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‘Real drama’ in the courtroom as Cohen gets 3-year sentence

President Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday. He admitted to arranging hush money payments to women claiming affairs with Mr. Trump, as well as lying about Trump’s business dealings in Russia. Judy Woodruff talks to Andrea Bernstein of WNYC, who was in the courtroom, about how both sides emphasized the case's significance for American democracy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump's ex-lawyer Michael Cohen now faces three years in prison. He was sentenced today for arranging hush money payments over Mr. Trump's alleged sexual affairs and for lying about his boss' business dealings in Russia.

    Cohen said nothing after leaving federal court in New York. He was ordered to surrender on March 6 to begin serving his time.

    We get more now from Andrea Bernstein of WNYC. She was in the courtroom today.

    So, Andrea, I think we have got used to it being almost a spectacle, these court scenes, when various defendants, people accused have shown up. Tell us about what the scene was today.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Well, inside the courtroom, there was real drama, because there was — we didn't know what was going to happen, and there were many members of Cohen's family there, his parents, his children, his brother, and just a packed courthouse.

    It's the first time in a New York courtroom that I have heard everything from taxi medallions to Russia.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And tell us a little bit about the exchanges between the judge and what Cohen himself had to say.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Right, so this was a very different sentencing hearing. I have been to a lot of sentencing hearings.

    And, usually, what happens is the defense lawyers will say that their client is really a good person that has just gone astray this once and deserves leniency. And the prosecutors will say, no, no, it was a serious crime.

    Today, both sides said, democracy depends on the sentence here. Cohen's lawyers were arguing he deserves leniency, he cooperated with the special counsel, he testified against the most powerful man in the United States, President Trump, and the judge should be sending a signal to other cooperators that they should come forward.

    And the prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office were arguing, no, no, no, he committed serious campaign finance violations, he defrauded the American people, he defrauded the IRS, and if those are not given a serious sentence, then that will send a signal to other people who want to undermine the electoral system that that's fine.

    So, it was a very different tenor from other sentencing hearings that I have been to.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You were telling us at one point they were speaking about democracy itself depends on how this sentencing turns out.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    That's right.

    And it was interesting, because the judge said — there was a point at which — Cohen obviously asked for no jail time. And the judge said to him, you cannot just wipe the slate clean. You have lied to Congress, you have lied to banks, you have lied to the IRS, you have lied to the American people, you have committed all these crimes of deception for personal greed and ambition.

    And he then gave Cohen the sentence. However, it was reduced from what it could have been.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Under the guidelines, Cohen would have gotten four or five years for the crimes that he pleaded guilty to today. So getting three years, the judge was saying, OK, you're getting a little bit of credit for helping out, but if we wipe these away, we are undermining the American democracy and the American electoral system.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what about Cohen himself, Andrea? What did he have to say?

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    So, last summer in the courtroom, he came in. He was sort of relaxed. Today, he just looked straightforward.

    And then he gave this impassioned appeal, where he said, I — the president was correct in calling me weak. I was weak because I didn't stand up to him. And, instead, I covered up his dirty deeds.

    And that was an extraordinary admission for a man who really came to public light when the dossier was released at the beginning of the Trump presidency, which, at that time, said Cohen had tried to cover up the Russia collusion.

    And we sort of came full circle today, with the special counsel saying that, actually, Cohen had helped them in material and credible ways in their investigation of what they called cooperation, Russian cooperation with the 2016 campaign and coordination.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, just very quickly, we also learned something today from the Southern District of New York, the prosecutors there, about these hush payments.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Right.

    So the owners of The National Enquirer, called AMI, signed a non-cooperation — a non-prosecution agreement, which was released today. And they also described the scheme that Cohen had previously admitted to, which was agreeing that they would pay Stormy Daniels a sum of money and hold on to her story and not release it.

    And they also agreed that this was the arrangement that they had made at the outset of the campaign, that they would make payments to make sure that these women's stories never reached the light of day.

    And the judge was very clear today when he said, when that happens at the late stages of the election, it undermines democracy, it is not OK.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Andrea Bernstein, describing a dramatic day, as we just heard, WNYC, thank you very much.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Thank you.

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