MANHATTAN (CN) – A federal judge sentenced Michael Cohen to three years in prison on Wednesday after the onetime lawyer to President Donald Trump emotionally referenced Trump by name as implicated in his crimes.
“Recently the president tweeted a statement calling me weak, and it was correct but for a much different reason than he was implying,” Cohen, 52, told the court. “It was because time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds rather than to listen to my own inner voice and my moral compass.”
Cohen lashed out at what he called Trump’s self-interested campaign of “character assassination.”
“Not only is it improper, it creates a false sense that the president can weigh in on the outcomes of judicial proceedings that implicate him,” the lawyer added.
When describing threats against his family, Cohen choked up and paused briefly to compose himself, but he did not use the tissues placed at the podium by his defense attorney Guy Petrillo.
Previewing his client’s dramatic address, Petrillo likened the Cohen prosecution to the historic event that brought down President Richard Nixon.
“The Special Counsel’s Office investigation is of utmost national significance, no less than seen 40 years ago in Watergate,” Petrillo said.
Like that investigation of old, Cohen aimed his accusations squarely at the president.
“The irony is today is the day that I am getting my freedom back, as you sit at the bench and you contemplate my fate,” Cohen proclaimed, shortly before learning of his term of incarceration. “I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the fateful day that I accepted the offer to work for a real estate mogul whose business acumen I truly admired.”
Cohen handed the tissues to his sobbing daughter after his address.
For the remainder of the hour-long hearing, U.S. District Judge William Pauley III dominated proceedings by detailing what he called Cohen’s “veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct.”
Cohen admitted in August that Trump coordinated and directed the hush-money payments of $130,000 to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal — meant to prevent both women from speaking about their alleged affairs with the president.
Prosecutors independently reached the same conclusion on Friday.
Transforming this allegation into a judicial finding of fact, Pauley noted that Cohen admitted that the payoffs were “at the coordination with and the direction of Individual-1.”
“Each of the crimes involved deception, and each appears to have been motivated by personal greed and ambition,” Pauley noted.
“As a lawyer, Mr. Cohen should have known better,” the judge added.
Pauley concluded the hearing with instructions for Cohen to voluntarily surrender by March 6. Saying that he will recommend Cohen serve his term in Otisville, the judge also imposed a $1.4 million restitution order for unpaid taxes, as well as $500,000 in forfeiture for lying to a financial institution to receive a home-equity loan.
Cohen also must pay two fines of $50,000 apiece – one for the case in the Southern District of New York and another for the one out of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office.
Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Robert Khuzami had no statement about today’s sentencing, but his office announced for the first time that it reached a nonprosecution agreement earlier this year with the National Enquirer’s parent company American Media International. The tabloid’s publisher reportedly received an immunity agreement earlier this year.
‘The Misfortune to Be Counsel to the President’
Early on in the proceedings, defense attorney Guy Petrillo labeled Cohen’s offenses as ones of circumstance.
“I submit, your honor, that no other defendant would be treated in this fashion on these offenses, but Mr. Cohen had the misfortune to be counsel to the president,” Petrillo said.
Of Cohen’s two separate criminal probes, the New York prosecutors were far more scathing.
“After cheating the IRS for years, lying to banks and to Congress, and seeking to criminally influence the presidential election, Cohen’s decision to plead guilty – rather than seek a pardon for his manifold crimes – does not make him a hero,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicolas Roos wrote in a 40-page brief on Friday.
Hitting back at the “strident tone” of this “somewhat sharp memo,” Petrillo called the characterization “fundamentally unfair” to Cohen.
“Power to the Southern District,” Petrillo said, with heavy sarcasm.
Suggesting that New York prosecutors had “a little pride” at being overshadowed by Mueller, Petrillo added: “If they want to build a bigger case than they’ve already made, God bless them.”
In the courtroom today, Roos doubled-down on those blows against Cohen: “The charges portray a pattern of deception, of brazenness and of greed.”
“No one is attempting to penalize Mr. Cohen for not cooperating,” Roos said. “Quite the opposite, there is no obligation to cooperate, but for all the hypothesizing that Mr. Petrillo has done, Mr. Cohen can’t have it both ways.”
In choosing not to reward Cohen’s “selective cooperation,” Roos said: “We’ve treated Mr. Cohen just the way we treat every other defendant that deals with the United States Attorney’s Office.” Despite pleading guilty to several charges of tax-evasion, campaign-finance violations, and false statements to financial institutions and to Congress, Cohen never entered a formal cooperation agreement with the government.
Cohen explained today that he took this “unorthodox path” out of desire to return quickly to his family outside the media spotlight.
“I do not need a cooperation agreement in place to do the right thing,” he said.
Contrasting sharply with the statement by Roos, Mueller’s prosecutor Jeannie Rhee delivered measured praise of Cohen, commending the lawyer for providing “credible” and “valuable information” regarding “any links between a campaign and a foreign government.”
“Rather than inflate the value of any information that he has brought forward to us in what he had to provide, Mr. Cohen has sought to tell us the truth, and that is of utmost value to us as we seek in our office to determine what in fact occurred,” Rhee said.
“There’s only so much we can say about the particulars at this time, given our ongoing investigation,” she added.
The Special Counsel’s Office, with which Cohen met seven times, investigated a matter closer to the heart of the Russia probe: negotiations between Trump and Putin’s inner circles about a Moscow real estate deal that extended deep into the 2016 presidential campaign.
Despite having previously told Congress that talks fizzled out in January, Cohen admitted to a federal judge last month that this was a lie that he told “out of loyalty” to Trump. Cohen exchanged messages several months later with with Felix Sater, an intermediary linked to the Russian mafia who later told BuzzFeed News that Trump had promised Putin a $50 million penthouse in the tower, which was never built.
On Friday, Mueller’s memo provided new and tantalizing details about that thwarted proposal, including Cohen’s efforts to secure a meeting between Trump and Putin at the 2015 U.N. General Assembly.
True to Mueller’s understated style, the special counsel’s office kept mum about these revelations in court today.
Cohen must report to federal prison on March 6, one year to the day that his client Stormy Daniels sued Trump, as noted by the actress’s lawyer, Michael Avenatti, who was one of dozens packing the courtroom today to witness Cohen’s fate.