Cohen says he worked “at the direction of a candidate for federal office,” ostensibly Trump, for the purpose of influencing the election. He has pleaded guilty to five counts of tax evasion, two counts related to an illegal campaign contribution and one count of making a false statement.
The revelation is a bombshell. Cohen was the keeper of Trump’s secrets, and this admission reveals that the two men colluded to illegally affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. And the news came the same day onetime Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was found guilty on eight counts, likely destined to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
“These are very serious charges and reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over an extended period of time,” Deputy U.S. Attorney for Southern District of New York Robert Khuzami said at a press conference.
The announcement came shortly after multiple outlets reported that Cohen had reached a plea deal with prosecutors of the Southern District of New York. The deal is specifically related to payments Cohen made to women on behalf of Trump, according to The New York Times.
The attorney is at the center of a yearslong legal entanglement between the president and adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who says she had an affair with Trump back in 2006. While Daniels’ attorney Michael Avenatti claimed last month that Trump’s team paid off three additional women ahead of the election, Khuzami said the charges against Cohen were related to payments made to two women. He did not reveal their names, but the total amount, $280,000, aligns with payments made to Daniels and Karen McDougal, another woman who says she had an affair with Trump.
The president has denied the claims. Still, Cohen felt the two women had information that would be “detrimental” to the candidate and his campaign, Khuzami said.
Cohen then sought reimbursement for the hush money from an unspecified Trump company after the election, in 2017, he added.
In a tweet seemingly reacting to Cohen’s plea, Daniels took a swipe at critics who’ve questioned her story:
The Times reported over the weekend that prosecutors had been zeroing in on potential bank and tax fraud violations related to the Cohen family’s taxi medallion business, citing people familiar with the matter. The investigators were said to be evaluating $20 million in loans the attorney obtained from two New York area banks to determine whether he misrepresented the value of his assets. They also looked into whether Cohen failed to report income from the taxi business to the IRS.
Khuzami said Cohen failed to report $4.3 million in income over five years, and did not disclose $14 million in debt on a $500,000 home equity application.
A lawyer for Cohen said in April that federal prosecutors in New York were investigating his client on a referral from special counsel Robert Mueller, who is looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Cohen, 51, had reportedly been expecting an indictment for some time. Combined with his deteriorating relationship with the president, the attorney’s legal quagmire could push him to cooperate with prosecutors in any way he can.
Following the announcement, Cohen’s personal attorney Lanny Davis stirred the pot by asking why his client is now facing charges on his own when they also involve the president.
“If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?” Davis said in a statement posted to Twitter.
In an April 9 raid on Cohen’s New York home, office and hotel room, the FBI took recordings and material from his cellphones, tablet and laptop and from a safe deposit box, according to the Times. Prosecutors had already obtained many of Cohen’s emails, the paper noted.
Days after the FBI seized Cohen’s belongings ― a rare thing for lawyers to endure ― prosecutors said they were investigating his personal business dealings. The Washington Post reported that authorities were looking for evidence of Cohen’s potential involvement in bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations. Some of the information seized was reportedly related to the $130,000 in hush money Cohen paid to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.
Cohen used to be known as Trump’s loyal “fixer,” the man who tamped down the scandals that brewed during the former reality TV star’s presidential run. “I’m the guy who protects the president and the family,” he told Vanity Fair last year. “I’m the guy who would take a bullet for the president.”
The president reacted to the FBI’s spring raids with fury on behalf of Cohen, tweeting “Attorney-client privilege is dead!” and “TOTAL WITCH HUNT!!!”
Their relationship was brought to rocky ground, though, when news media reported that prosecutors had obtained a recording made by Cohen in which he and Trump appear to discuss how to silence another woman, Karen McDougal, who also says she had an affair with Trump. Cohen was known to tape conversations and store them digitally, but it had not been clear before that those tapes included talks with Trump.
CNN published the McDougal recording in July. The Washington Post reported that prosecutors may have upwards of 100 other such files in hand.
Media reports indicated that Cohen might be willing to turn on his former boss, divulging information that could be damaging to the president and his administration as Cohen’s main priority became protecting his own family.
Trump hit back. His new personal lawyer, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, made the cable news circuit to attack Cohen’s reputation, calling him a “pathological manipulator” and “a liar.” Meanwhile, Trump continued to brush aside the notion that he might have done anything wrong.
Yet the money trail behind the payment to Daniels may not be entirely legal. Campaign finance law forbids corporations from donating directly to political candidates, and bans individuals from contributing more than $2,700. Whether the $130,000 payment to Daniels constitutes a breach is currently in question.
Cohen admitted to paying Daniels off after she revealed early this year that she had received a large payment in return for her silence. Cohen claimed that neither the Trump campaign nor the Trump Organization reimbursed him for that money, although he didn’t mention whether Trump had personally done so.
Meanwhile, Trump’s account of the payment has changed over time. The president told reporters aboard Air Force One in early April ― just days before the FBI raid ― that he had no prior knowledge of the payment to Daniels. But Giuliani appeared to dispute Trump’s claim a month later when he asserted that Trump had personally reimbursed Cohen through monthly installments of $35,000. Giuliani said the payment plan, which totaled about $460,000, began soon after the election.
Complicating matters, Cohen was also receiving payments around the same time from Columbus Nova, a U.S. investment firm affiliated with a Russian oligarch’s company. Columbus Nova confirmed its relationship with Cohen but said the oligarch, billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, had nothing to do with retaining him. CNN reported that Mueller has questioned Vekselberg about those payments, as Vekselberg is a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Columbus Nova allegedly paid Cohen around $500,000, according to Michael Avenatti, Daniels’ lawyer, and various news outlets. Avenatti claimed the payments “may have reimbursed” Cohen for the $130,000 he gave to Daniels.
The full picture of Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections remains to be seen.
Cohen has several other connections to that nation, which have also inspired questions. The attorney represented Trump in a Moscow real estate project during the 2016 campaign, at one point emailing Putin’s spokesman for assistance. He is also mentioned in the infamous Steele dossier, the report by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele alleging a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. The dossier alleges that Cohen traveled to Prague a few months before the 2016 election to meet with Russian officials, a trip the lawyer has vehemently denied taking.
Whatever his past may entail, Cohen’s attorney Davis insists his client is committed to doing the right thing.
Cohen “has turned a corner in his life,” Davis said in July, stating that his client was “dedicated to telling the truth.”
On Tuesday, he reiterated that claim, asserting that Cohen would now “put his family and country first and tell the truth about Donald Trump.”
This story has been updated with reaction from Lanny Davis and Stormy Daniels, along with additional information on the charges against Michael Cohen.