A court in New York sentenced Donald Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen to three years in prison on Wednesday, the longest sentence handed out so far as a result of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the US presidential elections.
In August, the Southern District of New York found Cohen guilty of tax evasion, lying to a financial institution and breaking campaign finance laws by paying hush money to two women who say they had affairs with Trump. When it came to the illegal hush payments, Cohen told the court that he was acting “in coordination with and under the direction of” Trump.
Late last month, Cohen also pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, telling Mueller’s investigators that he had downplayed the extent of Trump’s business interests in Russia and his contacts with Russian officials in order to benefit the president and limit the scope of the Russia investigation.
In his sentencing memorandum, Mueller wrote that Cohen was cooperating with his investigators and had provided them with useful and credible information. He wrote that “the defendant has made substantial and significant efforts to remediate his misconduct, accept responsibility for his actions, and assist the [Special Counsel’s] investigation,” and recommended that any prison sentence arising from his lies to Congress be served concurrently with his other sentences.
The Southern District of New York prosecutors took a much harder line, saying that Cohen had “overstated” the extent of his cooperation with investigators, did not sign a cooperation agreement and could not legally be considered a cooperating witness. It described him as a person “motivated by personal greed” and argued that a “pattern of deception … permeated his business life”.
While Trump may be feeling gleeful that his right-hand-man-turned-archenemy is facing three years behind bars, it doesn’t look good when your business fixer is jailed for financial crime. Cohen’s sentence also has direct ramifications for Trump.
First, Trump is implicated in two of these crimes. Either he ordered Cohen to lie to Congress, or he remained quiet even when he knew that Cohen was lying to the public about the Trump Organization’s Russian interests.
Trump also, according to Cohen, directed his lawyer to make the illegal hush money payments. Speaking outside the courtroom, the Assistant US Attorney Nicholas Roos underlined that he did not see Cohen’s breaking of campaign finance rules as a minor slip-up, rather he said they carried a “tremendous social cost”. “In committing these crimes, Mr. Cohen has eroded faith in the electoral process and compromised the rule of law,” Roos said. The same could be said of Trump.
Second, Cohen’s pattern of behaviour – the shell companies set up to disguise hush payments, the loans that went undeclared to banks and the $4m in income hidden from the IRS – indicate the extent to which Cohen was able to use his professional training for crooked and deceptive purposes. As the judge put it in court, he is guilty of a “veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent misconduct”.
Were there other occasions when he used similarly “creative” accounting methods on behalf of Donald Trump and the Trump Organization, one might wonder?
Cohen hinted as much in court. “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,” he said.
Cohen is due to report for the beginning of his prison sentence on 6 March, but the threat he poses to Trump will not diminish just because he is behind bars. Cohen, after all, is a man with little more to lose and every reason to resent his former boss.
The prosecution has accused Cohen of refusing to cooperate fully with the investigation by declining to discuss other possible crimes he knows about – but Cohen’s lawyers pushed back against this characterisation and emphasised the high personal cost for Cohen of cooperating with the investigators.
One of his lawyers, Lanny Davis, told ABC that his client was now released to tell “the full truth”. In a later statement he added that “at the appropriate time, 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 fact and lies.”
Trump’s erratic, oddly capitalised tweets about the WITCH HUNT suggest that he’s already feeling rattled by the Mueller investigation – and if Cohen’s to believed, things could soon get even worse for the president.