By LARRY NEUMEISTER and TOM HAYS, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s once-devoted lawyer and all-around fixer, was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison after telling a federal judge that his “blind loyalty” to his boss led him to cover up Trump’s “dirty deeds.”
Standing alone at the defense table, Cohen, 52, shook his head slightly and closed his eyes as the judge pronounced the sentence for crimes that included lying about his boss’ business dealings in Russia and funneling hush money to two women who said they had sex with Trump — payments that both Cohen and federal prosecutors said were made at Trump’s direction to fend off damage to his White House bid.
Cohen is the first and, so far, only member of Trump’s circle during two years of investigations to go into open court and implicate the president in a crime, though whether a president can be prosecuted under the Constitution is an open question.
Separately, prosecutors announced Wednesday that they filled in another piece of the puzzle in the hush-money case: The parent company of the National Enquirer acknowledged making one of those payments “in concert” with the Trump campaign to protect him from a story that could have hurt his candidacy.
During an appearance at the White House shortly after the sentencing, Trump ignored reporters’ questions about Cohen.
At the sentencing, U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III said Cohen deserved modest credit for his decision over the summer to admit guilt and cooperate in the federal investigation of efforts by Russians to influence the 2016 presidential election, but his assistance “does not wipe the slate clean.”
“Somewhere along the way Mr. Cohen appears to have lost his moral compass,” the judge said. “As a lawyer, Mr. Cohen should have known better.”
The judge also ordered Cohen to pay $1.39 million in restitution to the IRS, forfeit $500,000 and pay $100,000 in fines. He was ordered to report to prison March 6 and left court without comment.
The prison sentence was in line with what prosecutors asked for. Sentencing guidelines called for around four to five years, and the government asked in court papers that Cohen be given only a slight break.
“It was my own weakness and a blind loyalty to this man that led me to choose a path of darkness over light,” Cohen, who once boasted he would “take a bullet” for Trump, told the judge before the sentence came down. “Time and time again, I thought it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds rather than listen to my voice.”
Cohen got choked up near the end of his remarks and paused briefly to compose himself. His daughter, seated behind him, sobbed throughout. As he returned to his seat, he ran his hand across her cheek.
Cohen’s lawyers had argued for leniency, saying he decided to cooperate with investigators rather than hold out for a possible pardon.
“He came forward to offer evidence against the most powerful person in our country,” defense attorney Guy Petrillo told the judge.
Cohen pleaded guilty in August to evading $1.4 million in taxes related to his personal businesses. In the part of the case with political repercussions, he also admitted breaking campaign finance laws in arranging payments in the closing days of the 2016 election to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal.
Last month, he also pleaded guilty to lying to Congress by concealing that he was negotiating a proposal to build a Trump skyscraper in Moscow deep into the presidential campaign season. He said he lied out of devotion to Trump, who had insisted during the campaign that he had no business ties whatsoever to Russia.
The sentence was the culmination of a spectacular rise and fast fall of a lawyer who attached himself to the fortunes of his biggest client, helped him get elected president, then turned on him, cooperating with two interconnected investigations: one run by federal prosecutors in New York, the other by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the Russia investigation.
Beyond the guilty pleas, it is unclear exactly what Cohen has told prosecutors, and it remains to be seen how much damage Cohen’s cooperation will do to Trump. Legal experts said Cohen could get his sentence reduced if he strikes a deal with prosecutors to tell them more.
Cohen said in court that he will continue cooperating. And his legal adviser Lanny Davis, who previously represented President Bill Clinton, said the former political fixer will tell publicly “all he knows” about Trump after Mueller completes his investigation, and that includes testifying before Congress.
“Mr. Trump’s repeated lies cannot contradict stubborn facts,” Davis said in a statement.
In the hush-money case, prosecutors said, Cohen arranged for the parent company of the National Enquirer to pay $150,000 to McDougal. He also paid $130,000 to Daniels and was reimbursed by Trump’s business empire.
Prosecutors said the McDougal payment violated federal law against corporate campaign contributions, while the money that went to Daniels exceeded the $2,700 limit on campaign donations. Also, campaign contributions must be reported under law, and the two hush-money payments were not disclosed.
Shortly after Cohen’s sentencing, federal authorities announced a deal not to prosecute the National Enquirer’s parent, American Media Inc. As part of the deal, AMI admitted making the $150,000 payment to McDougal to buy her silence about the alleged affair and fend off damage to Trump’s candidacy.
In a court filing last week, the prosecutors left no doubt that they believe Cohen arranged the hush-money payments at Trump’s direction, saying the maneuver was part of an effort to “influence the election from the shadows.”
Trump had denied any sexual relationship with the women and argued on Twitter earlier this week that the payments to the women were “a simple private transaction,” not a campaign contribution. And if it was a prohibited contribution, Trump 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!”
An attorney for the Trump Organization did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
At the sentencing, a prosecutor in Mueller’s office, Jeannie Rhee, said Cohen has “sought to tell us the truth and that is of the utmost value to us” and has “provided consistent and credible information about core Russia-related issues under investigation.” She did not elaborate.
But the New York-based prosecutors who handled the case against Cohen had urged the judge to sentence him to a “substantial” prison term and said he failed to tell investigators everything he knows.
In addressing the judge, Cohen described the sentencing as “the day I am getting my freedom back.” He said he had suffered from a “personal and mental incarceration” ever since agreeing in 2007 to work for Trump, a man he admired. “I now know there is little to be admired,” Cohen said.
Daniels’ lawyer, Michael Avenatti, who played a major role in exposing the hush-money discussions, said outside the courthouse: “We will not stop until the truth is known relating to the conduct of Donald Trump.” But he added: “Let me be clear, Michael Cohen is neither a hero nor a patriot” and “he deserves every day of the 36-month sentence he will serve.”
Associated Press writer Jim Mustian contributed to this report.