WASHINGTON — The Justice Department said Friday that President Donald Trump directed illegal payments to buy the silence of two women whose claims of extramarital affairs threatened his presidential campaign, the first time prosecutors have connected Trump to a federal crime.

In a separate filing, the federal special counsel said Friday Cohen was in touch as far back as 2015 with a Russian who offered “political synergy” with the Trump election campaign.

In a court filing, prosecutors said former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen arranged the secret payments at the height of the 2016 campaign “in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump. Cohen has previously said Trump was involved in the hush-money scheme, but court documents filed ahead of Cohen’s sentencing made clear prosecutors believe Cohen’s claim.

The filing stopped short of accusing the president of committing a crime. Whether a president can be prosecuted while in office remains a matter of legal dispute.

But there’s no ambiguity in Friday’s filing that prosecutors believe Cohen’s act was criminal and Trump was directly involved, a remarkable disclosure with potential political and legal ramifications for a president dogged by investigations. The payments are likely to become a target for House Democrats gearing up to investigate the president next year. It’s unclear whether Trump faces legal jeopardy over his role.

 

Federal law requires that any payments made “for the purposes of influencing” an election must be reported in campaign finance disclosures. The court filing Friday makes clear that the payments were made to benefit Trump politically.

In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges, including campaign finance violations, and detailed an illegal operation to stifle sex stories and distribute hush money to buy the silence of porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who had both claimed they had affairs with Trump. Trump has denied having an affair.

Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, was paid $130,000 as part of a nondisclosure agreement signed days before the 2016 election and is currently suing to dissolve that contract.

Trump denied in April that he knew anything about Cohen’s payments to Daniels, though the explanations from the president and his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, have shifted multiple times since then.

Another attorney for the president, Jay Sekulow, did not immediately return a call for comment.

Michael Cohen, former lawyer to President Trump, leaves his apartment building on New York’s Park Avenue on Friday. Prosecutors are recommending substantial prison time for Cohen.

After Friday’s filing, Trump tweeted: “Totally clears the President. Thank you!”

In August 2016, the National Enquirer’s parent company reached a $150,000 deal to pay McDougal for her story of a 2006 affair, which it never published, a tabloid practice known as catch and kill. In 2015, the company’s chairman met with Cohen and Trump and “offered help with negative stories” about Trump’s relationships with women by buying the rights to the stories, prosecutors said.

After McDougal contacted the Enquirer, the chairman of its parent company, American Media Inc., contacted Cohen about the story. After Cohen promised the company would be reimbursed, the Enquirer paid McDougal $150,000, according to court documents.

An audio recording released by Cohen in July appeared to capture Trump and Cohen discussing buying the rights to McDougal’s story from the Enquirer’s parent company. Trump’s lawyers have said the payments were never made.

 

Legal experts have said the issue of whether Trump violated the law would come down to whether Trump tried to influence the election and whether he knew it was legally improper.

‘HOW NOT TO COOPERATE’

The two memos were submitted to U.S. District Court Judge William Pauley III, who is scheduled to sentence Cohen.

Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice, said the filings show that Cohen “was trying to have it both ways” and that, instead of succeeding, he became “a textbook example of how not to cooperate with federal prosecutors.”

Mueller submitted a seven-page memo that doesn’t take any firm position on how long Cohen should spend in prison.

In their memo, New York federal prosecutors lambasted Cohen, detailing his lies to the IRS and banks and his gaming of the campaign finance system – acts that prosecutors said were driven largely by his “own ambition and greed.”

Cohen, they claimed, relished the role of being Trump’s “fixer,” trying to use it to win a role in the administration, and then, when that failed, he set out to swindle companies out of money by tricking them into thinking he could provide access and insight.

In reality, though, they said Cohen was not much more than “a man whose outlook on life was often to cheat,” and he did not deserve to be spared entirely because he finally decided to plead guilty.

“After cheating the IRS for years, lying to banks and to Congress, and seeking to criminally influence the Presidential election, Cohen’s decision to plead guilty – rather than seek a pardon for his manifold crimes – does not make him a hero,” prosecutors wrote.

Prosecutors repeatedly highlighted what they suggested was minimal information provided by Cohen, noting that while he also met with New York state investigators and tax authorities, that cooperation “warrants little to no consideration as a mitigating factor” because Cohen told them nothing of value beyond what they would probably have gotten without his help.

REPEATED LIES

The Mueller memo says that Cohen “repeated many of his prior false statements” when he met with the special counsel’s office in August, and it was only in a second meeting on Sept. 12 – after he pleaded guilty to the campaign finance charges – that he admitted “his prior statements about the Moscow Project had been deliberately false and misleading.”

The special counsel’s office wrote that Cohen’s lies to Congress “obscured the fact that the Moscow Project was a lucrative business opportunity that sought, and likely required, the assistance of the Russian government,” and that, if completed, the Trump Organization could have received “hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources in licensing fees and other revenues.” They noted, as Cohen had already admitted, that Cohen and Trump discussed the project “well into the campaign.”

The special counsel’s office added, though, that Cohen had also “explained financial aspects of the deal that would have made it highly lucrative,” and, without prompting, he had corrected other statements he made about his contacts with Russian officials during the campaign.

For example, Cohen said in a radio interview in September 2015 that Trump should meet with the president of Russia during the United Nations General Assembly, and he claimed for a time afterward that the comment had been “spontaneous” and not discussed with members of the campaign. In fact, the special counsel’s office said, Cohen later admitted that he had conferred with Trump about contacting the Russian government for the meeting – which ultimately did not happen.

In asking for a sentence of no prison time, Cohen stressed his extensive cooperation with Mueller as well as investigators from other agencies. His lawyers linked his wrongdoing directly to Trump, writing that Cohen was motivated to pay the women to keep quiet and lie to Congress out of his “fierce loyalty” to Trump. Trump had publicly denied the affairs and said he “stayed away” from business in Russia.

“He could have fought the government and continued to hold to the party line, positioning himself perhaps for a pardon or clemency, but, instead – for himself, his family, and his country – he took personal responsibility for his own wrongdoing and contributed, and is prepared to continue to contribute, to an investigation that he views as thoroughly legitimate and vital,” Cohen’s lawyers wrote in court papers submitted last week.

Trump ridiculed Cohen’s request on Twitter and seemed to contrast him with Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser who has suggested publicly that he would be unwilling to cooperate against the president.

Of Cohen, Trump said, “He lied for this outcome and should, in my opinion, serve a full and complete sentence.” Of Stone, he said, “Nice to know that some people still have ‘guts!’ “

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