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Threat gets real: Cohen strikes plea deal with prosecutors

By Sheetal Sukhija, Baton Rouge News
22 Aug 2018, 08:36 GMT+10

NEW YORK, U.S. - In a development that is set to have dramatic implications for the U.S. President Donald Trump, his fiercely loyal former attorney, Michael Cohen has struck a plea deal with federal prosecutors. 

Federal prosecutors in New York City received a referral from Special Counsel Robert Mueller and had been investigating Cohen for over four months. 

Cohen has been facing federal criminal investigation on suspicion of bank fraud, wire fraud, and election law violations.

Further, investigators have been examining if Cohen’s hush money payments facilitated to two women on behalf of Trump, could constitute a campaign finance violation.

On Tuesday afternoon, ahead of a hearing scheduled for 4 pm at the U.S. District Court in lower Manhattan, Cohen surrendered at the FBI headquarters in New York.

Cohen then headed to the lower Manhattan courtroom, where Judge William Pauley reportedly grilled Cohen on his competence and let him know about his rights.

Subsequently, as part of a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts, which included five counts of tax evasion, one count of making a false statement to a financial institution, one count of causing an unlawful corporate contribution, and one count of making an excessive campaign contribution.

Cohen reportedly pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance law and said he did so “at the direction” of a candidate, which is bound to be Trump.

Further, it was revealed that on two counts related to campaign-finance law, Cohen apparently implicated Trump.

Without naming Trump, Cohen reportedly said that he paid off a woman (Playboy model, Karen McDougal) “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office.”

He added that he worked with “the CEO of a media company” to keep that individual from publishing and disclosing damaging information on the candidate. 

Further, Cohen said he arranged for the company to pay the woman $150,000.

In relation to the payments made to Daniels, Cohen reportedly said “in coordination with and at the direction of the same candidate, I arranged to make a payment to a second individual” by using a company he controlled. 

In October 2016, Daniels was paid $130,000 from Cohen’s LLC in exchange for her signing a non-disclosure agreement to keep secret allegations against Trump.

Cohen told the court, “The money was later repaid to me by the candidate.”

Subsequently, the judge accepted Cohen’s plea.

Following the proceeding, Deputy U.S. Attorney Robert Khuzami addressed a press conference and said that the payments were “for the purpose of influencing the 2016 election.”

Cohen was released on his own recognizance and on the condition of a $500,000 bond.

Judge Pauley said during the hearing that the former Trump attorney will be sentenced on December 12 and that the plea deal includes a possible sentence of up to five years and three months in prison.

April eruption 

For over ten years since 2006, 52-year-old Cohen worked at the Trump Organization and left the company only in 2017, to serve as Trump's personal lawyer.

Then, in April this year, after it was first announced that he was under criminal investigation, it all came crashing down for the man, who has been referred to at different times as Trump’s fixer, pit bull and consigliere.

Cohen faced the possibility of landing severe charges when his $130,000 hush-money payment to the porn star Stormy Daniels (Stephanie Clifford) was revealed.

Cohen was revealed to have made the payment to Daniels just weeks before the 2016 presidential election to deter the porn star from going public about her accusations against Trump’s efforts of trying to cover up an affair she had with him in 2006.

Subsequently, FBI agents overseen by federal prosecutors in New York raided Cohen’s office, apartment, and a hotel room and seized 3.7 million documents, including emails, tax documents, tape recordings, financial records, cell phones, computers and documents related to his $130,000 payment to Daniels.

It was then revealed that investigators had seized material relating to a 2005 "Access Hollywood" tape featuring Trump saying lewd things about women, electronic devices, and communications between Trump and Cohen.

In his response, Cohen cited a violation of attorney-client privilege and entered a legal battle against the seizure of his records by federal investigators in New York.

However, Cohen was then revealed to have under a separate investigation for his business dealings and was facing a federal criminal investigation on suspicion of bank fraud, wire fraud, and election law violations.

He was also one of the key figures in the ongoing Russia collusion investigation being overseen by Mueller.

While Cohen had not been publicly charged with any crimes and continued to face a range of criminal charges, including some serious ones - an indictment was believed to be in the offing - at which time, Trump pulled back and all but broke ties with his former confidant. 

Despite slamming the “disgraceful” FBI raid on Cohen’s properties, claiming that the department had not only pushed the boundaries of attorney-client privilege but had launched “an attack on our country,” Trump and the White House created an obvious distance from Cohen, and soon ties between Trump and Cohen turned frosty.  

The man who once said he was willing to take a bullet for Trump found himself alone, and was facing the prospect of landing severe charges in multiple investigations.

Meanwhile, things continued to turn awry for Trump, as with the investigation against Cohen heating up, the possibility of his once loyal attorney spilling all of the President’s dark and forgotten secrets before prosecutors became more and more likely - a possibility that Cohen would refuse to rule out in weeks to follow.

With mutterings from within Trump’s inner circle continued to reveal Trump’s growing concern about Cohen being targeted unfairly, in reality, Trump and his allies reportedly feared that documents and recordings that the FBI swept up from Cohen’s home and office could come back to haunt the president.

