Ex-Trump lawyer tells New York court he acted 'in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office'
Michael Cohen implicates Donald Trump as he pleads guilty to campaign violations
Donald Trump stood accused of conspiring to commit campaign fraud and two of his closest aides faced jail on Tuesday, after court proceedings delivered a double blow - legally and politically - to his embattled US presidency.
In a drama that played out almost simultaneously in two US cities, courts found his former aides - ex-lawyer Michael Cohen and his one-time campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, guilty of eight charges apiece, stemming from a federal investigation into the 2016 presidential election.
In New York, Mr Cohen admitted that he violated campaign finance laws ahead of the election – at the direction of his then-boss, presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Mr Cohen detailed how he made pre-election hush payments to pornography actress Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal. Both claim to have had an affair with Mr Trump.
But in a sensational twist, Mr Cohen also pointed to the president - or "individual 1" as a co-conspirator - alleging that he acted "in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office".
"I participated in this conduct with the purpose of influencing the election," a visibly crestfallen Mr Cohen told the judge, his voice trembling at times as he addressed the packed courtroom.
Mr Cohen could face up to five years in prison. His appearance capped months of increasing financial and legal pressure on the long-time personal lawyer for Mr Trump. At the same time, it ushered in a new wave of legal woes for his former boss.
“Michael Cohen is a lawyer who, rather than setting an example of respect for the law, instead chose to break the law, repeatedly over many years and in a variety of ways,” said Deputy US attorney Robert Khuzami in Manhattan. “His day of reckoning serves as a reminder that we are a nation of laws, with one set of rules that applies equally to everyone.”
It’s unclear whether prosecutors will pursue others involved in Mr Cohen’s scheme. “That is a strong message today that we will not fear prosecuting additional campaign finance cases,” Mr Khuzami told reporters after the plea.
While Mr Cohen was admitting guilt in Manhattan, a more protracted drama was culminating in a federal courtroom in Virginia, where a jury found Mr Manafort guilty of eight counts of tax and bank fraud.
Mr Trump expressed regret, calling Manafort "a good man".
"I feel very sad about that," Mr Trump told reporters as he arrived in West Virginia for a rally, claiming the conviction was part of a "witch hunt" after the 2016 election.
"It's a very sad thing that happened, this has nothing to do with Russian collusion."
Mr Trump also sought to distance himself from Mr Manafort - who was instrumental in the 72-year-old securing the 2016 Republican nomination.
"He worked for many, many people," said Mr Trump, citing campaigns for former president Ronald Reagan and vice presidential candidate Bob Dole.
At the rally President Trump made oblique but impassioned comments about Mr Manafort and the Mueller probe.
"Where is the collusion?" he asked the crowd. "They are still looking for collusion, where is the collusion? Find some collusion. We want to find of the collusion."
Back in New York
Mr Cohen’s statement implicates Mr Trump in an apparent effort to break the law on the way to winning the 2016 presidential election. The US president has repeatedly denied having an affair with Ms Clifford.
While Mr Trump personally railed at the Manafort verdict, he was silent on Mr Cohen.
“There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr Cohen. It is clear that, as the prosecutor noted, Mr Cohen’s actions reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time,” his lawyer Rudy Giuliani said in a statement.
Mr Cohen pleaded guilty to failure to report personal income taxes for the five-year period beginning in 2012. He also admitted to making false statements to a financial institution tied to a credit decision around February 2015, to willfully causing an unlawful corporate contribution from at least June 2016 to October 2016, and to making an excessive campaign contribution on October 27, 2016, according to his plea agreement.
Mr Cohen, Mr Trump’s long-time lawyer and fixer, paid Ms Clifford $130,000 in the weeks before the election to keep her from going public with her story about a decade-old affair with Mr Trump. Around that time Mr Trump was under scrutiny for his past behaviour with women. In early October of that year an audio recording emerged of Mr Trump appearing to boast about inappropriately grabbing women.
Ms Clifford’s story threatened to derail Mr Trump’s campaign. So Mr Cohen set about to kill it by offering her a six-figure sum to keep her quiet. Mr Cohen told a federal judge on Tuesday that he did so in coordination with the candidate his lawyer later identified as Mr Trump.
Mr Cohen’s plea deal doesn’t include an agreement to cooperate with federal authorities. However, according to former prosecutors, it’s possible that prosecutors could reach such a deal with Mr Cohen. His guilty pleas may also allow him to give testimony to other federal authorities, including special counsel Robert Mueller, without further incriminating himself.
Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan said it’s possible that federal prosecutors don’t consider Mr Cohen’s information valuable or view him as a worthy witness. “It could mean that they don’t need him or don’t trust him, or just aren’t ready to cut the deal yet,” said Mr Sandick, now a defence attorney at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP.
It’s still possible that Mr Cohen could meet with prosecutors after the current case is resolved through his guilty plea, said Mimi Rocah, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan who isn’t involved in the case. “There is also the possibility that he is separately speaking with Mueller about other topics,” she said, adding he could also be subpoenaed after he is sentenced in this case.
Mr Cohen, who is 51, has a decade-long view into Mr Trump’s business and personal affairs, as a vice president of the Trump Organization and a personal lawyer to Mr Trump himself.
He once pursued a plan to build a Trump-branded tower in Moscow – even as Mr Trump was campaigning – and allegedly hand-delivered a Ukraine peace proposal to the White House. Mr Cohen raised millions of dollars for the Trump presidential campaign and was later named a deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Mr Cohen profited from Trump’s surprise 2016 election, even as the modest fortune he amassed from taxi fleets in New York and Chicago began to decline. He received millions of dollars in payments from companies, including Novartis and AT&T, that wanted an inside edge when it came to Trump administration policy. Some of the companies subsequently apologised after those payments were made public, and some of the top executives involved in his hiring took early retirements.
He received funds for many of these deals through a Delaware-based company he formed, Essential Consultants. He also used it to pay $130,000 to Ms Clifford to secure her silence about the affair she says she had with Mr Trump in 2006.
In addition, he used Essential Consultants to handle a $1.6 million hush-money payment to a former Playboy model, Shera Bechard, on behalf of a top Republican fundraiser, Elliott Broidy, who has said that his affair with Ms Bechard led to a terminated pregnancy.
After the election, Mr Cohen reportedly had hoped to join Mr Trump in Washington but instead was relegated to a small office in New York, where he tried to drum up clients for a law firm, Squire Patton Boggs, and his own fledgling consulting business.