By Stephen Rex Brown and Denis Slattery
NEW YORK – President Donald Trump’s pit bull is going to prison.
A teary-eyed Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years behind bars Wednesday for an array of crimes including evading taxes, lying to Congress, bank fraud and campaign finance violations that could represent a dire threat to Trump’s presidency.
Judge William Pauley handed down the lengthy sentence after prosecutors sought “substantial” time behind bars for the embattled lawyer, who has implicated his longtime employer in a pair of felonies.
Once the president’s pugnacious personal attorney and “fixer,” Cohen split from his former mentor when he pleaded guilty in August to making hush money payments to women who claimed they had affairs with Trump. He also admitted to unrelated tax and bank fraud.
Cohen, a fiercely loyal disciple of Trump who once said he would take a bullet for his old boss, arrived at federal court in Lower Manhattan sporting a dark suit and a blue tie. His daughter arrived using a cane, his father in a wheelchair and his mother hid her face below a large black hat.
Cohen said receiving his sentencing freed him in a way after likening his time with Trump to living in a “personal and mental incarceration.”
“It is my own weakness and blind loyalty to this man that led me to pursue a path of darkness,” Cohen told the packed courtroom.
Prosecutors said Cohen, 52, orchestrated payments to a porn star and a former Playboy Playmate “in coordination and at the direction” of the president. The secret payouts are considered violations of campaign finance law.
In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, Trump denied the payments were campaign contributions. “If it were, it’s only civil, and even if it’s only civil, there was no violation based on what we did,” he said.
Cohen further embroiled Trump in legal jeopardy late last month by copping to lying to Congress about his contacts with Russia in the 2016 campaign in relation to a Trump Tower project in Moscow.
“I made these misstatements to be consistent with Individual 1’s political messaging and out of loyalty to Individual 1,” Cohen said in court on Nov. 29. Trump is “Individual 1.”
He had asked for no prison time, arguing that he chose to cooperate with federal prosecutors in New York and special counsel Robert Mueller’s office in the face of attacks from the White House.
“No other defendant would be tested in this fashion on those offenses,” Cohen’s attorney Guy Petrillo argued Wednesday. “But Mr. Cohen had the misfortune of being counsel to the president.”
He slammed the Trump message that “those who cooperate are weak long and those who hold fast and clam up are heroes.”
“Life is tough and Michael Cohen accepts that. We accept that,” he added.
But in a scathing rebuke, prosecutors from the Southern District of New York painted Cohen as a crook unwilling to tell the full truth.
“The charges portray a pattern of deception, of brazenness and of greed,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicolas Roos said.
The campaign finance charges Cohen faced are particularly “serious because of the tremendous societal costs,” Roos added.
Mueller’s office gave more credit to Cohen for cooperation, noting that he had met with prosecutors probing Russian interference in the 2016 election seven times.
Prosecutor Jeannie Rhee, representing Mueller’s team, said Cohen “has told us the truth.”
Cohen told Congress that his pursuit of the Trump Tower Moscow deal stopped in January 2016. He actually discussed the plan as late as July 2016 _ well into the campaign. He had a 20-minute phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s longtime adviser and press secretary, Dmitry Peskov about the development. He also fielded calls from an unidentified Russian national promising “synergy on a government level” and a meeting with Putin, according to Mueller’s office.
Prior to his guilty pleas, Cohen had embraced the role of Trump’s bulldog after entering the real estate mogul’s orbit in 2007. Cohen earned Trump’s trust by successfully ousting the board of directors of a condo building trying to remove his name from the facade.
Cohen’s salary jumped from $75,000 per year to $500,000.
“The crimes committed by Cohen were more serious than his submission allows and were marked by a pattern of deception that permeated his professional life,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom McKay wrote.
“They each involve deception, and were each motivated by personal greed and ambition,” McKay wrote.
A source close to Cohen said his decision to cooperate was the right choice, but added that he could have been more straightforward with prosecutors from the beginning.
“This is a man with children, a man whose loyalty was misplaced,” the source said. “He realized, albeit a little late, that his first loyalty should be to his family, to his wife and children.”