Michael Cohen will be heading to prison.
After pleading guilty to financial crimes, campaign finance violations, and lying to Congress, the president’s former lawyer was sentenced by Judge William Pauley to three years of incarceration Wednesday.
Cohen had hoped that his assistance with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation would earn him leniency, and had asked for no prison time at all. But though Mueller said Cohen had indeed been helpful, prosecutors from the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) were less impressed, and recommended “a substantial term of imprisonment.”
At the sentencing hearing, Cohen gave a tearful speech in which he took aim at President Donald Trump. He said the president’s attack on him as “weak” was in fact accurate — because “time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds.”
Cohen even compared his years of working for Trump as “a personal mental and mental incarceration,” and said he took “full responsibility” for each act he pleaded guilty to — including those that implicated “the president of the United States of America.”
In the end, Judge Pauley said Cohen’s cooperation ”does not wipe the slate clean” and criticized his “smorgasbord” of crimes stemming from “personal greed and ambition,” Adam Klasfeld of Courthouse News reports. So Cohen will indeed have to serve prison time.
Cohen’s spectacular fall
It’s a remarkable fall for Cohen. He’d spent a decade as Trump’s lawyer and “fixer,” and as an executive at the Trump Organization, before Trump won the 2016 election. Behind the scenes, he viciously defended Trump’s interests with profane threats and secret payoffs.
But it all came crashing down for him once Trump became president. Special counsel Robert Mueller began investigating Cohen toward the end of 2017, inquiring about his lucrative “consulting” work and his role in the Trump Organization’s overseas business dealings.
Cohen’s public problems began this January, when the Wall Street Journal’s Michael Rothfeld and Joe Palazzolo broke the news that Cohen had arranged a $130,000 hush money payment to Stormy Daniels during the campaign. It was quickly clear that such a payment could violate campaign finance laws prohibiting contributions in excess of a certain amount, and Cohen struggled to get his story straight about what exactly happened and what Trump knew about it.
Yet it was the FBI raid of Cohen’s residence and office in April that made clear he was in very imminent and very serious legal jeopardy. (By this point, at least part of the Cohen investigation had been handed off by Mueller to the Southern District of New York.) Initially, Cohen remained defiant, but his relationship with Trump soon fell apart and he started considering a plea deal.
In an August deal with the US district court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY), and a subsequent November deal with Mueller’s office, Cohen pleaded guilty to three main sets of offenses:
1) Cohen’s own financial crimes: These are tax and bank fraud charges, mainly related to Cohen’s years of hiding income related to his taxi medallion holdings. He admitted failing to report more than $4 million in income and avoiding more than $1.4 million in federal taxes between 2012 and 2016. He also admitted failing to disclose his taxi medallion debts while getting a credit line from a bank.
2) The hush money for Trump: Cohen violated campaign finance law by arranging six-figure hush money payments for two women alleging sexual encounters with Trump — well above the federal limit for a campaign contribution. The first of these was a payment to Karen McDougal from the National Enquirer’s parent company, and the second was a payment to Stormy Daniels from Cohen himself.
3) Lying to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project: During the 2016 presidential campaign, Cohen was engaged in talks to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. He told Congress in 2017 that the talks concluded relatively quickly (by January 2016), that he’d only briefed Trump three times about it, and that he’d reached out to a Russian government official about it but never heard back. The truth, Cohen later admitted, was that the talks lasted into at least June 2016, that he’d briefed Trump more often, and that he had in fact heard back from the Russian government.
Cohen pleaded guilty to all of the above crimes. Yet in his plea deals, he conspicuously did not commit to cooperate with prosecutors regarding further criminal investigations. Instead, he took a different approach — he’d voluntarily provide certain information to Mueller’s office and other probes.
Cohen’s lawyers claimed he did this to speed up his sentencing so he could move on with his life. Perhaps more plausible is the theory that Cohen has been involved in a lot of shady activities over the years, and so preferred to pick and choose what he’d cooperate about rather than being obligated to tell everything he knows.
Mueller’s office said in a sentencing memo that they were happy with Cohen’s help (after a minor hiccup where he lied again during their first meeting). The special counsel wrote that Cohen went “to significant lengths” to assist the investigation, and that his information “has been credible and consistent with other evidence.”
In particular, Mueller said, Cohen had provided information on his own contacts with “Russian interests” during the campaign (including about Trump Tower Moscow), about “certain discrete Russia-related matters” that are “core” to Mueller’s investigation, and about his contacts with “persons connected to the White House” in 2017 and 2018.
SDNY, however, portrayed this as “selective cooperation” on Cohen’s part, and complained that he didn’t more fully commit to telling what he knew. “Cohen specifically declined to be debriefed on other uncharged criminal conduct, if any, in his past,” prosecutors wrote.
So they said Cohen should get a modest benefit in sentencing from helping Mueller — but that he should do some time. And Judge Pauley agreed.