The Timeline Leading Up To Michael Cohen's Guilty Plea

Aug 22, 2018
Originally published on August 23, 2018 4:37 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Lawyers, politicians, anyone reading about what has transpired in the last 24 hours is trying to figure out what it means for President Trump. The White House today through Sarah Sanders says it doesn't mean anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president has done nothing wrong. There are no charges against him. There is no collusion.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One question being asked is whether a sitting president can be indicted. We're going to hear in a few minutes from someone who has given this a lot of thought, a man who served as counsel to the Watergate prosecutors.

CORNISH: First what's brought us to this point. This story began in 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Just over two months until the presidential election.

CHANG: That fall, Trump's longtime lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen helped put together payments to silence Playboy model Karen McDougal and porn actress Stormy Daniels. Both women claim they had affairs with the Republican candidate Donald Trump.

CORNISH: The public first starts hearing about this after The Wall Street Journal begins breaking stories about the payoffs. By February of 2018, Michael Cohen admits he paid $130,000 to Stormy Daniels. Two months later...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The FBI has raided the office of Donald Trump's longtime lawyer Michael Cohen.

CHANG: President Trump said the raid was just more proof that the Russia investigation was nothing more than a witch hunt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: An attack on our country in a true sense. It's an attack...

CHANG: Trump said he didn't know about the payments. In May, though, his new lawyer Rudy Giuliani told Fox News Trump did know.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUDY GIULIANI: Funneled through a law firm, and the president repaid it.

SEAN HANNITY: Oh, I didn't know he did.

GIULIANI: Yeah.

CORNISH: The next month, ABC's George Stephanopoulos reports that Cohen told him this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty, he said, and they always will. I put family and country first.

CORNISH: A public break with Trump.

CHANG: And yesterday, Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts, implicating the president in the process.

CORNISH: NPR's Ryan Lucas has read all of the court documents released after Cohen's court appearance. He's with us now in the studio to tell us a little bit more and what could be next. Hey there, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hello.

CORNISH: So the problems for Trump are linked to these payments made in 2016 to McDougal and Daniels to essentially buy their silence. What exactly landed Cohen in legal trouble?

LUCAS: Well, they're both campaign finance violations, but these are different charges. On the McDougal payment, Cohen is charged with causing an illegal corporate contribution to the campaign. So basically what that means is that companies are not allowed to make contributions directly to candidates. They also can't coordinate expenditures with a candidate. And what court papers say is this - that Cohen and a member of the Trump campaign coordinated with American Media Inc. - that's the parent company of the National Enquirer - to buy the rights to McDougal's story of her alleged affair with Trump. The concern was that the story would damage Trump's campaign, so they arranged for AMI to buy the story and kill it.

CORNISH: So getting a company involved is the problem. What about the Daniels payment?

LUCAS: Well, with that Cohen set up a shell company to pay Daniels $130,000. That was to buy her silence. That payment ran afoul of the law because it exceeded the amount of money that an individual is allowed to contribute to a campaign. And at his plea hearing yesterday in federal court in Manhattan, Cohen said he organized these payments in coordination and at the direction of the candidate, which of course is Donald Trump.

CORNISH: You've gone through all of the documents on this. Is there anything else that caught your eye?

LUCAS: There's a lot in here. I spoke with a number of former prosecutors about it all. One thing that stands out is the court papers may foreshadow more prosecutions to come against others. For example, the role of American Media Inc., AMI - it could be in trouble here. The court papers go into detail about the company's alleged role in one of the campaign finance violations. One former prosecutor described the criminal information - so the court papers against Cohen - as a roadmap to what charges against AMI could look like.

Then there's the detail about how Cohen was reimbursed by the Trump Organization for the payment that he made to Daniels. The numbers don't really add up. The invoices were falsely labeled. It's not clear whether anybody was defrauded or income was falsely reported. But it's curious that this was included in the filings.

CORNISH: Michael Cohen's attorney, Lanny Davis, told NPR this morning that Cohen has information that would be of interest to the special counsel. Is Cohen now cooperating with those investigators?

LUCAS: Cohen's plea agreement does not contain a provision about cooperation. That doesn't mean that he can't or won't cooperate in the future, including possibly with Mueller. Davis is saying flat-out that Cohen is happy to talk. Former prosecutors that I've spoken with say it's not surprising that there's no cooperation agreement at this point. They say there's no reason to lock Cohen into something formal and public right now.

Having Cohen say under oath in court that Trump directed the hush money payments locks Cohen in. He can't wiggle out. He can't say that - down the road that Trump wasn't aware. It preserves Cohen as a potential witness for Mueller down the road. And it also means that the government isn't responsible for anything that he does in between.

CORNISH: Is there any way that the president could possibly try and head any of that off - right? - maybe pardon Michael Cohen?

LUCAS: Davis has said that Cohen would never accept a pardon from Trump, says that he doesn't want to be dirtied by it. That's the way that he described it this morning. The bottom line is that basically this relationship between Trump and Cohen has unraveled in a very public way and very nasty way over the past several months. We've seen it. Cohen has been frustrated with the president. He feels that he's been hung out to dry.

The president and his allies have questioned Cohen's credibility and his honesty. They did that again yesterday after his plea agreement. And this morning, the president took a very personal shot at Cohen on Twitter. He said, if anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don't retain the services of Michael Cohen. So pardon doesn't appear at this point in time at least to be in the offing.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.