Washington, D.C.

Prosecutors say Trump directed illegal payments during campaign

Payments made to two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump
Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former lawyer, leaves federal court in Manhattan on Thursday morning, Nov. 29, 2018.
Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former lawyer, leaves federal court in Manhattan on Thursday morning, Nov. 29, 2018.

NEW YORK — Federal prosecutors said Friday that President Donald Trump directed illegal payments to ward off a potential sex scandal that threatened his chances of winning the White House in 2016, putting the weight of the Justice Department behind accusations previously made by his former lawyer.

The lawyer, Michael Cohen, had said that as the election neared, Trump directed payments to two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump. But in a new memorandum arguing for a prison term for Cohen, prosecutors in Manhattan said he “acted in coordination and at the direction of” an unnamed individual, clearly referring to Trump.

In another filing, prosecutors for the special counsel investigating Russia’s 2016 election interference said an unnamed Russian offered Cohen “government level” synergy between Russia and Trump’s campaign in November 2015. That was months earlier than other approaches detailed in indictments secured by prosecutors.

And in a separate case Friday, the special counsel accused Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, of lying about his contacts with an individual they accuse of ties to Russian intelligence, and about his interactions with Trump administration officials after he was indicted on criminal charges.

Together, the filings laid bare the most direct evidence to date linking Trump to potentially criminal conduct, and added to an already substantial case that Russia was seeking to sway the 2016 election in his favor.

Trump sought on Friday to dismiss the news, claiming it “Totally clears the President. Thank you!”

The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was less unequivocal. “The government’s filings in Cohen’s case tell us nothing of value that wasn’t already known,” she said in a statement. “Mr. Cohen has repeatedly lied and as the prosecution has pointed out to the court, Mr. Cohen is no hero.”

She tried to distance Trump from the accusations against Manafort, who was convicted on financial fraud and conspiracy charges unrelated to his work for the Trump campaign. Trump has repeatedly defended Manafort as a “brave man” and dangled the possibility of a pardon for his 10 felonies, likely to result in a prison term of at least 10 years.

The revelations came in multiple filings by federal prosecutors for the Southern District of New York and by the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Their work has intersected because both teams have charged Cohen with crimes, and he had sought to cooperate with both.

The prosecutors in New York mounted a scathing attack on Cohen’s character. They rejected his plea to avoid a prison term, saying that he had “repeatedly used his power and influence for deceptive ends.”

They argued that he deserved a “substantial” prison term that, giving him some credit for his cooperation, could amount to just under four years. “His offenses strike at several pillars of our society and system of government: the payment of taxes; transparent and fair elections; and truthfulness before government and in business,” they wrote.

Cohen, 52, is to be sentenced next week for campaign finance violations, financial crimes and lying to Congress about the extent of Trump’s business dealings in Russia.

Cohen’s crimes marked “a pattern of deception that permeated his professional life,” the Manhattan prosecutors wrote, saying that he did not deserve much leniency in exchange for his cooperation.

“The sentence imposed should reflect the seriousness of Cohen’s brazen violations of the election laws and attempt to counter the public cynicism that may arise when individuals like Cohen act as if the political process belongs to the rich and powerful,” they said, adding that he “sought to influence the election from the shadows.”

They emphasized that Cohen had implicated the president in payments to two women during the campaign to conceal affairs that they said they had with Trump. “Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1,” the prosecutors wrote. “Individual-1” is how Trump is referred to in the document.

The prosecutors have said that a $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels, a pornographic film actress, violated campaign finance law prohibitions against donations of more than $2,700 in a general election. A $150,000 payment by American Media Inc. to silence Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model, constituted an illegal corporate donation to Trump’s campaign, the prosecutors said.

The special counsel’s prosecutors offered a somewhat more positive view of Cohen than the New York team, saying he went “to significant lengths to assist” their inquiry, including by providing relevant information he had learned from Trump Organization executives during the campaign.

Over seven meetings with the special counsel’s office, prosecutors said Cohen had revealed details about an interaction that appeared to be the earliest known contact between a Russian offering to help Trump’s campaign. The timing of the interaction matched one disclosed this year by BuzzFeed.

In November 2015, as discussions about a possible Moscow hotel that would bear Trump’s name were gaining momentum, Cohen told prosecutors he was approached by a Russian claiming to be a ‘trusted person’ in the Russian Federation.” The individual, who was not named, offered “synergy on a government level” with the Trump campaign and pushed for a meeting between Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia that could have a “phenomenal” effect both politically and commercially.

Cohen, who told the special counsel’s team that he never followed up on the invitation, also “provided information about attempts by other Russian nationals to reach the campaign,” the prosecutors said.

He also revealed that Trump had been more involved in discussions over a potential deal to build a tower in Moscow than was previously known. Although he testified to Congress that negotiations ended in January 2016, before the first Republican presidential primary, he told prosecutors that those discussions had continued until June of that year, just before Trump won the Republican nomination and only five months before the election.

Cohen described to prosecutors his interactions with Russian officials who might have tried to use the project as leverage over Trump when he was running for president.

Before he testified falsely to Congress about the Moscow hotel project, Cohen has admitted, he consulted with White House staff members and Trump’s legal team. The prosecutors characterized his information about his contacts with people tied to the White House over the past two years as “relevant and useful information.”

Cohen has said he lied out of loyalty to Trump and to be consistent with the president’s “political messaging.”

His lawyers, Guy Petrillo and Amy Lester, have asked Judge William H. Pauley III to allow Cohen to avoid a prison sentence, saying he cooperated with prosecutors even though he never signed a formal agreement.

They portrayed him as a remorseful man whose life had been shattered by his relationship with Trump, who has lost friends and associates and who wanted to come clean so he could begin his life anew.

Under federal guidelines, Cohen faces about four to five years in the Manhattan case, and up to six months in Mueller’s case. The special counsel suggested that any prison terms be served concurrently. But the guidelines are not binding, and Pauley will decide his punishment.

Trump has accused Cohen of lying to prosecutors in hope of a lighter sentence. On Friday, he kept up his continuing effort to undermine public trust in the special counsel’s office and in the Justice Department. In a series of Twitter messages, he derided Mueller as a friend of James B. Comey, the former FBI director who said the president fired him in May 2017 after demanding “loyalty.”

Asked why the president was so upset about the special counsel, Roger Stone, a fellow critic of Mueller, said it had dawned on Trump that the inquiry was not going away, his lawyers’ promises notwithstanding. “He has finally figured out that this is about him,” he said.

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