NEW YORK: U.S. President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, testified on Tuesday that Trump directed him to commit a crime by arranging payments ahead of the 2016 presidential election to silence two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump.
Cohen, 51, made the statements as he pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges in federal court in Manhattan, including tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations.
Cohen did not name Trump in court, but his lawyer, Lanny Davis, said afterward he was referring to the president.
"Today he (Cohen) stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election," Davis said in a statement after Cohen's plea.
"If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn't they be a crime for Donald Trump?" he said.
The two payments were intended to silence two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump and were made prior to the 2016 presidential election. One was for US$130,000 (£100,721) given to adult-film star Stormy Daniels. The other for US$150,000 related to former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
Trump has denied having affairs with the women. His lawyer Rudy Giuliani has said the payments were made to spare Trump and his family embarrassment and were unrelated to the campaign.
Cohen, one of Trump's closest associates for more than a decade, said in court he arranged to make payments "for (the) principal purpose of influencing (the) election" at the direction of a candidate for federal office.
“He worked to pay money to silence two women who had information that he believed would be detrimental to the 2016 campaign and to the candidate,” said Robert Khuzami, a prosecutor for the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office.
Khuzami told reporters Cohen sought reimbursement for the money by submitting “sham” invoices for legal services to the candidate’s company.
UP TO FIVE YEARS IN PRISON
The guilty pleas came in the same hour that a federal jury in Alexandria, Virginia, convicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort of eight charges of tax and bank fraud and failing to disclose foreign bank accounts.
The Manafort conviction resulted from U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.
The probe also led to a referral from Mueller about Cohen to federal prosecutors in New York who began their own probe of the longtime Trump lawyer.
Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion and has called the Mueller investigation a "witch hunt". Russia has denied meddling in the election though U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded Moscow interfered. Mueller has also brought indictments against 12 Russian intelligence officers in the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails.
Cohen's plea deal includes a possible sentence of up to five years and three months in prison, Judge William Pauley III said during the hearing. Pauley scheduled sentencing for Dec. 12 and set bail at US$500,000.
Cohen, who worked as Trump's personal attorney at the Trump Organization, continued to advise the president after the election, but their relationship has frayed in recent months.
Mueller's investigation, which began in May 2017, has resulted in the indictment of more than 30 people and five guilty pleas.
(This version of the story has been refiled to fix typo in paragraph 6.)
(Reporting by Brendan Pierson and Jonathan Stempel; Writing by Jonathan Oatis and Bill Rigby; Editing by Clive McKeef)