter. 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?”

The probe of Cohen sprang out of the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whom the Justice Department tapped to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but Mueller quickly referred the matter to prosecutors in New York’s Southern District.

Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman leads that office, but the prosecutor recused himself from the investigation ahead of the Cohen raid in April. On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney for the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York Robert Khuzami is expected to make a statement about Cohen’s case.

Mueller has now indicted or secured guilty pleas from three Russian companies and 32 people, several of whom have substantial ties to Trump.

Less than an hour after Cohen entered his plea, a jury in Virginia found former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort guilty on eight counts of financial crimes.

The Cohen investigation had been financially driven as well, revolving around more than $20 million in loans obtained by taxi businesses owned by the lawyer and his family.

Facing a consecutive maximum sentence of 65 years, Cohen agreed at his hearing Tuesday not to challenge any sentence between 46 and 63 months. Pending this sentencing, Cohen will be out on $500,000 personal-recognizance bond co-signed by his wife and one other person.

Reports of the Cohen investigation have long been dominated by pornography actress Stormy Daniels, who is fighting to void a $130,000 settlement that prevents her from talking about a one-night stand she claims to have had with Trump.

Federal prosecutors were said to have been studying whether Cohen’s handling of hush-money payouts to women like Daniels amounted to violations of campaign-finance law.

Prior to Trump’s 2016 election, Cohen owned a stake in the Brooklyn social club, El Caribe, which has a reported reputation as clubhouse for members of Italian and Russian organized crime families in the 1970s and 1980s.

After the FBI seized more than 3.7 million files from Cohen in April, Cohen wound up asserting attorney-client privilege over only a tiny fraction of the documents.

Barbara Jones, a former judge tapped as special master to make privilege determinations in the Cohen case, completed her final review of the materials on Aug. 9.

Weeks earlier, Jones released 12 audio files to the government following privilege waivers by Trump and Cohen, the same day the New York Times offered a tantalizing glimpse at one secret recording. That same month, a September 2016 tape was made public in which Cohen alludes to a hush-money deal involving former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who claimed she had an affair with Trump a decade earlier. Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani insisted that the recording was “powerful exculpatory evidence.”

The White House did not immediately release a comment.

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