NEW YORK (REUTERS) - President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday (Dec 12) for orchestrating hush payments to women, in violation of campaign laws, before the 2016 election and financial crimes, posing potential legal and political risks to Mr Trump.
In the courtroom, Cohen told US District Judge William Pauley in Manhattan that “blind loyalty” led him to cover up for Mr Trump. The sentence imposed by Judge Pauley was a modest reduction from the four to five years recommended under federal guidelines but still highlighted the seriousness of the charges and possible implications for the President.
The sentencing capped a stunning about-face by a lawyer who once said he would “take a bullet” for Mr Trump. Cohen said in a guilty plea in August that he was directed by Mr Trump to make hush money payments to two women who said they had sexual affairs with the President in the past.
Mr Trump has denied the affairs and any involvement in the payments.
Judge Pauley sentenced Cohen to 36 months for the payments and to two months for Cohen’s lies to Congress about a proposed Trump Tower project in Russia. The two terms will run simultaneously. The judge set March 6 for Cohen’s voluntary surrender.
As part of the sentence, the judge ordered Cohen to forfeit US$500,000 (S$686,000) and pay restitution of nearly US$1.4 million.
Cohen, 52, walked into court with his wife, son and daughter amid a crowd of photographers and reporters. His 23-year-old daughter, Samantha, and 19-year-old son, Jake, both wept silently in the courtroom, the son wiping his eyes with his jacket sleeve. After being sentenced, Cohen walked over to his daughter and kissed her head.
Cohen’s father, Maurice Cohen, who showed little emotion during the hearing, later told reporters: “My heart is ripped.”
Cohen pleaded guilty in August to charges including tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations in a case brought by federal prosecutors in New York. He was sentenced on a separate charge of lying to Congress brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 election and possible coordination between Mr Trump’s campaign and Moscow. Cohen pleaded guilty to that charge last month.
Federal prosecutors in New York charged that Cohen, just before the November 2016 election, paid adult film actress Stormy Daniels US$130,000 and helped arrange a US$150,000 payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal so the women would keep quiet.
Federal law requires that the contribution of “anything of value” to a campaign must be disclosed, and an individual donation cannot exceed US$2,700.
“It was my own weakness and a blind loyalty to this man that led me to choose a path of darkness over light,” Cohen told the judge during the sentencing hearing, referring to Mr Trump.
“I felt it was my duty to cover up his own dirty deeds,” Cohen said.
The Mueller investigation represents a threat to Mr Trump’s presidency. Mr Mueller, who also is examining whether the President unlawfully sought to obstruct the probe, has secured guilty pleas from several former Trump aides including his former campaign chairman and national security adviser, as well as a series of Russia individuals and entities.
‘MOST POWERFUL PERSON’
The judge, in remarks before handing down Cohen’s sentence, said the lawyer committed two campaign finance crimes “on the eve” of the 2016 election with the “intent to influence the outcome of that election”.
“While Mr Cohen pledges to help in further investigations that is not something the court can consider now,” the judge added.
Lawyer Lanny Davis, who has advised Cohen, praised Cohen for cooperating and said he would continue to do so.
“At the appropriate time, after Mr Mueller completes his investigation and issues his final report, I look forward to assisting Michael to state publicly all he knows about Mr Trump - and that includes any appropriate congressional committee interested in the search for truth and the difference between facts and lies,” Mr Davis said in a statement.
“Mr Trump’s repeated lies cannot contradict stubborn facts.”
Cohen is a former member of Mr Trump’s inner circle who in the past called himself the President’s “fixer”. After Cohen pleaded guilty to the Mueller charges on Nov 29, Mr Trump called his former lawyer a liar, “a weak person and not a very smart person”.
Mr Trump last month submitted written answers to questions posed in Mr Mueller’s investigation.
Mr Michael Avenatti, Ms Daniels’ lawyer, attended the sentencing and told reporters outside the courthouse: “Michael Cohen is neither a hero nor a patriot. He lied for months about his conduct... Michael Cohen was sentenced today, President Trump is next.”
Mr Trump has denied any collusion with Russia and has accused Mr Mueller’s team of pressuring his former aides to lie about him, his campaign and his business dealings. Russia has denied US allegations of interfering in the election to help Mr Trump.
In his guilty plea to Mr Mueller’s charge, Cohen admitted he lied to Congress about the timeline for discussions about plans for real estate businessman Trump’s proposed skyscraper in Moscow. The project never went ahead.
Cohen said in written testimony to two congressional committees that the talks ended in January 2016, before the first electoral contests to select the Republican presidential nominee, when they actually continued until June 2016, after Mr Trump clinched the Republican nomination.
In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, Mr Trump denied the payments to the women were campaign contributions.
“If it were, it’s only civil, and even if it’s only civil, there was no violation based on what we did,” Mr Trump said.
Mr Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani has argued that the hush payments cannot be considered campaign finance violations because they were made to protect Mr Trump’s reputation and would have been made even if he had not been a presidential candidate.