Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s longtime fixer and ex-lawyer, was sentenced to 3 years in prison in Manhattan federal court Wednesday for crimes that included efforts to hide the president’s Russia business dealings and alleged extramarital affairs with a porn star and a model.
U.S. District Judge William Pauley’s sentence dashed Cohen’s bid to avoid prison by accusing Trump of directing hush money payments to the two women that violated election laws, also pleading to tax and bank fraud charges and lying to Congress, and aiding federal prosecutors and special counsel Robert Mueller.
“While Mr. Cohen has taken steps to mitigate his criminal conduct ... that does not wipe the slate clean,” said Pauley, blasting Cohen’s “greed and ambition” and the “insidious harm” he inflicted on democratic institutions. The judge also ordered a $100,000 fine and a March 6 surrender.
Cohen, in an emotional statement before the judge sentenced him, choked back tears as he apologized to his family and denounced Trump — his longtime mentor — for inspiring “blind loyalty” that led down a “path of darkness over light.”
“Time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds,” an anguished Cohen said. “... I was weak for not having the strength to question and to refuse his demands.”
After complaining that Trump had weighed in on charges “that implicate him” by publicly calling for a long sentence, Cohen shook his head and closed his eyes when Pauley announced the three-year term. He hugged his sobbing family when it was over, and declined to comment as he departed court in a waiting black SUV.
The sentencing came at a moment of high legal and political drama, amid uncertainty about whether Cohen and other key figures facing charges might have supplied information for Mueller’s probe of Russian election interference and Democratic House inquiries that could put Trump's presidency at risk.
Attorney Jeannie Rhee, a Mueller assistant, urged Pauley to give “due consideration” to “valuable” information Cohen provided on Russian contacts, including details of Trump’s involvement in discussions of a Moscow real estate deal in 2016, but Manhattan prosecutors gave him little credit.
“He didn’t come anywhere close to assisting this office in an investigation,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Nick Roos, whose office would be responsible for pursuing Cohen’s claim that Trump coordinated the hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
The fall of Cohen, 52, of Manhattan, once a highly paid executive at the Trump Organization, began when raids on his home and office in April triggered intense media scrutiny and speculation that he and his files could expose damaging skeletons from the president’s past personal and business affairs.
That speculation grew in August, after Cohen broke publicly with Trump and pleaded to lying to get a bank loan, evading taxes on $4 million, and arranging illegal campaign contributions of $280,000 to buy silence from Daniels and McDougal about alleged sexual encounters with Trump.
At the time, he said he would answer questions from both the Manhattan federal prosecutors who brought that case and from Mueller in hopes of earning leniency. In November, he plead to a new charge from Mueller, admitting that out of “loyalty” he lied to Congress last year about the details of a Trump Moscow project discussed in 2015 and 2016, during the presidential campaign.
Trump didn’t respond to shouted questions at a bill signing Wednesday, but he has previously denounced Cohen as a liar and “weak person,” and denied wrongdoing, arguing that his private commercial dealings with Russia violated no laws and that hush-money payments weren’t an election-law crime for him because they were personal, not campaign related.
Cohen faced up to 70 years in prison on Wednesday, and advisory federal sentencing guidelines called for between 51 and 63 months, but at the very start of his comments to Pauley he portrayed the sentencing as a liberation from the spell Trump held since hiring Cohen in 2007.
“I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the fateful day that I accepted the offer to work for a famous real estate mogul,” said Cohen.
Cohen’s lawyers asked for no jail time, arguing that his tax evasion on five years of income from New York City taxi medallions would have been handled civilly if not for his celebrity, and citing his willingness to stand up to Trump.
“He came forward to offer evidence against the most powerful person in our country,” defense lawyer Guy Petrillo said.
But Manhattan prosecutors called for “substantial” prison time, saying Cohen’s assistance had limited value because he refused a formal cooperation agreement requiring him to disclose all past illegal conduct, urging only a modest reduction and rejecting Petrillo’s complaint that they were elevating form over substance.
“He chose not to pursue the path of full cooperation,” Roos said. “He didn't provide substantial assistance to the government in this investigation.”
Pauley said Cohen deserved some credit because any form of cooperation should be encouraged, but he had committed a “veritable smorgasbord” of crimes of deception after a privileged upbringing on Long Island, in Lawrence.
“Somewhere, Mr. Cohen appears to have lost his moral compass,” the judge said.
Cohen, Petrillo said, intends to continue cooperating after sentencing, but the limited support he got from prosecutors left it unclear how much of a risk he poses for Trump.
Although the government has signaled that it agrees with Cohen’s claim that Trump directed the hush money, legal experts say any criminal case would involve litigation over whether such payments are campaign contributions, and require proof that Trump was acting with political instead of personal motives and knew he was violating election law.
The payments have been under scrutiny by a grand jury. In a separate development Wednesday, prosecutors revealed that the parent company of the National Enquirer — which Cohen used to arrange money for the model — is cooperating as part of a non-prosecution agreement, and has admitted their payments were intended to influence the 2016 election.
In his plea to lying about the Trump Moscow project, Cohen said he falsely claimed discussions ended in early 2016 to back up a Trump lie that he had no commercial ties to Russia while running, minimizing Trump’s role and falsely denying any contacts with the Russian government to avoid giving fuel to Congressional investigations.
He did not claim that Trump or anyone else asked him to lie to Congress. But Mueller, in his letter to Pauley last week, said Cohen had given “useful” information both on Russian contacts and on the “circulation” of his planned false congressional testimony in the White House, which could expand the circle of potential culpability.
In addition to the three-year sentence for Cohen’s financial crimes and hush money payments, Pauley sentenced him to two months to be served concurrently for lying to Congress. The judge also ordered Cohen to forfeit $500,000 and pay restitution of $1.39 million to the IRS.
With Nicole Fuller and Laura Figueroa
Excerpts from Michael Cohen's sentencing.
"I take full responsibility for each act that I plead guilty to, the personal ones to me and those involving the President of the United States of America."
"Your Honor, this may seem hard to believe, but today is one of the most meaningful days of my life. The irony is today is the day I am getting my freedom back as you sit at the bench and you contemplate my fate. I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the fateful day that I accepted the offer to work for a famous real estate mogul whose business acumen I truly admired. In fact, I now know that there is little to be admired."
"It is for these reasons I chose to participate in the elicit act of the president rather than to listen to my own inner voice which should have warned me that the campaign finance violations that I later pled guilty to were insidious."
"Recently, the president tweeted a statement calling me weak, and he was correct, but for a much different reason than he was implying. It was because time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds rather than to listen to my own inner voice and my moral compass. My weakness can be characterized as a blind loyalty to Donald Trump, and I was weak for not having the strength to question and to refuse his demands. I have already spent years living a personal and mental incarceration, which no matter what is decided today, owning this mistake will free me to be once more the person I really am."
"For me, the greatest punishment has been seeing the unbearable pain that my actions and my associations have brought to my entire family. My mom, my dad, this isn’t what they deserve to see in their older age, especially when as a child they emphasized to all of us the difference between right and wrong. And I’m sorry."
"I do not need a cooperation agreement to be in place to do the right thing. And I will continue to cooperate with government, offering as much information as I truthfully possess. For months now the President of the United States, one of the most powerful men in the world, publicly mocks me, calling me a rat and a liar, and insists that the court sentence me to the absolute maximum time in prison. Not only is this improper; it creates a false sense that the president can weigh in on the outcome of judicial proceedings that implicate him."
U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE WILLIAM PAULEY:
"Mr. Cohen committed two campaign finance crimes on the eve of the 2016 presidential election with the intent to influence the outcome of that election. He made or facilitated payments to silence two women who threatened to go public with details of purported extramarital affairs, and Mr. Cohen admitted that he did so in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1."
"Tax and campaign finance prosecutions are rare, but unlike the mine-run tax evasion or campaign finance violation, Mr. Cohen’s crimes implicate a far more insidious harm to our democratic institutions, especially in view of his subsequent plea to making false statements to Congress."
"A number of individuals have written to me describing how Mr. Cohen came to their aid without seeking anything in return. Of course, that kind of generosity is laudable. But somewhere along the way Mr. Cohen appears to have lost his moral compass and sought instead to monetize his newfound influence. That trajectory, unfortunately, has led him to this courtroom today."
COHEN'S LAWYER GUY PETRILLO:
"The crux of what we’re saying is that he puts himself out to raise money for very, very worthwhile organizations. He puts his whole body into it, and this is a man whose first instinct is to help."
"The man is 52 years old. There’s a long record of how he has conducted himself in business and with financial institutions. No bank has ever lost money dealing with Michael Cohen. I’ll say that again: No bank has ever lost money dealing with Michael Cohen. No friend in need has ever been turned away."
JEANNIE S. RHEE, SPECIAL COUNSEL'S OFFICE:
"He has fully accepted responsibility for the lies that he told Congress. He has provided our office with credible and reliable information about core Russia-related issues under investigation and within the purview of the Special Counsel’s Office. There is only so much that we can say about the particulars at this time given our ongoing investigation, but we hope that we have sufficiently outlined for the court that they were ranging, and that they were helpful."
"We want to highlight for this court is that one of the things that we and the Special Counsel’s Office have most appreciated about Mr. Cohen’s assistance is that he has provided valuable information, investigative information, to us while taking care and being careful to note what he knows and what he doesn’t know. Rather than inflate the value of any information that he has brought forward to us in what he had to provide, Mr. Cohen has sought to tell us the truth, and that is of utmost value to us as we seek in our office to determine what in fact occurred."
NICHOLAS ROOS, ASSISTANT UNITED STATES ATTORNEY
"Mr. Cohen’s conduct related to the election is serious because of the tremendous societal cost associated with the campaign finance crimes and the lies to Congress. Mr. Cohen committed these deceptive acts to protect the political campaign from allegations of impropriety, and, by his own admission, he committed the campaign finance crimes for the purpose of influencing the election."
"In committing these crimes, Mr. Cohen has eroded faith in the electoral process and compromised the rule of law. And so just as he asks for leniency because of what he claims he’s done for the republic, the same can be true in the way in which he’s undermined it."