Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, arrives at federal court for his sentencing hearing Wednesday in New York City | Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images
The sentence for the longtime Trump lawyer is the biggest punishment yet tied to the Mueller probe.
NEW YORK — A contrite Michael Cohen on Wednesday received three years in prison for a series of tax fraud and lying charges, sending another former Donald Trump associate to jail.
Cohen’s sentence is not as large as the four-plus years that federal prosecutors in New York wanted, but it nonetheless stands out as the biggest punishment to date tied to special counsel Robert Mueller’s sprawling investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Story Continued Below
The sentence also puts a coda on the dramatic downfall for the 52-year-old longtime Trump lawyer who served in the president’s inner circle as recently as this spring but turned on the man he declared he’d “take a bullet for” soon after FBI agents raided his home, office and hotel room.
In the courtroom Wednesday, Cohen, wearing a black suit and blue tie, was visibly emotional. His eyes were red rimmed and at various points he broke down, his voice cracking while he read a prepared statement he had printed out.
“Today is the day that I am getting my freedom back,” Cohen told U.S. District Court Judge William Pauley, a Bill Clinton appointee who minutes later handed down the prison sentence. “I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the day that I accepted the offer to work for a real estate mogul whose business acumen that I deeply admired.”In addition to the prison time, which is scheduled to begin with his surrender to federal authorities on March 6, Cohen will have to forfeit $500,000 in assets and pay $1.393 million in restitution to the IRS.
Cohen, who has had a relationship with Trump dating back a dozen years, used his time before the court to hit back at the president’s recent declaration that his former attorney was “weak.” Cohen said he agreed with Trump’s assessment but noted his “weakness was a blind loyalty to Donald Trump.”
“Time and time again I felt it as my duty to cover up his dirty deeds,” Cohen said, standing before his whole family in the courtroom. Both his mother and father cried at points during the hearing.
Minutes after Cohen learned his fate in court, Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani took a swing at the president’s former attorney by noting the size of his sentence compared to others in the special counsel’s 19-month old investigation.
“This is the real criminal sentence,” Giuliani told POLITICO. “I have no idea if it’s the right one or not, but I do know he’s proven to be a consummate liar who has lied at all stages of his situation.”
Cohen earlier this summer pleaded guilty with New York prosecutors to a slate of eight charges of tax evasion, financial fraud and campaign finance violations. Trump himself was implicated in the campaign finance crimes, with prosecutors saying he directed Trump in hush money payments designed to sway the 2016 presidential election. Cohen also later pleaded guilty with Mueller in November to lying to Congress about work he did during the election on an aborted Trump Tower project in Russia.
The judge on Wednesday slapped Cohen with a $50,000 fine for lying to Congress in the special counsel’s case, explaining that the penalty was meant “to recognize the gravity of the harm of lying to Congress in matters of national importance.” Two months of his three-year sentence are also tied to the lying-to-lawmakers charge.
Neither of Cohen’s guilty pleas required his cooperation, something his defense team said in court Wednesday was designed to keep his client and family out of the media circuit. But, nonetheless in a bid for a lighter sentence, the onetime Trump loyalist offered to pull the curtain back on select parts of his involvement with both the president’s political and business operations.
“He came forward to offer evidence against the most powerful person in our country,” said Guy Petrillo, Cohen’s lawyer, in court on Wednesday.Petrillo said Cohen and his family have been receiving “threats” because of his decision to cooperate.
“Nor could he anticipate the full measure of the attacks being made against him, not only by people like the president, but also attacks by partisans and citizens who happen to be aligned with the president,” he added.
Manhattan-based federal prosecutors said Cohen met twice with their office to discuss the involvement of other Trump officials in the campaign finance crimes to which Cohen pleaded guilty. And Mueller’s team said Cohen has already met with the special counsel’s investigators seven times to discuss Russian attempts to connect with Trump’s 2016 campaign — with a pledge to continue cooperation when asked.
Federal prosecutors on Wednesday also released a non-prosecution agreement — dated from late September — with National Enquirer publisher American Media Inc. The deal offered immunity for the company’s executives in exchange for cooperating in the Trump hush-money investigation. As part of the agreement, the tabloid publisher acknowledged that it paid a woman $150,000 in “cooperation, consultation, and concert” with the Trump campaign to ensure damaging allegations about Trump didn’t come out before Election Day 2016.
