After his longtime fixer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to eight felony charges, President Trump shrugged off the two campaign finance counts as “not a crime.”

The reality? The crimes are real, and Cohen faces time in a very real prison.

Here’s a breakdown of the legal questions that Cohen faced.

How did Cohen break the law?

It’s not a crime to pay someone to keep quiet. But the Justice Department says the hush money payments arranged by Cohen to conceal allegations of Trump’s extramarital affairs were actually unreported campaign contributions meant to influence the outcome of the election. That’s a critical assertion because it makes the payments subject to the country’s campaign finance laws, which restrict how much people can donate to a campaign and bar corporations from making direct contributions.

Though some campaign finance experts suggested before the guilty plea that the payments to two women who say they had sex with Trump could have been arranged for other purposes, such as protecting Trump’s personal reputation, Cohen himself acknowledged that the goal was to affect the election and protect Trump’s candidacy.


The $150,000 payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal by National Enquirer publisher American Media Inc. and Cohen’s $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels far exceeded permissible campaign contribution limits.

Individual contributions to campaigns were capped at $2,700 per election in 2016. That means Cohen could have only lawfully contributed $5,400 directly to Trump’s campaign during primary and general elections.

What are the penalties?

Cohen is charged with “causing an unlawful corporate contribution” and making an excessive campaign contribution.

Since both charges involve large dollar amounts above $25,000, they are felonies that each carry a maximum prison sentence of five years. Cohen also faces a maximum of three years of supervised release and a potential fine of $250,000 on each count.

As part of his plea agreement, Cohen’s estimated sentence under federal guidelines on all the charges against him is 46 to 63 months in prison.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.