Although they were given only two hours’ notice, camera crews had amassed three rows deep in front of the Southern District of New York courthouse to witness President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen plead guilty to eight charges of tax evasion, bank fraud and illegal campaign contributions.
One protestor unfurled a handmade banner that read “justice” in big blue letters.
Even after months of theatrical court hearings, released audio recordings and leaked information, the revelations were suitably explosive: under oath, Cohen confirmed that Trump directed him to make illegal payments to silence women whose stories could damage his campaign.
As Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis highlighted in a later press statement, “if those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”
It had been suggested that Cohen might seek leniency from the prosecution in exchange for cooperating with investigators, but it seems he did not reach such a deal. Nevertheless, Cohen’s guilty plea is hugely damaging for his former boss and things could still get worse from Trump.
Cohen once told Vanity Fair that he’d “do anything to protect Mr. Trump,” but more recently he’s shown signs of flipping. In July, his lawyer told the Washington Post that Cohen “wasn’t going to be a punching bag anymore”.
He has intimate knowledge of the murkier aspects of Trump’s business dealings and campaign, and may still plan on cooperating with investigators examining connections between Trump and Russia in the belief that special counsel Robert Mueller will recommend more lenient sentencing.
Inside the courthouse, the crowds of reporters, attorneys, law students and members of the public who gathered to watch filled two overflow rooms. The live broadcast of the court proceedings was so grainy that Trump’s once swaggering and pugnacious fixer was recognisable mostly by the sag of his shoulders.
Cohen seemed to perk up briefly when asked by the judge, who was confirming that he was mentally fit to enter his guilty plea, whether he had consumed drugs or alcohol in the past 24 hours. “Yes” he replied, and then, when asked for details, said that he’d had a “glass of Glenlivet 12 on the rocks” with his dinner.
“Is it your custom to do that?” judge William H Pauley III asked. “No, your honour,” he replied.
For the most part, however, Cohen seemed to be struggling to contain his emotion as he confirmed that he was waiving his right to a trial and admitted to knowingly committing serious financial crimes. His lawyer Guy Petrillo patted Cohen on the back as the judge explained that the charges carry a maximum sentence of 65 years in prison.
Cohen has pleaded guilty to failing to report more than $4m on his personal income tax returns between 2012 and 2016, and of concealing more than $14m in debt in order to secure a loan from a financial institution.
Of greatest political importance, however, are the two charges relating to illegal campaign contributions. Under oath, Cohen confirmed that he acted “in coordination with and under the direction of a candidate” to pay tens of thousands of dollars to silence two individuals with information that “would be harmful for the candidate and his campaign”.
Although he did not mention Donald Trump or anyone else by name, it was clear that he was referring to the $150,000 non-disclosure agreement arranged with the Playboy model Karen McDougal and the $130,000 payment made to silence the porn star Stormy Daniels. The two women say that they had affairs with Trump.
In his statement, Cohen confirmed that he had paid the $130,000 to Daniels using a company under his control and that he was later reimbursed by Trump.
Cohen has been released after posting a $500,000 bail and will be sentenced at 11AM on 12 December. He left the court without taking questions. Protestors gathered outside the courthouse shouted, “fuck you Trump”, “guilty!” and “lock him up!”
Speaking on the steps of the courthouse after the hearing, Robert Khazami, the deputy US attorney for the southern district of New York, said Cohen had plead guilty to “very serious charges” that “reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over an extended period of time”. He said that these crimes were particularly significant because they were carried out by a lawyer.
Cohen “disregarded that training, disregarded that tradition and for that he is going to pay a very serious price,” Khazami said. In an almost farcical development, Khazami also declined to mention Trump by name, referring to him only as “the candidate” and ignoring the journalists who asked him “who is the candidate you’re talking about?”
At almost the same time as the Cohen hearing, Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was found guilty of financial crimes at a court in Virginia. In a statement, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said the legal developments were “further evidence of the rampant corruption and criminality at the heart of Trump’s inner circle”.
She added that “Cohen’s admission of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush money “at the direction of the candidate” to influence the election shows the President’s claims of ignorance to be far from accurate and place him in even greater legal jeopardy”. She did not, however, mention impeachment.
Cohen, a Long Island-born personal injury lawyer, taxi fleet owner and businessman with ties to a number of convicted fraudsters and Russian mobsters, served for over a decade as Donald Trump’s fixer and deals guy before becoming the president’s personal attorney.
It does not seem a stretch to imagine that when Trump instructed him to make the illegal payments it may not have been the first time his boss asked him to commit a crime, or that this will not be the last of Trump’s legal battles.