Michael Cohen, who long swaggered as Donald Trump’s bare-knuckled fixer only to see himself vilified by the president for cooperating with law enforcement, was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison after telling a federal judge that he had acted illegally out of “blind loyalty” to Trump.
Standing before a packed courtroom in lower Manhattan, the 52-year-old lawyer and businessman called his years as Trump’s factotum a time of “personal and mental incarceration,” saying that “time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds.”
In his tearful speech, Cohen asked forgiveness from his family and the country.
“Most of all, I want to apologize to the people of the United States — you deserve to know the truth,” he choked out.
Among other crimes, Cohen has admitted to arranging hush money payments to two women who said they’d had affairs with Trump, concealing their stories from voters weeks before the 2016 election.
Prosecutors say Trump directed the illegal scheme, and they strengthened their case Wednesday when they disclosed that American Media Inc., a publishing company run by one of the president’s allies, was cooperating in the investigation.
In a deal that will spare American Media criminal charges, the company admitted to paying $150,000 to one of the women, former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal, to ensure she “did not publicize damaging allegations ... and thereby influence that election.”
The agreement further undercuts Trump’s claims that the payments were a private matter that had nothing to do with his campaign.
The president has lashed out at his former lawyer as the investigation continued. Noting that Trump had recently insulted him as “weak,” Cohen responded in court on Wednesday by saying, “my weakness can be characterized as a blind loyalty to Donald Trump.”
But U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III made clear he would not grant Cohen’s plea for leniency, pointing to his guilty pleas for bank fraud, tax evasion, campaign finance violations and lying to Congress.
“There is an acute need for the the sentence here to reflect the seriousness of the offenses,” Pauley said. Cohen’s crimes, he added, were apparently “motivated by personal gain and ambition.”
When Pauley read the sentence, Cohen shook his head; his wife, Laura, clutched their son Jake; and their adult daughter, Samantha, trembled with violent sobs. Other family members openly wept.
Cohen is scheduled to report to Ottisville Correctional Institute, a federal prison in upstate New York, on March 6. He was also ordered to pay $500,000 in forfeiture, $1.39 million in back taxes and $100,000 in fines.
As Trump’s lawyer, Cohen was tasked with squelching unflattering stories about the real estate mogul. He now is helping prosecutors investigate deeply damaging narratives involving the president’s alleged extramarital affairs and his pursuit of business opportunities in Russia during the 2016 campaign.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, which is handling the investigation, says it can prove that Trump directed the illegal scheme to boost his chances in the campaign. Although Justice Department rules say a president cannot be indicted in office, legal experts say Trump could face charges after his White House term ends.
While McDougal was paid $150,000 by American Media, porn star Stormy Daniels was paid $130,000 by Cohen himself.
Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan, said the deal with the publishing house means “there is potentially more to come” in the case.
“There could be other executives, other campaign officials, who could be in the scope of the government’s investigation,” he said.
Cohen also could pose a threat to Trump as part of the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Last month Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to two congressional committees about secretly trying to arrange a Moscow hotel and condominium deal for Trump during the 2016 presidential race.
Prosecutors said Cohen sought and probably needed Russian government approvals for a project potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the Trump family, which was regularly briefed on Cohen’s progress.
The push for a Trump Tower Moscow project coincided with Russia’s covert efforts to meddle in the U.S. presidential campaign by hacking Democratic Party emails and spreading misinformation on social media, prosecutors said.
In a sentencing memo last week, the special counsel’s office said Cohen had provided “useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to [the special counsel] investigation.”
Jeannie Rhee, a member of Mueller’s team, told Pauley on Wednesday that Cohen “sought to tell us the truth, and that is of the utmost value to us.”
Pauley sentenced Cohen to two months in prison for lying to Congress, but said it would run concurrently with his three-year sentence.
George Papadopoulos, a former low-level foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign, was sentenced to 14 days behind bars for lying to investigators about his overseas contacts. Another defendant, a London-based Dutch lawyer, served 30 days in prison for lying to the FBI.
Prosecutors have urged leniency for Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, who is due to be sentenced on Dec. 18. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about his conversations with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition. He later provided extensive cooperation to Mueller’s team.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, could face a lengthy prison term when he’s sentenced in coming months in Virginia and Washington, D.C.
He was convicted on eight counts of tax evasion and bank fraud related to his previous work as a political consultant in Ukraine. A plea deal with Mueller’s office collapsed when prosecutors accused him of continuing to lie to them.
Cohen was once among Trump’s closest aides, working directly for him and serving as an executive vice president of the Trump Organization, the family’s private holding company for business ventures around the globe.
He initially cashed in on the unexpected election of his longtime client. In the months after Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, Cohen earned millions of dollars by pitching himself as an advisor to blue-chip companies looking for connections to the new president.
But Cohen’s high-flying life unraveled after FBI agents in April searched his home, office, hotel room and safe deposit box, seizing computers, records and other evidence.
He pleaded guilty in August to eight charges brought by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan. The charges included tax evasion and bank fraud involving his New York taxi business and real estate deals, as well as two campaign finance violations tied to the payments to Trump’s alleged mistresses.
Cohen returned to federal court in November to plead guilty to lying to Congress about pursuing the Trump Tower Moscow deal.
Although Cohen is heading to prison, he’s expected to continue speaking out about his time working for Trump.
Lanny Davis, a lawyer and spokesperson for Cohen, said Cohen will “state publicly all he knows about Mr. Trump” because the president’s “repeated lies cannot contradict stubborn facts.”
Davis also said Cohen would be willing to meet with congressional committees. Democrats will take control of the House in January thanks to a strong showing in the midterm election, and they are expected to launch multiple investigations into Trump.
In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, the president said Cohen was responsible for his legal woes. “Michael Cohen is a lawyer. I assume he would know what he’s doing,” he said.
Trump also argued that the hush money payments, which he once denied knowing about, were not a crime.
“Number one, it wasn’t a campaign contribution,” Trump said. “If it were, it’s only civil, and even if it’s only civil, there was no violation based on what we did, OK?”
Times staff writer Megerian reported from Washington. Sharp, a special correspondent, reported from New York.