The very air in the courtroom seemed to change and what had on other days felt like a reality show turned abruptly real.
“In coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for elective office,” Michael Cohen was telling the judge in Manhattan federal court late Tuesday afternoon.
The whole world already knew that Cohen had arranged to pay $150,000 in hush money to a former Playboy Playmate who had an affair with Donald Trump. Cohen was now saying under oath that he had done so on Trump's instructions.
“With the principal purpose of influencing the election,” Cohen added.
That made it a felony.
And Cohen was alleging Trump was party to it. Cohen repeated the allegation as he proceeded to admit paying $130,000 in hush money to a second woman, a porn star.
“With and at the direction of the same candidate,” Cohen reported.
He said this second payment “was later repaid to me by the candidate with the principal purpose of influencing the election.”
Right around that very moment in a courtroom down in Virginia, a jury was reporting that it had found Trump's onetime campaign manager Paul Manafort guilty of eight counts of fraud. That case had been brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in the course of his ongoing investigation into possible collusion by the Trump campaign with Russian efforts to influence the election.
Mueller had perhaps referred the other case to prosecutors in Manhattan because it seemed primarily to involve Cohen’s personal business dealings. The Manhattan prosecutors secured a search warrant for Cohen’s office and home and he sought a temporary restraining order to keep them from reviewing what his attorneys described as “thousands if not millions” of privileged documents.
Cohen had not even bothered to come to Manhattan federal court for the first hearing on this legal action he himself initiated back in April. He had instead lounged with some buddies in the springtime sun outside an Upper East Side building as if in an episode of Real Bros of New York. He had previously declared he would take a bullet for Donald Trump. Who knew he would prove to be that rare rat who had wired himself up and begun taping even before he got jammed up?
On Tuesday afternoon, Cohen was on a different floor in the same Manhattan courthouse, not as a plaintiff, but as a defendant in a criminal case. And he had left whatever remained of his bro-ey arrogance on the Upper East Side. He entered courtroom 20-B at 4:25 pm. through a humbling side doorway used by defendants who are in custody.
He wore a dark grey suit that would have looked cheap no matter how much it cost. He approached the defense table with his hands folded meekly in front of him. His footsteps were silent on thick carpeting that had been hurriedly vacuumed a short time before in preparation for a big event the courthouse staff had not known was coming.
“We weren’t expecting this,” a courthouse security officer said.
As he came to the second chair from the end, Cohen dropped his hands to his sides and momentarily clenched them. He then relaxed the fingers and looked over to the jury box, which on this day was filled with reporters. He nodded and smiled at one he seemed to recognize. On other days he had threatened reporters, including a particularly decent one then with The Daily Beast. He now sat with his hands folded and nodded and smiled some more, a classic bully who is either at your throat or at your feet.
Cohen had a single sheet of paper set on the table before him, wrinkled and folded down the middle so as to fit in the inside pocket of his suit jacket. One of his two lawyers had him sign a crisper set of papers that she then handed to the prosecutors.
One of the prosecutors stepped over to the defense table with a crisp sheet and compared it to Cohen’s wrinkled one. The prosecutor’s eyes repeatedly went from one from one to the other, apparently confirming that the contents jibed.
“All rise!” the court clerk then called out.
Judge William Pauley took the bench.
“United States of America versus Michael Cohen,” the clerk announced.
“I note the presence of the defendant Cohen," the judge said.
The judge asked Cohen if he had read the criminal complaint detailing the charges against him. Cohen said he had.
“How do you plead?” the judge inquired.
“Not guilty,” Cohen said.
That proved to be just a formality. Cohen withdrew the plea in the next moment, as had been prearranged.
“Let the record show a plea agreement is being brought up to me for my inspection,” the judge then said.
Cohen then stood and raised his right hand and solemnly swore to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He gave his full name as Michael Dean Cohen. The judge asked his age.
“In four days, I’ll be 52,” Cohen said.
“How far did you go in school?” the judge asked.
“Law,” Cohen said.
The judge inquired if Cohen had even been under psychiatric care.
“No,” Cohen said,
The judge then inquired if Cohen had been taking drugs or alcohol.
“Last night at dinner, I had a Glenlivet 12 on the rocks,” he replied.
“Is it your custom to do that?” the judge inquired.
“No, your honor,” Cohen said.
The ritual continued. Cohen said he was more than happy with his lawyers. He understood that he was pleading guilty to five counts of tax evasion, one count of making false statement on a credit application and two violations of campaign finance laws. The prosecution had indicated it would seek a sentence of 46 to 63 months, apparently in exchange for Cohen's cooperation. But the actual sentence remained at the judge’s discretion.
“Could be a maximum of 65 years of imprisonment,” the judge noted.
“Yes, sir,” Cohen said.
Cohen knew that was not likely, but just the thought of it had its effect. He had begun to sound that things were as bad as they in fact were. One of his attorneys, Guy Petrillo, placed a reassuring hand on his back.
The moment had come for Cohen to allocute in his own words what exactly he had done
“May I stand?” Cohen asked.
“You may,” the judge said.
“Thank you, sir,” Cohen said.
Cohen’s eyes lowered to the folded piece of paper that had lain wrinkled among all the crisp sheets.
“You know I also jotted down some notes so I could focus and address the court in proper form,” he said.
Cohen's admissions to the five counts of tax evasion and to making false statements on a credit application contained nothing remarkable and he could have been just another schlubby white collar criminal. The proceeding had begun to lose some of the prickle that had accompanied the crowd of reporters waiting to get into the courtroom.
Then Cohen came to the campaign finance violations. He uttered words that changed the courtroom air from the tired exhales of routine to the caught breath of history in the making.
“In coordination with… direction of… a candidate for elective office...With the principal purpose to influencing the election.”.
Much the same words came again, absent of any of the pretense or posturing of a reality show, sounding matter of fact and fact of the matter.
“With and at the direction of the same candidate…Later repaid to me by the candidate with the principal purpose of influencing the election.”
Cohen may not be an adversary nation, but in Courtroom 20-B in New York, he was forthrightly saying that he and Trump had in fact colluded to influence the election. There might be financial records and maybe even tapes to substantiate it. The lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Griswold, answered immediately when the judge inquired if the government was confident it could have proven its case had it gone to trial.
“Yes,” she emphatically replied.
The judge set the sentencing for 11 a.m .on December 12. He was done for the present.
“Very well, this matter is concluded,” he said “Have a good afternoon.”
After the judge left, Cohen went over and shook the hands of the FBI and IRS agents who had made the case against him. They now will likely be seeking to make a case against the candidate who Cohen says directed him in his campaign finance crimes with the principal purpose of influencing the course of an election.
The word for that is collusion.