NEW YORK (AP/RNN) — President Donald Trump’s former lawyer has been sentenced to three years in prison.
U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III said Wednesday that Michael Cohen deserved a harsh punishment for crimes including tax evasion, lying to Congress and arranging illicit payments to silence women who posed a risk to Trump’s presidential campaign.
The judge rejected arguments by Cohen’s lawyers that he should be spared jail time because he cooperated in multiple federal investigations involving Trump.
Cohen said his “blind loyalty” to Trump made him feel a duty to “cover up” the president’s “dirty deeds.”
Cohen’s crimes included evading $1.4 million in taxes and misleading Congress about his talks with Russians about a Trump skyscraper project in Moscow.
Trump had called for a tough sentence for Cohen, whom he labeled a liar.
Pauley ordered Cohen to surrender March 6, 2019, and recommended Otisville prison, in upstate New York, as the prison where Cohen will spend time.
At the conclusion of sentencing, Cohen’s family walked out of the courthouse first, Cohen a minute behind them. He went straight to a waiting black SUV and sped off. Police had closed the streets around the courthouse.
Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, said Cohen will “state publicly all he knows about Mr. Trump” once the special counsel’s investigation is over, adding “Mr. Trump’s repeated lies cannot contradict stubborn facts.”
In his sentencing decision, Pauley said “each of these crimes is a serious offense against the United States.”
Cohen’s decision to cooperate with federal investigators only slightly lessened his punishment for dodging taxes, lying to Congress and violating campaign finance laws.
Cohen, 52, addressed Trump’s characterization of him as “weak.”
In his statement to prosecutors, he said serving Trump “led me to take a path of darkness instead of light.”
He also said he took “full responsibility” for the crimes he committed, including lying to Congress.
“Recently the president tweeted a statement calling me weak and it was correct but for a much different reason than he was implying. It was because time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds,” Cohen said.
“This may seem hard to believe but today is one of the most meaningful days of my life," he said in court. "I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the day that I accepted the offer to work for a real estate mogul whose business acumen I deeply admired.”
Under federal sentencing guidelines, he could have been sentenced to around four years in prison, but his lawyers argued for leniency.
Cohen’s lawyers criticized the U.S. District Attorney for not being lenient enough in its sentencing.
“While Mr. (Robert) Mueller gave Michael significant credit for cooperation on the core issues, it is unfortunate that SDNY prosecutors did not do the same. To me, their judgment showed a lack of appropriate proportionality.” Lanny Davis said.
Some of Cohen's crimes, they said, were motivated by overenthusiasm for Trump, rather than any nefarious intent.
He has pleaded guilty to misleading Congress about his work on a proposal to build a Trump skyscraper in Moscow, hiding the fact that he continued to speak with Russians about the proposal well into the presidential campaign.
Cohen also pleaded guilty in August to breaking campaign finance laws by helping orchestrate payments to silence two women — former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult film actress Stormy Daniels — who said they had sexual encounters with Trump while he was married.
For weeks, Cohen's legal strategy appeared to revolve around persuading the court that he is a reformed man who abandoned longtime friendships and gave up his livelihood when he decided to cut ties with the president and speak with federal investigators. Cohen's lawyers have said in court filings that their client could have stayed on the president's side and angled himself for a presidential pardon.
New York prosecutors had urged the judge to sentence Cohen to a substantial prison term, saying he’d failed to fully cooperate and overstated his helpfulness.
They asked for only a slight reduction to his sentence based on his work with the office of special counsel Robert Mueller and prosecutors looking into the campaign finance violations in New York.
A probation-only sentence, they said, is unbefitting of "a man who knowingly sought to undermine core institutions of our democracy."
"While many Americans who desired a particular outcome to the election knocked on doors, toiled at phone banks, or found any number of other legal ways to make their voices heard, Cohen sought to influence the election from the shadows. He did so by orchestrating secret and illegal payments to silence two women who otherwise would have made public their alleged extramarital affairs" with Trump, prosecutors wrote.
Prosecutors said Cohen orchestrated payments to McDougal and Daniels at Trump's direction.
Trump, who insists the affairs never happened, said Monday in a tweet that the payments to the women were "a simple private transaction," not a campaign contribution. And if it was campaign contribution, the president said, Cohen is the one who should be held responsible.
"Lawyer's liability if he made a mistake, not me," Trump wrote, adding, "Cohen just trying to get his sentence reduced. WITCH HUNT!"
A sentence of hard time would leave Cohen with little to show for his decision to plead guilty, though experts said Wednesday's hearing might not be the last word on his punishment.
Cohen could have his sentence revisited if he strikes a deal with prosecutors in which he provides additional cooperation within a year of his sentence, said Michael J. Stern, a former federal prosecutor in Detroit and Los Angeles.
"Few things spark a defendant's renewed interest in cooperating faster than trading in a pair of custom Italian trousers for an off-the-rack orange jump suit," he said.
Annemarie McAvoy, a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, said prosecutors appear to be angry at Cohen for limiting his cooperation.
"It could be a tactic to try to break him like they've tried to do with (Paul) Manafort," McAvoy said, referring to Trump's former campaign chairman. "It kind of shows they're putting the screws to him. If they're not mad at him, he didn't give them what they wanted."
Cohen's transition from Trump's fixer-in-chief to felon has been head-spinning.
He once told an interviewer he would "take a bullet" for Trump. But facing prosecution for evading $1.4 million in taxes, Cohen pleaded guilty in August, pledged to cooperate with Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the presidential election and changed his party registration from Republican to Democrat.
Judge Pauley, who was appointed to the federal bench by former President Bill Clinton, may allow Cohen to begin serving his prison term at a later date. But legal experts said Cohen could also be taken into custody immediately.
"If I were advising him, I'd encourage him to bring his toothbrush to court," said Stern.
Cohen’s lawyers asked for no prison time, saying he has suffered enough already.
“The greatest punishment Michael has endured in the criminal process has been the shame and anxiety he feels daily from having subjected his family to the fallout from his case,” his attorneys wrote in a court filing last month. “The media glare and intrusions on all of them, including his children, the regular hate correspondence and written and oral threats, the fact that he will lose his law license, the termination of business relationships by banks and insurers and the loss of friendships, are but some of this fallout.”