Cohen’s plea done, where will federal prosecutors turn next?
NEW YORK (AP) — The guilty plea of President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, may not mean it’s “case closed” for federal prosecutors in Manhattan.
Those prosecutors scrambled to get a plea deal done to avoid appearances that news of it could influence the midterm elections. And they were mum Wednesday about what might come next.
But court papers filed this week point to several avenues of further investigation for a U.S. Attorney’s office known for its appetite for high-profile public corruption cases — with the Trump Organization, National Enquirer parent company American Media Inc. and perhaps even Trump himself as potential targets.
“It’s hard for me to think that they’re done,” said Glen Kopp, a former Manhattan federal prosecutor now in private practice. “If they smell something, they’re like a dog with a bone. They’re going to keep going.”
Court papers filed with Cohen’s plea to eight counts including tax evasion and campaign-finance violations cited involvement of unnamed corporate executives in schemes to pay two women to keep quiet about claims they had affairs with Trump. The papers didn’t name the executives or their companies, though it was clear they were referring to the Trump Organization and AMI.
In one instance, AMI conspired with Cohen to pay $150,000 to former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal, the papers said. Cohen paid another $130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels using a sham home equity loan before he was reimbursed through the Trump Organization using false invoices, the papers add.
Cohen, in his plea, said that it was all done with the knowledge and at the direction of a “candidate for federal office” — obviously meaning Trump. But whether Trump or anyone else involved with those transactions broke the law remains an open question.
Prosecutors made it clear that Cohen was not acting alone in the payouts to McDougal and Daniels, saying Cohen teamed up with AMI’s chairman and chief executive and one or more members of Trump’s campaign in August 2015 — two months after Trump announced his candidacy — to help fend off negatives stories about Trump’s relationships with women.
According to court papers, Cohen in January 2017 sought reimbursement for the $130,000 payment to Daniels and another $50,000 spent on “tech services” from the Trump Organization. Prosecutors wrote that executives of the company ”‘grossed up’ for tax purposes” his $180,000 request by doubling it to $360,000 before tacking on a $60,000 bonus.
The company then arranged to pay Cohen the $420,000 in monthly installments of $35,000 throughout 2017 as if he was on a retainer for legal expenses, which is how the Trump Organization accounted for them, prosecutors said.
“In truth and in fact, there was no such retainer agreement, and the monthly invoices Cohen submitted were not in connection with any legal services he had provided in 2017,” they said.
Part of what makes it too early to tell where the New York probe goes prior to Cohen’s scheduled December sentencing is the volume of evidence prosecutors received from the Cohen raids. In recent weeks, they’ve gotten over 4 million items seized from Cohen in April raids, some of it cited in the charges brought this week.
An even bigger question is whether Cohen could still provide meaningful cooperation in the Russia probe. His lawyer, Lanny Davis, said Wednesday that Cohen has information “on certain subjects that should be of interest” to the special prosecutor and is “more than happy” to tell Mueller all that he knows.
The fact that a plea agreement that calls for a maximum sentence of five years behind bars didn’t mention a cooperation deal wouldn’t rule it out.
Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice, said it is in Cohen’s interest to play ball.
“Based on his public statements and the prison time he is now facing,” he said, “you can be virtually certain that he will try to leverage his involvement with the president into a cooperating deal with the government.”