Donald Trump has scrambled to distance himself from illegal campaign contributions made by his former lawyer to two women who allege they had affairs with the president more than a decade ago.
Michael Cohen, Mr Trump’s former personal lawyer, was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday, in part for funnelling money – allegedly at the direction of the president – to porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen MacDougal.
“I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law,” Mr Trump tweeted on Thursday morning. “It is called ‘advice of counsel,’ and a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made. That is why they get paid.”
“Despite that many campaign finance lawyers have strongly stated that I did nothing wrong with respect to campaign finance laws, if they even apply, because this was not campaign finance,” he continued. “Cohen was guilty on many charges unrelated to me, but he plead to two campaign charges which were not criminal and of which he probably was not guilty even on a civil basis.”
The president’s comments arrived after Cohen admitted on Wednesday to covering up Mr Trump’s “dirty deeds” out of “blind loyalty,” closing his eyes as a judge pronounced his sentence for evading $1.4m in taxes, lying about Trump’s business dealings in Russia and violating campaign-finance laws in buying the silence of multiple women during the 2016 election.
“Time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds rather than to listen to my own inner voice and my moral compass,” said a choked-up Cohen, a lawyer who once boasted he would “take a bullet” for Trump. “My weakness can be characterised as a blind loyalty to Donald Trump, and I was weak for not having the strength to question and to refuse his demands.”
Cohen is the first and, so far, only member of Trump’s circle during two years of investigations to go into open court and implicate him in a crime, though whether a president can be prosecuted under the constitution is an open question.
However, the president rejected Cohen’s accusations on Thursday, writing: “Those charges were just agreed to by him in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence, which he did-including the fact that his family was temporarily let off the hook.”
He added: “As a lawyer, Michael has great liability to me!”
In a possible sign of further trouble for the president, Cohen said he will continue cooperating with prosecutors, and one of his legal advisers said Cohen is also prepared to tell “all he knows” to congress if asked.
At the sentencing, defence attorney Guy Petrillo pleaded for leniency for Cohen, saying: “He came forward to offer evidence against the most powerful person in our country.”
US District Judge William H Pauley III said the defendant deserved modest credit, but his assistance “does not wipe the slate clean”.
“Somewhere along the way Mr Cohen appears to have lost his moral compass,” the judge said.
The judge also ordered Cohen to pay $1.39m in restitution to the IRS, forfeit $500,000 and pay $100,000 in fines. He was ordered to report to prison on 6 March and left court without comment.
Mr Trump continued to distance himself from Cohen in an interview with Fox News on Thursday, describing his former lawyer as someone who did “very low-level work” and “was OK on television”.
“I never directed him to do anything wrong. Whatever he did, he did on his own,” he said. “He’s a lawyer. A lawyer who represents a client is supposed to do the right thing, that’s why you pay them a lot of money, etc etc. He is a lawyer.”
Beyond the guilty pleas, it is unclear what Cohen has told prosecutors or what he has left to say, though one of Mueller’s prosecutors, Jeannie Rhee, said in court that Cohen has “provided consistent and credible information about core Russia-related issues under investigation”. Legal experts said Cohen could get his sentence reduced by cooperating.
In the hush-money case, Cohen arranged for American Media Inc, parent of the pro-Trump National Enquirer, to pay $150,000 to McDougal to buy and bury her story, according to prosecutors. Cohen also said he paid $130,000 to Daniels and was reimbursed by Trump’s business empire. Both payments were made during the heat of the 2016 campaign.
Prosecutors said those secret payouts were not reported as campaign contributions and violated the ban on corporate contributions and the $2,700 limit on donations by an individual.
Additional reporting by AP
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