News & Politics

Trump Defends Himself After Cohen Sentencing: He Was Guilty on Charges 'Unrelated to Me'

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters about a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue as he arrives at Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018.(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

On Thursday morning, President Donald Trump responded to the sentencing of his former lawyer, Michael Cohen. The president insisted that he was not implicated in Cohen’s real crimes, and that his former lawyer pled guilty to false crimes in order to embarrass Trump and get a reduced sentence.

“I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law,” Trump tweeted. “He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law. It is called ‘advice of counsel,’ and a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made. That is why they get paid.”

On Wednesday, Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay $1.39 million in restitution, $500,000 in forfeiture, and $100,000 in fines. He must report to prison on March 6.

“I take full responsibility for each act that I pled guilty to: The personal ones to me and those involving the President of the United States of America,” Cohen said. He claimed that working for Trump led to a period of “personal and mental incarceration” due to “blind loyalty to this man that led me to choose a path of darkness over light.”

Cohen admitted that he was “weak,” as Trump called him, though for a different reason than the president implied. “It was because time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds rather than to listen to my own inner voice and my moral compass.”

Trump’s new attorney, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, said Cohen was never loyal to Trump. “It’s not true he was blindly loyal to President. He was aggressively disloyal,” Giuliani said.

In August, Cohen pled guilty to five counts of tax fraud, one count of making false statements to a bank, and two campaign finance violations.

The campaign finance pleas implicated Trump, as they revolved around payments Cohen made or orchestrated in order to silence two women who had sexual encounters with Trump. The payments went to porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

Prosecutors argued that in executing the payments, Cohen “acted in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump, who denied having affairs with the women.

Despite Cohen’s guilty plea, the campaign finance argument is flimsy. Prosecutors had to argue that Cohen orchestrated the payments in order to help Trump’s campaign. Trump could argue, however, that he did not orchestrate the payments or that the payments had a personal purpose — to hide Trump’s infidelity from his wife, Melania. After all, the McDougal affair allegedly occurred right after Melania gave birth to Trump’s son Barron.

In his response on Thursday, Trump hinted at this legal defense. He argued that “many campaign finance lawyers have strongly stated that I did nothing wrong with respect to campaign finance laws, if they even apply, because this was not campaign finance.”

The president claimed that “Cohen was guilty on many charges unrelated to me, but he plead to two campaign charges which were not criminal and of which he probably was not guilty even on a civil basis.”

In this statement, Trump suggested that the penalties for tax fraud and false statements to a bank — and perhaps other charges now dropped — would amount to more than the 3-year prison sentence and the $1.99 million in fines and fees. This seems unlikely, but may be plausible.

“Those charges were just agreed to by him in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence, which he did-including the fact that his family was temporarily let off the hook,” Trump added. “As a lawyer, Michael has great liability to me!”

Cohen’s pleas on campaign finance may indeed be an attack on the president, and Trump certainly has a strong argument to protect himself on this case. That said, any legal defense would end up quite ugly — as he would have to prove that the payoffs were personal.

If these are the worst charges to come out of the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Trump can breathe easier. A legal battle on this campaign finance issue would prove ugly, but he has a strong defense.

After all, if every politician had to report any campaign spending that inadvertently helps his or her campaign, minutiae like hair cuts, clothing, and more would have to be reported. Trump has a good legal argument — but making that argument would prove rather messy.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.