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What does Michael Cohen’s guilty plea mean for Trump?

President Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty on Tuesday to charges including campaign finance violations for paying off women at Trump's direction, bank fraud and more than $4 million in tax evasion. The deal could result in prison time. Judy Woodruff learns more from Jessica Roth of Yeshiva University Cardozo School of Law Andrea Bernstein of WNYC.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two headline stories tonight involving two men with close ties to President Trump now possible time in prison.

    A jury found his 2016 campaign chairman Paul Manafort guilty on eight counts of financial crimes. They were unable to reach agreement on 10 other charges, leading to a mistrial verdict on those.

    But we begin with the guilty plea for Mr. Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen. Cohen admitted to multiple crimes, including more than $4 million in tax evasion, as well as campaign finance violations, for paying off women at the direction of the president to keep quiet about affairs.

    There was a frenzy of cameras wherever Michael Cohen when in New York today. Cohen pleaded guilty to charges including campaign finance violations, bank fraud and tax evasion. The deal could result in prison time.

    After the court proceedings, Robert Khuzami, deputy U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, spoke outside.

  • Robert Khuzami:

    Mr. Cohen plead guilty to two campaign finance charges, one for causing an unlawful corporate contribution, and a second one for personally making an excessive personal contribution, both for the purpose of influencing the 2016 election.

    These are very serious charges and reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over an extended period of time. They are significant in their own right. They are particularly significant when done by a lawyer, a lawyer who, through training and tradition, understands what it means to be a lawyer, to engage in honest and fair dealing, and adherence to the law.

    Mr. Cohen disregarded that training, disregarded that tradition, and decided that he was above the law, and for that, he is going to pay a very, very serious price.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Cohen has known Mr. Trump like few others, as one of his personal attorneys for more than a decade. He worked on overseas deals for the Trump Organization in Georgia, and later the 2016 campaign, where he was a frequent surrogate on TV.

  • Michael Cohen:

    I know Mr. Trump. I have stood by him shoulder to shoulder for the past decade.

  • Brianna Keilar:

    You guys are down. And it makes sense that there would…

  • Michael Cohen:

    Says who?

  • Brianna Keilar:

    Polls. Most of them. All of them?

  • Michael Cohen:

    Says who?

  • Brianna Keilar:

    Polls. I just told you. I answered your question.

  • Michael Cohen:

    OK, which polls?

  • Brianna Keilar:

    All of them.

  • Michael Cohen:

    OK. And your question is?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And he stuck with Mr. Trump as he transitioned to the presidency.

  • Michael Cohen:

    I'm going to be the personal attorney to Mr. Trump. I'm not going to be in government. But I'm going to remain, technically, in the same role for Mr. Trump, for President Trump, as I was when he was president of the Trump Organization. I will be in D.C. and in New York. Anywhere where Mr. Trump deems necessary, I will be there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But in the spring of this year, an FBI raid on Cohen's Manhattan office, home and hotel would test the relationship. Prosecutors had been investigating Cohen for business fraud for months and seized millions of items.

  • President Donald Trump:

    So I just heard that they broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys, a good man. And it's a disgraceful situation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Among the files was evidence of hush money payments to two women, adult film star Stephanie Clifford, known by her stage name, Stormy Daniels, and former playboy model Karen McDougal.

  • President Donald Trump:

    What financing?

  • Michael Cohen:

    Well, I will have to pay him something.

  • President Donald Trump:

    [UNINTELLIGIBLE] pay with cash …

  • Michael Cohen:

    No, no, no, no, no.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Then weeks ago, the relationship appeared to reach a breaking point, when Cohen's attorney shared audio recordings of conversations Cohen had with President Trump about those payments.

    Now for the latest on what we know about Michael Cohen's guilty deal, I'm joined now by Jessica Roth. She's a law professor at Yeshiva University and a former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York. And Andrea Bernstein, senior editor at WNYC Radio. She was in the New York courtroom today.

    Andrea Bernstein, I will begin with you.

    Tell us about what you saw, what you heard in the courtroom when this guilty plea came forward.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Well, it was a dramatic moment.

    I mean, we began to hear around the middle of the day that there might be some activity. And then at about 2:00, we were told something was going to happen at 4:00. But that's all we knew. So the courtroom was packed, and the prosecutors had all come in. Four of them stood at their table, and then there was Michael Cohen.

    He walked in a side door. He stood at the table by himself for a moment, and then the proceedings began, in which the judge asked him, did he know what he was doing? And it was dramatic, because, as you said, he was a lawyer, he was someone who knew what he was doing.

    He was asked, what is your education? He said, I went to law school. And he was asked, did you — are you pleading guilty because you are guilty? And he said — he stopped for a moment to sigh, and then he said, yes, your honor.

