NEW YORK: Donald Trump's former lawyer apologised on Wednesday (Dec 12) for covering up the "dirty deeds" of his ex-boss as he was sentenced to three years for multiple crimes including hush money payments implicating the US president.
Pleading for leniency in a packed Manhattan courtroom before US District Court Judge William H. Pauley III, Michael Cohen said he had been led astray by misplaced admiration for Trump.
An emotional Cohen, 52, Trump's longtime "fixer," told the court he accepted responsibility for his personal crimes and "those involving the President of the United States of America."
Cohen's lawyers had argued for no jail time after he admitted charges brought by federal prosecutors in New York of tax evasion, providing false statements to a bank and illegal campaign contributions.
Cohen also pleaded guilty to making false statements to Congress - a charge stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe into whether Trump's 2016 presidential campaign colluded with Russia to get him elected.
But Pauley said Cohen - as a lawyer - "should have known better" and sentenced him to three years in federal prison, ordering him to surrender to custody by Mar 6.
He was also ordered to pay US$2 million in fines and restitution.
"Each of these crimes standing alone warrant considerable punishment," Pauley said, adding that Cohen was "motivated by personal greed and ambition."
"A significant term of imprisonment is fully justified in this highly publicized case to send a message," the judge said.
Before Pauley passed sentence, Cohen addressed the court, saying it was his devotion to Trump that caused him to choose "a path of darkness over light."
"Today is the day that I am getting my freedom back," he said.
"I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the day that I accepted the offer to work for a real estate mogul whose business acumen that I deeply admired," Cohen said.
"I now realise there was little to admire," he said.
Cohen referred to a recent tweet from Trump calling him "weak," saying his only weakness was "blind loyalty" to his former boss.
"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," he said.
Among the charges against Cohen was making hush money payments to silence two women threatening to go public during the election campaign with claims they had affairs with Trump.
Cohen told prosecutors the payments totalling US$280,000 to porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal were made "in coordination with and at the direction" of Trump - referred to by prosecutors as "Individual-1."
Both women have claimed to have had sexual encounters with Trump before he was the Republican candidate for president and prosecutors have characterised the payments as illegal campaign contributions intended to influence the election.
"Cohen deceived the voting public by hiding alleged facts that he believed would have had a substantial effect on the election," prosecutors said.
The payment to McDougal was funnelled through American Media Inc, publisher of the National Enquirer, and prosecutors announced following Cohen's sentencing that AMI had been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for its cooperation.
Trump this week sought to minimise the importance of the payments saying they were a "simple private transaction" and that they were "wrongly" being called campaign contributions.
"Cohen just trying to get his sentence reduced," Trump tweeted. "WITCH HUNT!"
There was no immediate reaction from Trump to Cohen's sentencing.
LIED TO CONGRESS
While federal prosecutors said Cohen's cooperation was limited and selective, the special counsel's office said Cohen had "gone to significant lengths" to assist their investigation.
Last month, Cohen acknowledged that he had lied to Congress about his contacts with Russia during the election campaign about building a Trump Tower in Moscow and the extent of Trump's own involvement in the negotiations.
Cohen, wearing a dark suit with a light blue tie, arrived for the sentencing with his wife, son and daughter, who was walking with a crutch. Other family members were also in the audience including his 83-year-old wheelchair-bound father.
For 12 years, Cohen was vice president of The Trump Organisation, the umbrella company for Trump's real estate businesses, and one of the principal confidants of the New York billionaire.
Investigators raided Cohen's offices and New York home in April, seizing stacks of documents and electronic devices.