More behind-the-scenes could still come from Cohen. In a prepared statement, Cohen legal adviser Lanny Davis said his client plans to publicly reveal “all he knows about Mr. Trump” after the Mueller probe is over and a final report is in, Davis said, noting that will include congressional committees ”interested in the search for truth and the difference between facts and lies.”
The spectacle of a sitting president’s former lawyer going through the throes of the federal criminal justice system brought out mobs of reporters and spectators in Lower Manhattan.
A line of reporters formed two hours before the start of the hearing in the overflowed courtroom. Seated in the back of the room in a folding chair was none other than Michael Avenatti, the combative lawyer who has antagonized the president by representing adult film star Stormy Daniels, one of the two women to receive hush payments from Cohen.Three members of Mueller’s team — Andrew Goldstein, Jeannie Rhee and Rush Atkinson — sat at the prosecution table alongside their counterparts from the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York. For his part, Cohen gave kisses and hugs to a large group of family who came, including both his parents, his wife, children, brothers, sisters, in-laws, cousins and niece.
“How are you feeling?” Cohen asked his father when he entered the courtroom. Seated in a wheelchair, his father sipped from a Vitamin Water and told his son, “I’m okay.”
While working for the Trump Organization, Cohen was one of the businessman’s earliest backers for a White House campaign and served in 2016 as a prominent adviser and spokesman. His optimistic proclamation in August 2016 on CNN that Trump wasn’t really trailing behind Hillary Clinton became a viral moment in a campaign full of unusual occurrences.
Cohen didn’t get a job after the election in the new White House, but he stayed close to the president and continued to describe himself to reporters and his consulting clients as a “personal attorney” to Trump. Cohen was even present during some of Trump’s earliest strategy sessions about the unfolding Russia probe, including a May 2017 meeting on the day after Mueller’s appointment.
Despite his own mounting legal woes this year, Cohen remained in the president’s orbit. He was photographed at Trump’s South Florida Mar-a-Lago club in early March during the same weekend when the president was at his club for a GOP fundraiser retreat.
Trump described Cohen as his attorney as recently as April 5, urging reporters to contact him with questions about the Stormy Daniels payment, made just weeks before the 2016 election to keep her silent about an alleged affair.
Days later, the FBI raided Cohen’s residences and office. Trump and Cohen spoke by phone after the raid while their lawyers were working together to shield materials seized in the raid.
By May, Cohen was no longer representing Trump. “As far as we know, he’s not,” Rudy Giuliani, who had taken over a few weeks earlier as a personal counsel to the president, told POLITICO. “And there’d be nothing for him to do right now.”Earlier this summer, Cohen signaled a change in his own legal strategy, telling ABC News he’d “put family and country” ahead of Trump. He also hired a new legal team that included Lanny Davis, a Democratic public relations maven who led President Bill Clinton’s public defense against several scandals in the 1990s.
Cohen’s shift hasn’t gone over well with Trump. “If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” the president tweeted in August, the day after his former lawyer’s first guilty plea. Trump last month called Cohen a “weak person” after his second guilty plea and followed that a few days later with a social media post urging the courts to give him a “full and complete sentence.”
Speaking to POLITICO on Friday, Giuliani continued to pile on Cohen’s trustworthiness and questioned why federal prosecutors and Mueller would be using him to build larger cases. “His three-year long series of changing lies make him completely uncredible,” the former New York mayor said. “It’s pathetic that they’re relying on him at all. It indicates they are trying to get the president no matter what.”
Although Cohen’s sentence is the largest handed down to date for anyone targeted in Mueller’s probe, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is expected to receive far more time in prison. The longtime GOP lobbyist will learn his fate early next year from a pair of federal judges and is likely spending decades in prison following his conviction earlier this summer on bank and tax fraud charges in Virginia and a separate guilty plea in Washington.
Legal experts said Cohen’s three-year jail term isn’t a surprise for someone who has admitted guilt and helped prosecutors advance their cases.
“It is a fair and reasonable sentence that punishes him and sends a message to others who are considering committing similar crimes,” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor from Miami.
Cohen’s conviction and sentence also doesn’t bode well for the president, said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a frequent Trump golf partner who in January will become chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Anytime a former lawyer of yours goes to jail it’s probably not a good day,” the South Carolina senator said.
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.
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