WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday said he “never directed Michael Cohen to break the law,” a day after his former longtime personal attorney was sentenced to three years in federal prison, in part for crimes tied to his work for Trump.
In a series of morning tweets and in an afternoon Fox News appearance, Trump faulted Cohen alone for any legal misdeeds involved in coordinating hush-money deals with a porn star and a former Playboy model in the run-up to the presidential election to quash their allegations of an affair with Trump.
Cohen and federal prosecutors have said Cohen, the president’s personal attorney for more than a decade, arranged for the payoffs at Trump’s direction. Earlier in the year Trump acknowledged reimbursing Cohen for the payments, but on Thursday he insisted to Fox News that whatever Cohen did “he did on his own.”
On Twitter Trump wrote: “He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law. It is called ‘advice of counsel,’ and a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made. That is why they get paid.”
Cohen pleaded guilty earlier this year to eight federal charges, including two counts of campaign finance violations stemming from $280,000 in payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal in the weeks before the general election in exchange for their silence.
The president, who earlier in the year denied knowledge of the payments before downplaying them months later as a “simple private transaction,” repeated his position Thursday that no campaign finance laws were violated, “because this was not campaign finance,” since campaign funds were not used.
Campaign finance watchdog groups have argued in federal court filings that the payments should have been publicly disclosed by the Trump campaign because federal law mandates the disclosure of payments made “for the purposes of influencing an election.”
Trump alleged on Twitter that the campaign finance charges against Cohen “were just agreed to by him in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence.”
On Wednesday, Cohen, who faced up to 5 years in prison for the charges that included tax evasion, making false statements to a bank and lying to Congress, was sentenced to 36 months by District Judge William H. Pauley III.
Cohen’s attorney initially argued he should not serve prison time because of his cooperation with federal investigators, but Pauley said while Cohen’s cooperation was “useful” it did not “wipe the slate clean.”
Just before Cohen was sentenced, he delivered an emotional statement in federal court in Manhattan, saying his “blind loyalty” to Trump caused him to “time and time again” feel it was his “duty to cover up his dirty deeds.”
On Twitter, Trump continued to rail against Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia's election interference and purported ties to the Trump campaign. Trump accused investigators of wanting “to scare everybody into making up stories that are not true by catching them in the smallest of misstatements. Sad!”
At least four Trump campaign associates have pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about their contacts with Russia, including Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser.
Speaking about Flynn’s cooperation with Mueller’s office, Trump told Fox News: “Maybe they scared him enough that he'll make up a story but I have a feeling that maybe he didn't. He's a tougher kind of a guy than Cohen.”
Trump, in the interview, also distanced himself from a deal arranged by Cohen with the parent company of the National Enquirer aimed at paying McDougal to suppress her story in exchange for contract work with the publication. Federal prosecutors revealed Wednesday that the company is cooperating as part of a non-prosecution agreement, and has admitted their payments to McDougal were meant to influence the 2016 election.
“I have to go back and check,” Trump told Fox News. “I don’t think we made a payment to that tabloid.”
On Thursday evening The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump was present for an August 2015 meeting between Cohen and National Enquirer publisher David Pecker at which they discussed ways to suppress stories about Trump's alleged affairs.
The White House did not immediately respond to questions about the report.