Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen on Tuesday said Trump directed him to make payments that violated campaign finance laws, in an effort to keep quiet two women who alleged sexual affairs with the billionaire.
The president has denied any knowledge of the payments at the time they were made. His role in the payments could draw him personally into legal jeopardy, legal analysts said.
The disclosure was made as Cohen pleaded guilty to bank fraud, tax fraud and campaign finance violations in federal court in New York.
At the same time in Alexandria, Virginia, Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was found guilty of bank fraud, tax fraud and failure to report a foreign bank account.
The campaign finance charges against Cohen stemmed from payments he made to the pornographic actor Stormy Daniels and to former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
As part of the deal, Cohen agreed not to challenge any prison sentence from 46 to 63 months.
Cohen did not agree to testify in other matters, such as the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
But Cohen’s apparent decision to plead guilty was nonetheless a political blow for Trump, who had decried the investigation of Cohen as “an attack on our country.”
Trump later turned on Cohen, suggesting that he was “trying to make up stories in order to get himself out of an unrelated jam.”
The White House did not immediately comment.
Cohen has been under investigation in the southern district of New York. Federal agents raided his home and offices on 9 April, on a referral from Mueller.
Prosecutors appeared to be focused on money flows through a limited liability corporation Cohen set up as part of his work for Trump – including payments to women claiming affairs – and on $20m in loans received by taxi cab businesses operated by Cohen and family members.
In addition to his work for Trump, Cohen has run a taxi medallion business and a real estate business, worked as a personal injury lawyer and has pursued multiple dead-end startups including a floating casino and multiple medical billing companies.
Taxi businesses belonging to Cohen and his family were under investigation for possible bank fraud connected to $20m in loans they had received, the New York Times first reported.
On Tuesday, Sam Nunberg, a former Trump aide, dismissed the Cohen plea as insignificant in the context of the Russia investigation.
“Unless I see a direct correlation and coordination on hacking of the emails, I don’t see what this does for getting the president removed from office,” he said.
Nunberg also dismissed the importance of Cohen paying off women on Trump’s behalf.
“So what do they have?” Nunberg asked of the prosecutors. “That Cohen paid off a woman and Trump told him to? My argument would be Trump has done this before, this wasn’t his first rodeo doing this.”
Cohen went to work for the Trump Organization in 2007 as a dealmaker, lawyer and fixer. His portfolio included scouting potential real estate deals in the US and abroad and threatening reporters preparing stories deemed harmful to Trump.
Cohen was also charged with dealing with women who threatened to go public with stories of affairs with Trump. In an audio tape released last month, Cohen and Trump can be heard discussing a payment related to allegations by McDougal.
A month before the 2016 election, Cohen opened a limited liability corporation called Essential Consultants and used it to make a $130,000 payment to Daniels. Trump has denied the affairs and all wrongdoing.
The establishment of the LLC set in motion events that led to Cohen’s indictment. After Trump was elected president, Cohen used the company to catch hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from corporations in the US and abroad seeking Trump’s ear. He also used the company to pay dues at private clubs and for luxury items, according to documents released by Daniels’ legal team.
Neither function fit with the purpose of the company as stated in bank documents submitted by Cohen, who had described the LLC as part of a real estate consultancy. Bankers flagged the money flows to regulators.
Trump and Cohen had a public falling out as legal pressure grew on Cohen. “Sounds to me like someone is trying to make up stories in order to get himself out of an unrelated jam,” the president wrote on Twitter last month.
Cohen, who had long professed his willingness to “take a bullet” for the president, changed his tune in an ABC News interview last month.
“My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will,” he said, adding: “I put my family and country first.”