    And he proceeded to plead guilty to these eight counts, five counts of tax evasion, one count of misleading a bank on a loan application, and these two other very dramatic counts of campaign finance violations, which is significant, both in the Michael Cohen case, but also in all of the investigations into the Trump campaign, that he stood in a federal court and said under oath, I committed these crimes at the direction of a candidate for federal office.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Did the judge say, Andrea Bernstein, what happens to Michael Cohen now?

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Yes.

    So the judge laid out the specific sentences for all of the counts that he pleaded guilty to. And then the judge said, you realize that the — if I choose to sentence you consecutively, it could be up to 65 years in jail? And again, there was a pause, and Michael Cohen said, yes, your honor.

    The judge said, you understand you cannot withdraw your guilty plea, no matter what you might have heard about what this sentence will be? And he said, yes, your honor.

    So, Michael Cohen has pleaded guilty to these eight counts. And he says, yes, he understands he could face 65 years in jail for these eight charges. The tax evasion charges themselves carry possible sentences of 30 years. So, they're very, very serious counts that he pleaded guilty to.

    And there are a couple times in the proceeding when the judge stopped him and said, did you know when you did this that it was illegal and wrong? And Michael Cohen said yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Jessica Roth, listening to this, describe the severity of what — the seriousness of what Michael Cohen has pleaded guilty to.

  • Jessica Roth:

    Well, these are all very serious charges, as reflected in the penalties that he is exposed to as a consequence of pleading guilty to them.

    These involve fraud. And, as Andrea said, he has acknowledged that he knew that he was violating the law when he engaged in this conduct. So those are very serious charges. And with respect to the campaign finance law violations, those too are very serious, and those are the ones, of course, that draw the case most closely in toward President Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, speaking of that, staying with you, Jessica Roth, there has been a lot of speculation about whether Michael Cohen was going to cooperate in some way with the prosecutor.

    The fact that he chose instead to make a guilty plea, what does that say about — he is acknowledging his guilt, but what does it say about any discussions that may or may not have taken place about cooperation for a plea deal?

  • Jessica Roth:

    Well, the fact that he plead guilty without a cooperation agreement presently doesn't mean that he couldn't go on to cooperate at some point in the future.

    What it means is, at least at the present time, his attorneys were not able to reach a cooperation agreement with the prosecutors or potentially that the prosecutors are not interested in cooperation with him. But there is no reason why down the road he couldn't offer testimony that is helpful to special counsel Robert Mueller or to federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York and other cases, and subsequently receive credit, a reduction of his sentence, as a consequence of that cooperation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To what extent, Jessica Roth, though, the guilty pleas today and in particular pleading guilty to campaign finance violations at the direction of the candidate — and it's my understanding that the president, that President Trump wasn't named, but I think it's pretty clear who we're talking about.

    What does that mean in terms of jeopardy for President Trump?

  • Jessica Roth:

    Well, it certainly — now Michael Cohen has admitted under oath in this guilty plea proceeding that he was acting at the direction of, as you said, a candidate for federal office.

    And he didn't name President Trump, but that's the clear implication of who he was speaking about. What that means is that now somebody who is the president's trusted — who was the president's trusted advisers for years has acknowledged that he was acting at the direction of, it would seem, the president. And that could put the president in serious jeopardy if that testimony were to be offered in a proceeding against the president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, in terms of legal bearing in the Mueller investigation or in any other proceeding, is it clear what that leads to?

  • Jessica Roth:

    It's not clear, in and of itself, but it's certainly a critical piece of evidence if a prosecutor is building a case against President Trump, if that's possible to bring, and against anyone else who was involved in these activities, along with the president, anyone else on his campaign who knew about it.

    Testimony by Michael Cohen about these events would be a critical part of building that case and making that case before a jury.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Andrea Bernstein, back to you.

    Any comment by the judge or anyone else in the courtroom today about efforts to reach a cooperation agreement with Michael Cohen?

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    No. That wasn't discussed. The only thing that was discussed is what the consequences were.

    And the judge at a couple of points departed from his script to make sure that Michael Cohen knew what he was doing, was pleading to.

    I think it's important to note that, in the courtroom, we didn't know what was going to happen. So there was this moment of drama when he starts to talk about doing things at the suggestion of a candidate for federal office to keep women from publicly disclosing their affairs, and that he said he knew it was wrong.

    And I think what's striking is that we know that as recently as four months ago, in April, Michael Cohen had as his e-mail signature "personal attorney to President Donald J. Trump." They had this very close relationship. Michael Cohen had worked at the Trump Organization and was intimately involved in business deals across the world with Donald Trump for a decade.

    So, the closeness of these two cannot be overstated, that Michael Cohen really felt very dedicated to President Trump. And the idea he would be standing there in a courtroom saying, I did these things, I think, is a significant development in these investigations.

    And I don't think it's something that we knew at the beginning of today that was going to happen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Extraordinary development.

    Andrea Bernstein with WNYC, thank you very much.

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