On perhaps the worst day of US President Donald Trump’s tumultuous time in office, his former fixer Michael Cohen told a federal judge on Tuesday (Aug 21) he had made illegal campaign contributions – in the form of payments to silence women alleging affairs with Trump – at his boss’s request.
Cohen’s statements came on a day of head-spinning political drama for Trump, whose former campaign chief Paul Manafort was found guilty within the same hour of federal tax and bank fraud, in the first case sent to trial by the special prosecutor probing whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.
In interviews after Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges, including tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations, Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis said his client had information of interest to New York state authorities probing the Trump Foundation. He also said Cohen had information of interest to special counsel Robert Mueller.
While the full implications for the real estate mogul-turned-president remain unclear, Cohen’s statements – and the prospect of more revelations to come – puts Trump in legal peril.
Here's a timeline of Cohen's dealings with the Trump Organisation and the case against him:
Michael Cohen joins the Trump Organisation.
Oct 2015-Jan 2016
Cohen works with Russian-American businessman Felix Sater on the Trump Tower Moscow project.
Jan: Cohen writes to Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, asking for help restarting the stalled Trump Tower Moscow project. The project died weeks later.
Aug: Cohen helps arrange US$150,000 deal between American Media Inc., the company that owns the National Enquirer magazine, and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. The payment which essentially silences her about her allegation of an affair with Trump in 2006, the year after he married Melania Trump.
Oct: Cohen arranged a US$130,000 payment to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels a month before the election as part of an agreement that barred her from publicly discussing their alleged 2006 affair.
Nov 8: Trump defeats Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election.
Jan: Cohen, along with Sater and Ukrainian politician Andrey Artemenko, push a Russia-friendly 'peace plan' for the Ukrainian conflict to former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Oct: Cohen testifies to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.
Jan 12: The Wall Street Journal reports on the Stormy Daniels payment. Cohen says Trump "vehemently denies any such occurrence."
Feb 13: Cohen says that he personally paid Daniels and that he received no reimbursement from the Trump Organisation or the campaign. Neither was "party to the transaction," he says. Cohen says later the money came from a home equity line to an account for a personal corporation.
Feb 16: The New Yorker publishes an investigation into McDougal's allegation of a 2006 affair with Trump.
March 6: Daniels sues Trump and Cohen in California to invalidate the non-disclosure agreement.
March 9: NBC News reports that Cohen used his Trump Organisation email account as part of the Daniels payment negotiations.
March 15: The Wall Street Journal reports that the Trump Organisation is tied to the Daniels payment. Special Counsel Robert Mueller subpoenas the Trump Organisation.
March 16: Trump seeks US$20 million in damages from Daniels for breaking the non-disclosure agreement.
March 20: McDougal sues to get out of non-disclosure agreement Cohen helped negotiate. She tells CNN in March that the company bought her rights to tell her story under false circumstances and then killed the story to protect Trump. She also claims she had a lengthy affair with him in 2006. American Media says she's been free to tell her story since 2016. Through representatives, Trump denies the affair.
March 25: Daniels is interviewed on '60 Minutes' and claims she was threatened to keep quiet about Trump.
March 26: Daniels sues Cohen for defamation.
April 5: Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, Trump denies knowing about the payment to Daniels. Asked why Cohen made the payment, Trump says, "You'll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney."
April 9: The FBI raids Cohen's office, seizing records on topics including the payment to Daniels. Furious, Trump calls the raid a "disgrace" and says the FBI "broke into" his lawyer's office. He also tweets that "Attorney-client privilege is dead!"
The raid is overseen by the US attorney's office in Manhattan and is based in part on a referral from special counsel Robert Mueller, says Cohen's lawyer, Stephen Ryan.
Cohen had said he took out a personal line of credit on his home to pay Daniels days before the 2016 election without Trump's knowledge.
April 11: Cohen says he'd "rather jump out of a building than turn on Donald Trump."
April 13: The Washington Post reports that investigators are additionally probing Cohen's taxi business.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Cohen helped negotiated a US$1.6 million hush money payment between former Playboy model Shera Bechard and GOP financier Elliot Broidy, who impregnated her. Trump calls Cohen to "check in" amid the legal firestorm.
April 17: Cohen appears in court and loses his bid to block the feds from reviewing the seized documents. It's also revealed that Fox News host Sean Hannity was a client of Cohen's over the past year, in addition to Trump and Broidy.
