NEW YORK – The sentencing of President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer might mark the end of a wrenching chapter for Michael Cohen, but the political and legal implications of Cohen’s capitulation have only darkened the shadow that looms over the Trump White House.
The worst of what New York federal prosecutors and Russia special counsel Robert Mueller revealed in court papers last week – Trump’s alleged implication in hush money payments to mistresses and Cohen’s early campaign contacts with Russians – probably represents only a fraction of what they have gathered in multiple probes that have reached deep into Trump’s inner circle.
Trump sought to brush away the hush money payments to two women who claimed to have had affairs with him as “civil” matters, but the detailed description of Cohen’s conduct outlined Wednesday by a federal judge and prosecutor will be difficult for the White House to dismiss.
U.S. District Court Judge William Pauley said Cohen’s “smorgasbord” of crimes, including the payments that prosecutors said were directed by Trump, highlight a level of “deception” and “sophistication” motivated by “personal greed.”
Prosecutor Jeannie Rhee, a top aide to Mueller, signaled that Cohen’s assistance to the Russia investigation – and its examination of possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin – has yet to be fully revealed.
Rhee told Pauley that Cohen provided “credible” and “valuable information” in support of the Russia inquiry.
“Mr. Cohen has sought to tell us the truth,” Rhee said.
Though neither Pauley nor Rhee mentioned Trump by name, Cohen brought the president directly into the courtroom Wednesday.
“My own weakness was blind loyalty to the man that caused me to choose the path of darkness,” Cohen said. “Time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds.”
More: Read Michael Cohen’s statement before learning his prison sentence
Pauley sentenced Cohen to three years in prison for income tax evasion, campaign finance violations, lying to Congress and lying to banks. It was less than the 42 months prosecutors sought, but more than the probation that Cohen’s attorneys requested.
Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and Trump’s personal attorney, dismissed Cohen as a “complete liar” and a “scoundrel” and said that whatever the president’s former associate told investigators about Trump doesn’t matter.
Trump offered a variety of explanations for the payments. He initially denied knowledge about them. He later acknowledged them but said they weren’t illegal.
Terree Bowers, a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, said the president’s position could be difficult for prosecutors to overcome.
“Trump appears to be advancing an advice-of-counsel defense with regard to the payments to the two women,” Bowers said. “Trump’s purported reliance on Cohen regarding campaign finance law may actually be a formidable hurdle to prosecutors bringing charges against Trump.”
Among the potential threats Cohen poses to the president and his administration:
The ultimate insider
Even before he arrived in federal court Wednesday, Cohen had fully cemented his role as an antagonist to the president – one equipped with lots of inside information.
Cohen attorney Guy Petrillo indicated Wednesday that New York federal prosecutors gathered so much material on Cohen through “dozens and dozens” of witnesses and raids at his client’s residences and offices that there is little about him that they haven’t been able to document on their own.
That information includes tape recordings of conversations with clients including Trump.
“The special counsel’s investigation is of the utmost national significance, no less than seen 40-plus years ago in the days of Watergate,” Petrillo said.
A recording in which Cohen and Trump discussed hush money payments to former Playboy model Karen McDougal was identified this year as one of the pieces of evidence seized by the FBI in a raid on Cohen’s offices in April.
The payments to McDougal and porn star Stephanie Clifford, both of whom claimed affairs with the president, were the basis for campaign finance violations to which Cohen pleaded guilty.
The owner of the National Enquirer, American Media Inc., admitted in a court filing Wednesday that the company paid off McDougal in August 2016 with $150,000 to squelch her account “so as to prevent it from influencing the election.”
Prosecutors said Trump directed Cohen to make the payments, which would implicate the president in felony offenses.
“I will continue to cooperate with the government, offering as much information as I truthfully possess,” Cohen said in court Wednesday. “My departure as a loyal soldier to the president bears a heavy price.”
More: Did President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen disclose every crime he knows about?
The Russia factor
Perhaps the most complete assistance Cohen provided to the government has been to Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Rhee told Pauley on Wednesday that Cohen supplied “credible information about core Russia-related matters.” The prosecutor did not elaborate.
Central to the Russia inquiry is the question of whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Court documents filed by prosecutors before Cohen’s sentencing offered the fullest account of Trump’s political and business contacts with Russia.
As early as November 2015, Cohen told Mueller’s team, he was in contact with a Russian national who claimed to be a “trusted” figure in the Russian government and who allegedly offered the campaign “synergy on a government level.”
Trump announced his White House bid in June 2015.
Prosecutors said Cohen had extensive discussions with Russians about a plan to build a Trump Tower in Moscow and kept Trump and his family members briefed on the talks.
At the time, Trump repeatedly denied any business interests in Russia on the campaign trail.
“Cohen provided the (special counsel’s office) with useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to its investigation that he obtained by virtue of his regular contact with (Trump Organization) executives during the campaign,” prosecutors asserted in court filings last week.
They said Cohen remained in contact with White House officials as recently as this year, even as he drew increasing scrutiny from prosecutors.
Petrillo said Wednesday that Cohen offered Mueller “relevant knowledge in the investigation” despite knowing he would face “a barrage of attacks by the president.”
He said Cohen “came forward to offer evidence against the most powerful person in our country” even though he didn’t know whether Trump could shut down the Mueller inquiry.
More: From fixer to federal inmate: Timeline of Michael Cohen’s role in Russia inquiry
Cohen’s next move
The man who once boasted that he would “take a bullet for Mr. Trump” is not scheduled to report to prison until March.
Until then, and possibly after, Cohen attorney Lanny Davis said, he will bear witness against his former boss.
“Michael Cohen … continues to tell the truth about Donald Trump’s misconduct over the years,” Davis said. ” 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.”
Included in that effort, Davis said, is an offer to appear before any congressional committee that investigates Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Ironically, part of the sentence imposed against Cohen on Wednesday is for lying to Congress. Cohen pleaded guilty to making false statements to lawmakers this year about the extent of his talks with Russians related to the Moscow tower project.
“(Cohen) admitted he told these lies … in order to minimize links between the Moscow Project and (Trump),” Mueller’s team said in court documents.
If called, Davis said Wednesday, his client will go back to Congress and offer his cooperation.
“Mr. Trump’s repeated lies cannot contradict stubborn facts,” Davis said.
More: Trump’s evolving explanation of his role with Cohen, the hush money payments
Bart Jansen and Kevin Johnson reported from Washington.