U.S.: Trump's former lawyer deserves prison despite cooperation
Special counsel Robert Mueller said Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, has helped his probe with “useful” new information about contacts with Russia, but Manhattan federal prosecutors still urged a “substantial” prison term for Cohen in separate federal court filings Friday.
The widely anticipated letters to Manhattan U.S. District Judge William Pauley, who will sentence Cohen next week, contained no bombshells about his former boss and indicated Cohen’s information may not have been valuable enough to keep him out of prison, but contained intriguing new hints about Russian efforts to engage Trump’s campaign as far back as 2015.
The Manhattan prosecutors handled Cohen’s August guilty plea to tax evasion, bank fraud and violating election laws by arranging $280,000 in hush payments to two women who claimed affairs with Trump. Mueller’s office handled his plea last week to lying to Congress about a Trump-branded real estate deal in Moscow that was discussed during the presidential election in 2016.
The prosecutors who handled the hush money and tax evasion case said Cohen’s crimes had been “serious” and described him as a man whose “ambition and greed” and desire to ingratiate himself with Trump as “the ultimate fixer” had damaged the country.
“These offenses reveal a man who knowingly sought to undermine core institutions of our democracy,” the prosecutors wrote. “His motivation to do so was not borne from naiveté, carelessness, misplaced loyalty, or political ideology. Rather, these were knowing and calculated acts . . . in order to profit personally, build his own power, and enhance his level of influence.”
Despite informal help on other possible cases stemming from the payoffs to porn star Stormy Daniels and a model and his assistance to Mueller, they told Pauley, Cohen never made a clean breast of all his past crimes as part of a formal cooperation deal and deserved only a “modest” reduction from the 51 months in prison called for by advisory federal sentencing guidelines.
They called Cohen’s request for no jail time “meritless” and dismissed his claim that he turned over a new leaf by breaking with Trump. “Any suggestion by Cohen that his meetings with law enforcement reflect a selfless and unprompted about-face are overstated,” they told the judge.
Mueller’s office urged Pauley to impose a sentence for lying to Congress that would run concurrent with the other charges, and said he deserved credit for providing “relevant and truthful” assistance during seven debriefing sessions, making “significant” efforts and providing “useful” information.
That included, the prosecutors said, information on “Russia-related matters” core to Mueller’s probe of election interference that Cohen obtained from Trump Organization executives; information about contacts with White House officials after Trump was elected; and the “circumstances” surrounding his false responses to Congress on the Trump Moscow project.
Among other specifics, Mueller said, Cohen revealed that as, early as September 2015, he discussed with Trump reaching out to the Russian government about a meeting with President Vladimir Putin — it was never pursued — and that in November 2015 he was approached by a Russian national claiming high-level connections about a Trump-Putin meeting relating to the Moscow project.
“The person told Cohen that such a meeting could have a ‘phenomenal’ impact ‘not only in political but in a business dimension as well,’ referring to the Moscow Project, because there is ‘no bigger warranty in any project than consent of [the President of Russia],’ “ Mueller’s office wrote.
Cohen, 52, a one-time $500,000-a-year Trump Organization executive, hypothetically faces up to 70 years in prison. The advisory sentencing guidelines call for 51 to 63 months. His lawyer, in a letter to Pauley last week, said Cohen should get no jail time because of his assistance to prosecutors.
Before Friday, speculation about his possible cooperation ranged from implicating Trump’s son and other Trump Organization executives in reimbursing him for the hush money, to incriminating insights into the Trump campaign’s knowledge of Russian hacking of Democratic emails.
Cohen was the subject of a far-reaching search of his home and law office in April. His August guilty plea, after a legal struggle over attorney-client privilege, covered five counts of tax evasion involving $4 million in concealed income, lying to a bank on a $500,000 loan, and the hush money payments.
Cohen said the payments were directed by Trump, but Trump would be guilty of a crime only if he knew the payments qualified as campaign contributions in violation of election laws. In their Friday letter, prosecutors said the payments deprived the public of information it should have known before the 2016 election.
After his plea in that case, Cohen began providing information to New York officials investigating Trump’s charitable foundation, as well as federal prosecutors. Mueller’s office said Friday he initially told them the same lies he told Congress about the “Trump Tower” deal in Moscow, before coming clean and agreeing to another guilty plea.
That deal had fueled long-standing suspicions about Russian leverage over the president. In his plea, Cohen said he misled Congress about his own contacts with a Russian official, the depth of Trump’s involvement in discussions, and the fact that they went on until mid-2016, contrary to Trump’s public claims that he had no commercial contacts with Russia.
Cohen did not say Trump asked him to lie, but said he acted out of “loyalty” to try to avoid fueling Russia collusion theories last year. Mueller said Friday the lies involved a matter of “national importance” but, in muted language, urged Pauley to give “due consideration” to efforts to right the wrong.