April 24: Trump is asked if he will pardon Cohen. "Stupid question," he responds. FBI questions a Russian MMA fighter with ties to Trump, Cohen, and Putin.
April 26: Trump tells "Fox and Friends" that Cohen handled a "tiny, tiny fraction" of his overall legal work, but acknowledges that Cohen represented him in the "crazy Stormy Daniels deal". He says "there were no campaign funds going into this which would have been a problem."
May 2: Trump's new personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, contradicts Trump and tells Fox News host Sean Hannity that the president did reimburse Cohen for the Daniels payment. He later says that proves the payments didn't violate campaign finance laws. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says Trump "eventually learned" about the payments.
May 4: Reporters remind Trump of his previous denial of the payments to Daniels. The president blasts the media for focusing on "crap" stories like the Daniels matter and claims that "virtually everything" reported about the payments had been wrong. Daniels' attorney, Michael Avenatti, tweets, "How stupid do they think all of us are?"
May 8: Avenatti reveals documents that show a Russian-linked investment firm, AT&T, Novartis, and Korea Aerospace Industries made discreet payments to Cohen through his company, Essential Consultants LLC, the same entity he formed to pay Daniels.
May 9: The Treasury Department inspector general launches in investigation into how the Cohen financial documents leaked.
Giuliani says Trump was unaware of Cohen's financial dealings.
May 16: Trump, through his financial disclosure, admits to reimbursing Cohen for the Daniels payment.
The New Yorker reports that the official who leaked Cohen's financial documents did so because others had vanished from a Treasury database.
May 22: Cohen's business partner, known as the "Taxi King", reaches a plea deal with New York state prosecutors and agrees to cooperate with the government.
May 23: BBC reports that Cohen received a secret payment of at least US$400,000 to help set up talks between Ukraine and Trump in mid-2017.
June 6: Giuliani says first lady Melania Trump doesn't believe her husband had an affair with Daniels. Melania's office disputes the assertion.
June 13: Cohen breaks up with his legal team.
June 14: Giuliani says he and Trump don't care if Cohen ends up cutting a deal with the government because Trump "did nothing wrong."
The Wall Street Journal reports federal prosecutors are now probing the payments Cohen took from companies like AT&T and Novartis to see if he engaged in illegal lobbying.
June 19: Cohen hires Guy Petrillo as his new lawyer. Experts say he's the kind of person who you'd hire if you wanted to cut a deal with the government.
June 20: Cohen resigns from the Republican National Committee and blasts Trump's controversial immigration policy.
Investigators probing Cohen subpoena the publisher of the National Enquirer, who inked the deal with McDougal.
June 21: Cohen poses for a photo with anti-Trump comedian Tom Arnold, who says they're taking down the president together. Cohen says a day later he's not working with Arnold.
June 25: Cohen's lawyers announce they've finished reviewing the roughly 4 million documents seized by the FBI for privilege designations.
July 2: Cohen's interview with George Stephanopoulos is published. Cohen makes a full split from Trump saying his family and country have his first loyalty.
July 4: Cohen drops all mention of Trump from his Twitter and LinkedIn bios. A day later, he hires ex-Bill Clinton lawyer Lanny Davis to join his legal team.
July 6: Bechard sues Broidy for ending his hush-money payments to her.
July 12: The Treasury Department's inspector general says the agency didn't delete Cohen's financial records, they were just put under restricted access.
July 20: People familiar with the investigation say Cohen secretly recorded Trump discussing a potential payment for McDougal two months before the election. Giuliani says that the payment was never made and that the brief recording shows Trump did nothing wrong. In it, Cohen is heard saying that he needed to start a company "for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David," a possible reference to David Pecker, Trump's friend and president of American Media Inc.
When Cohen begins to discuss financing, Trump interrupts him and asks, "What financing?"
"We'll have to pay," Cohen responds.
The audio is muffled, but Trump can be heard saying "pay with cash," though it isn't clear if he is suggesting to pay with cash or not to pay with cash. Cohen immediately says, "No, no, no" and Trump can then be heard saying, "check."
Separately, The New York Times reports that Mueller is looking into a US$150,000 donation from a Ukrainian oligarch to the Trump Foundation that Cohen solicited.
Aug 21: Cohen pleads guilty to eight criminal charges, including tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations in a federal court in Manhattan. Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis says his client has information of interest to New York state authorities probing the Trump Foundation. He also says Cohen has information of interest to special counsel Robert Mueller.
SOURCES: BUSINESS INSIDER, ASSOCIATED PRESS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE