Michael Cohen’s guilty plea: Here’s what we know
NEW YORK — You could easily be confused by the sheer number and variety of the criminal charges that Michael Cohen, President Trump’s onetime fixer and personal lawyer, pleaded guilty to Tuesday in US District Court.
After all, the combative Cohen, a former vice president at the Trump Organization, was accused of violating laws that involved his taxi business, his financial dealings with at least three banks, and — it was the headline allegation — his secretive efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. He admitted joining forces with the nation’s best-known supermarket tabloid to buy the silence of at least two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump.
Making matters more arcane, some of these purported crimes overlapped, the government said.
Cohen, for instance, was said to have used a fraudulently obtained home-equity loan to pay off one of the women, adult film star Stephanie Clifford, better known as Stormy Daniels.
The charging documents describe a universe of shady dealings and unsavory characters. None of the revelations seem helpful to Trump.
Here are six takeaways from what happened in court — and what was disclosed in court papers.
The Stormy Daniels cover-up almost fell apart
According to the government, in October 2016 — one month before the presidential election — Clifford, who has a second career as an exotic dancer, reached out through her agent to the National Enquirer, the gossip magazine owned by David J. Pecker, a longtime friend and supporter of Trump.
She had what she believed was a hot story, the government said: the tale of her alleged affair with Trump.
Court papers say Pecker and an editor at the National Enquirer then reached out to Cohen, putting him in touch with Keith Davidson, a Los Angeles lawyer who was representing Clifford. Over the next few days, the papers claim, Cohen negotiated a deal to pay Clifford $130,000 to keep her silent about the affair.
By Oct. 25, however, just two weeks before voters would go to the polls, the deal had not been signed yet, the government said. And even worse, prosecutors claim, Davidson was threatening to take his client and her scoop to another publication.
It was at that point, court papers say, that the unnamed editor from the National Enquirer sent Cohen a text message, saying, “We have to coordinate something on the matter” or “it could look awfully bad for everyone.”
Not long after, prosecutors said, the editor and Pecker called Cohen on an encrypted phone application, and Cohen agreed to make the payment.
The very next day, the government said, Cohen withdrew $131,000 from the fraudulent home-equity loan he had gotten that year and placed it into the account of a shell company he had created, Essential Consultants LLC.
Then, on Oct. 27, in an effort to influence the 2016 presidential election, prosecutors say, he wired $130,000 to Clifford’s lawyer, Davidson, apparently keeping the extra $1,000 for himself.
He seemed to like to hold on to evidence
A few months earlier, in June 2016, Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model, started searching for a publication to which she could sell her own tale of an affair with Trump, the government said. She, too, was represented by Davidson.
In August 2016, the National Enquirer struck a deal with McDougal and Davidson to purchase what court papers called the “limited life rights” to her story of infidelity.
In exchange, the government said, the National Enquirer agreed to pay McDougal $150,000 and promised to feature her on two of its covers and to publish more than 100 articles she wrote.
Cohen was also part of this deal, prosecutors claim, and to facilitate it, he created another shell company called Resolution Consultants LLC.
But before the agreement was consummated, court papers say, the National Enquirer’s owner, Pecker, told Cohen to tear it up.
Cohen, however, did not tear it up, the government said.
The paperwork was later found by federal agents when they performed “a judicially authorized search” of Cohen’s office, prosecutors said.
He lied — often — to banks, prosecutors say
Much of the 22-page criminal information detailing Cohen’s alleged legal violations involved false statements he is said to have made to banks.
Beginning in 2010, Cohen began to rack up debts with one bank that ultimately totaled about $20 million, according to court papers.
But his problems started in earnest in 2013, the government said, when he successfully applied, through a different bank, for a mortgage for an apartment on Park Avenue and claimed in his paperwork that he only owed the first bank $6.4 million in outstanding loans.
He neglected to mention he was also on the hook for another $14 million in lines of credit, according to court documents.
Compounding his troubles, the government said, Cohen also tried to buy an $8.5 million summer home in 2015 and, once again, never disclosed his line of credit. When the second bank questioned him about the $14 million he owed, he “misled” it, prosecutors said, saying he had closed the line of credit in 2014.
In December 2015, Cohen asked the bank for more money — this time for a $500,000 home-equity loan, the government said. (It’s the same one he is accused of having used to pay Clifford.)
In getting the loan, court papers say, Cohen “significantly understated” his debt and falsely represented that he was worth more than $40 million at the time.
A profitable taxi business — but maybe not on his taxes
Cohen had been involved in the taxi business for years, the government said, earning millions of dollars by leasing taxi medallions to operators in Chicago and New York who paid him a portion of their income.
He also made money, prosecutors said, by offering what amounted to a total of $6 million in personal loans to one taxi operator and collecting interest.
The problem was, the government said, Cohen did not pay taxes on much of the money he made from the medallions and the loans.
Instead, the government said, he hid millions of dollars in profits in his and his wife’s bank accounts and failed to tell his personal accountant.
Wait, there’s more
Cohen not only disguised the income he earned from his taxi business, prosecutors said, but he also failed to disclose $100,000 he made in 2014 from brokering the sale of a piece of property in “a private aviation community” in Ocala, Fla., and $30,000 he made from brokering the sale of a Birkin bag, “a highly coveted French handbag,” the government explained.
Then there was the $200,000 in consulting fees he took in and did not disclose as income from working with “an assisted living company,” prosecutors said, which he gave advice to about real estate deals.
What does this mean for Trump?
At the moment, it’s hard to say.
Cohen’s plea agreement with the prosecutors in Manhattan does not require him to cooperate with other pending investigations. But it also does not preclude him from telling what he knows about Trump to investigators working with the special counsel, Robert Mueller, who is looking into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Cohen’s agreement with the government contains a provision that could allow him to receive a significantly reduced sentence. If Cohen were to substantially assist the special counsel’s investigation, Mueller could recommend a reduction.
Looming over negotiations between prosecutors and Cohen has been the possibility of a presidential pardon.
Cohen’s lawyer at one point raised the issue of a pardon with Trump’s several months ago, The Times reported.
By striking a deal with Cohen that includes prison time, federal authorities were aware of the risk that the president might pardon him.
But the president has given no indication that he was leaning toward one.