Legal experts pointed out that while indictments against Cohen were possible for bank and wire fraud, he could also end up becoming a target in Mueller’s Russia investigation even though some believed it would be an uphill climb for the Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is probing the alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign to swing the 2016 U.S. Presidential election in Trump’s favor.  

For a brief period, even though ties between Cohen and Trump were all but broken, experts raised the prospect of a presidential pardon - something that could be used by Trump to deter his former attorney from cooperating with prosecutors. 

Breaking point

Two months after the infamous raid, a report in CNN quoted Cohen as claiming that Trump has prior knowledge of the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russians offering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. 

Following the shocking admission, Cohen sat through his first and only media interview since April, in which he said his family “have my first loyalty and always will.”

Speaking to Good Morning America’s George Stephanopoulos, a powerful yet powerless Cohen declared, “To be crystal clear, my wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will. I put family and country first,” indicating his potential willingness to cooperate with federal investigators. 

Further, some Trump allies conceded at the time, “When anybody is faced with spending a long time in jail, they start to re-evaluate their priorities, and cooperation can’t be ruled out.”

The following month, in July, Cohen’s newly appointed lawyer, Lanny Davis, who the New York Times described as a lawyer “best known as a high-profile spinner for Bill and Hillary Clinton,” took on Trump’s newly appointed lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, in a fight that played out live on TV.

Davis released one of the several tapes Cohen was revealed to have made of Trump when they two worked together at the Trump organization. 

Reports featured the tape, which had Trump and Cohen apparently discussing how to hush up allegations that the President had an affair with the Playboy model, Karen McDougal.

The discussion reportedly took place two months before the 2016 election and was revealed to have been one of the pieces of evidence seized by the FBI, along with scores of others during the April raid. 

It was also revealed that Cohen recorded the conversation weeks after the National Enquirer's parent company, American Media, Inc., (AMI) reached a $150,000 deal to pay McDougal for her story of the 2006 affair.

However, National Enquirer never published the story and was alleged to have instead resorted to an infamous tabloid practice of “catch and kill” and it was revealed that AMI’s CEO David Pecker is a personal friend of Trump.

McDougal’s case broke into the open after she filed a lawsuit seeking the right to speak publicly about her alleged affair with Trump and claimed that AMI agreed to pay her $150,000 for her story but then did not publish it.

McDougal claims that she and Trump had a year-long affair in 2006, which is the same year that porn star Stormy Daniels claims to have had a one-night stand with Trump and was also shortly after Melania Trump, gave birth to their son.

This was when Trump openly broke with his ex-lawyer, slamming him over the secret recordings and the “outrageous” leak.

Calling the situation “Too bad!” Trump tore into his former lawyer, claiming that it was "inconceivable that a lawyer would tape a client — totally unheard of & perhaps illegal.”

Prosecutors were said to be in possession of 12 such audio tapes made by Cohen.

What next? 

While the deal does not include cooperation with investigators, sources quoted in a New York Times report pointed out that this does not completely eliminate the possibility that Cohen could subsequently provide information to investigators that might result in a more lenient sentence.

While that could lead to dramatic implications for Trump - on Tuesday, what emerged more glaringly was that Cohen’s claims about payoffs to the women directly contradicted a year’s worth of denials from Trump and his lawyers that the then-candidate was not aware before hand that Cohen sought to quiet damaging allegations with money during an election year.

Nick Gravante, a partner of New York-based law firm Boies Schiller, prosecutors have an incentive to seek plea bargains — even without a cooperation agreement — because they conserve substantial resources by striking deals.

He was quoted as saying, “If a defendant is willing to admit guilt, why bother taking him to trial and proving it?"

However, Gravante also pointed out that on the flip side, Cohen's plea has no real effect on Trump's legal situation if he doesn't cooperate — aside from the bad optics it creates.

Further, apart from possible implications for Trump, Cohen’s plea deal is also set to possibly impact Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Rosenstein, who has been a target of Trump’s frequent ire, not only authorized the April raid at Cohen’s properties but is in Trump’s view, entirely responsible for the entire collusion “witch hunt.” 

Acting on behalf of Attorney General Jeff Sessions who recused from the 2016 election probe last year, Rosenstein appointed Mueller to head the collusion investigation and continues to hold broad power as the acting head of the Justice Department for the election probe.

Meanwhile, so far, neither the President nor the White House has made official comments on Cohen’s plea deal. 

Trump counsel Rudy Giuliani, who has recently described Cohen as a “scoundrel,” a “pathological manipulator and a “liar,” however issued a statement following Cohen’s court proceedings and said, “There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr. Cohen. It is clear that, as the prosecutor noted, Mr. Cohen’s actions reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time.”

Further, Stormy Daniels’ attorney Michael Avenatti tweeted at Giuliani, “Buckle Up Buttercup. You and your client completely misplayed this.” 

Avenatti also tweeted, “The developments of today will permit us to have the stay lifted in the civil case & should also permit us to proceed with an expedited deposition of Trump under oath about what he knew, when he knew it, and what he did about it. We will disclose it all to the public.”

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