Michael Cohen‘s guilty plea in Manhattan federal court on Tuesday drew strong reactions–not just because he implicated the President of the United States in federal crimes, but because there was no clear answer as to why he pleaded guilty to so many offenses. For instance, when former Trump campaign deputy chair Rick Gates pleaded guilty, it was to a lesser added offense of providing a false statement to investigators instead of the serious offenses he had originally been charged with. Cohen, on the other hand, admitted to eight counts, pertaining to three different types of offenses, with a maximum total sentence of 65 years in prison.
That sure seems like a lot. Hasn’t Cohen read The Art of the Deal?
Well, there’s a pretty good possible reason for why Cohen pleaded guilty. According to the criminal information against Cohen filed by federal prosecutors, Cohen wasn’t the only one who signed his name to false documents. His wife Laura Cohen did too. That means she could have faced criminal penalties, yet the Ukrainian woman to whom Cohen has been married for more than 20 years was not named as a defendant.
Regarding Counts 1-5 of the information, which dealt with tax evasion, prosecutors said, “both COHEN and his wife signed a Form 8879 for tax years 2013 through 2016, and filed manually for tax year 2012.” It was during those years that Cohen failed to report more than $4 million in income to avoid taxes. Cohen and his wife both signed forms under penalty of perjury that the information they provided was accurate.
Regarding Count 6 of the information, which described providing a false statement to a financial institution, prosecutors said Cohen “together with his wife, represented a positive net worth of more than $40 million, again omitting the $14 million in medallion debt with Bank-2 and the Credit Union.”
Given that Cohen’s wife was not named as a defendant, it’s entirely possible–and certainly reasonable–that he may have decided to take the fall to protect his family. Bernie Madoff was suspected of doing the same thing when he pleaded guilty. There had been similar thought regarding Michael Flynn.
For those wondering why the dirt on Trump wasn’t worth more, and why Cohen couldn’t have used it as leverage to get himself a better deal, I’d say 1) we don’t know what kind of sentence prosecutors will recommend (even though that’s ultimately up to the judge) and 2) as juicy as it is, in reality it isn’t worth a whole lot to prosecutors. Yes, swearing in open court that the president directed someone to commit crimes is no joke, but Justice Department guidelines say a sitting president cannot be indicted, and these crimes were committed before Trump took office, which means they’re not grounds for impeachment. The idea that Trump instructed Cohen to arrange for illegal payments makes good headlines, but that’s about it.
There are a number of reasons why Cohen could have made the decision he did. As a source told Politico, he did it “to save millions of dollars, protect his family, and limit his exposure.”
In the end, it likely came down to that second one: family. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that Cohen said, “my wife, my daughter and my son, and this country have my first loyalty.”
Ronn Blitzer is the Senior Legal Editor of Law&Crime and a former New York City prosecutor. Follow him on Twitter @RonnBlitzer.
[Image via Spencer Platt/Getty Images]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.