Michael Cohen said the payments were for the purpose of ‘influencing the election’
Trump’s longtime fixer admits he paid hush money to women on president’s behalf
Michael Cohen spent Monday night bracing himself to face Judge William Pauley the following morning, with the prospect of years in prison for dirty work he said he did to assist US President Donald Trump.
This was the man who once said he would take a bullet for the president. Instead, standing in the dock at the United States District Court in Manhattan, President Trump’s longtime fixer fired a volley of allegations at his former client.
Reading from a prepared note, he admitted that Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, who alleged they were involved in affairs with President Trump, had been paid off “in-coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office”.
He added: “I participated in this conduct...for the principal purpose of influencing the election”.
Mr Cohen had just pleaded guilty to five counts of tax evasion, one of making a false statement to a financial institution, one of an illegal campaign contribution and one of an excessive campaign contribution.
Meanwhile, around 250 miles away in Alexandria, Virginia, a jury was convicting Paul Manafort, who once headed the Trump election campaign, of five counts of tax fraud, two of bank fraud and one of failing to disclose a foreign bank account.
Even by the standards of the surreal Trump presidency, Tuesday’s events were extraordinary. Within minutes, two of his closest associates had either admitted to or had been convicted of serious crimes.
It brought the total of convicted Trump allies to five. MSNBC, in a sarcastic nod to Watergate, referred to “all the President’s felons”.
For years, it was Michael Cohen’s job to act as President Trump’s shield, beating off stories which would damage his client and, so we are led to believe, his friend.
But loyalty clearly had its limits and having “flipped,” Mr Cohen will be hoping for leniency when sentence is passed in December.
The wheels of justice have turned relentlessly in recent months, culminating in Mr Cohen’s court appearance on Tuesday. A few hours later, a defiant President Trump dismissed everything as “fake news” when he appeared before adoring supporters at a rally in West Virginia.
On Wednesday morning Mr Trump turned to his weapon of choice, Twitter, to renew his attack.
“If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” he tweeted.
Team Cohen, inevitably, has put a different spin on events. In a string of media appearances on Wednesday, his lawyer Lanny Davis said the president’s direction of the hush payments amounted to impeachable offenses and that his client did not want to be “dirtied” by a presidential pardon.
He said Mr Cohen’s decision to flip came after President Trump’s widely ridiculed performance next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at their July summit in Helsinki. The lawyer said Cohen is now committed to “the truth, his family and his country”.
“He certainly found Donald Trump as president to be unsuitable to hold the office after Helsinki,” Mr Davis said on NBC’s “Today” show. “He worried about the future of our country with somebody who was aligning himself with Mr. Putin”.
The sorry saga dates back to August 2016 when the National Enquirer was preparing to run a story alleging a decade-old affair between Donald Trump and Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model.
Even though candidate Trump was on his third marriage, it was feared that the story would deal a fatal blow to his chances of winning the White House.
It fell to Mr Cohen, who joined the Trump organisation in 2006, to sort the mess out. He did so by cutting a deal with the National Enquirer and Ms McDougal, Playboy’s 1998 “playmate of the year”.
The Enquirer, a salacious supermarket tabloid whose chairman David Pecker is a friend of Mr Trump, bought the story and sat on it.
A couple of months later the “Access Hollywood” video emerged. Dating back to 2005, it laid bare Mr Trump’s attitude toward women.
If the recording of the candidate’s lewd comments was not bad enough, another alleged mistress was preparing to sell her story: Stephanie Clifford – a porn actress known to her fans as “Stormy Daniels”.
The candidate’s loyal lieutenant stepped in again, arranging a $130,000 payment to buy her silence. He later admitted to using a home equity loan to provide the necessary cash.
Given that the damaging Access Hollywood tapes were in the public domain, it is hard to avoid asking the question why Mr Cohen even bothered.
Things began to unravel eight days before Mr Trump’s inauguration when the Wall Street Journal published a story disclosing details about the Stormy Daniels payment.
A month later Mr Cohen, who was then still loyal to Mr Trump, admitted that the payment had taken place, but insisted the money was his own.
The revelations, which started as a drip feed, became a flood. On March 6, Stormy Daniels sued Mr Cohen and the president, asking a California court to invalidate the non-disclosure agreement she had signed.
Nine days later, the Journal ran a piece tying the Trump Organisation to the Daniels hush money payment. On the same day, the Organisation was issued with a subpoena by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with the Russian government in its alleged interference in 2016 presidential election.
Throughout the spring, as the pace of legal actions intensified, Mr Cohen remained loyal to Mr Trump – even as the president appeared to be distancing himself from his former fixer.
Then, in June, Mr Cohen flipped. He changed his legal team and resigned from the Republican National Committee.
The baton of defending the president was passed on to Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, who has spent months bouncing between TV stations giving a series of contradictory and often chaotic interviews.
As things stand, Mr Trump has been accused of a raft of serious offences, from illegal payments to criminal conspiracy.
Given the lengthy charge sheet, one would have expected the Democrats, who hope to recapture the House of Representatives, to be making hay and pushing for impeachment.
But they are not. Nancy Pelosi, the current minority leader, regards the issue as divisive and fears that campaigning to turf Mr Trump out of office could backfire badly and galvanise his base.
Far better, many believe, is to leave him weakened and discredited before delivering the coup de grace in the 2020 presidential election.