Left unaddressed in much of the coverage on Michael Cohen’s stunning eight-count plea deal was what he gave up in entering into it, and why he decided to do so.
Tuesday’s proceedings on the 20th floor of Manhattan’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse helped shed light on those questions. In brief: Cohen and his attorneys knew that the prosecution had rock-solid evidence that would likely convince a jury to convict him.
At one point, U.S. District Judge William Pauley asked Cohen attorney Guy Petrillo if he had any reason to believe that the defense could “prevail at trial.”
“I do not, your honor,” Petrillo replied.
The baked-in-the-cake nature of the proceedings stripped them of the tension of the spring’s courtroom battles over prosecutors’ access to materials seized from Cohen’s premises. Cohen, Petrillo and the federal prosecutors cracked smiles and amiably chatted at the counsel table.
Pauley initiated the hearing with a rapid-fire volley of questions aimed at ensuring Cohen was entering this plea of sound mind and of his own volition.
Full name: “Michael Dean Cohen.”
Age: “In four days, I’ll be 52.”
How far did you go in school: “Law.”
Did you consume any drugs or alcohol prior to this hearing: “Last night at dinner, I had a glass of Glenlivet 12—on the rocks.” (Is that your custom: “No, your honor.”)
Are you feeling alright today: “Yes.”
Are you satisfied with your legal representation: “Very much so.”
Pauley then took pains to explain what constitutional rights Cohen was sacrificing by entering this deal: a speedy trial by jury; the ability to issue subpoenas and cross-examine witnesses; the need for prosecutors to prove each count to jurors beyond a reasonable doubt; the ability to appeal or challenge his sentence.
The plea also meant Cohen was immediately giving up certain civil rights, such as his right to own a firearm, vote, or serve on a jury. Cohen’s voice cracked as he acknowledged that he understood he was forfeiting these rights.
Why Cohen, the Trump Organization “pit bull,” agreed to forgo all of this without a fight became clearer once Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Griswold was asked to run through the prosecution’s evidence.
It included: income tax returns, testimony from IRS agents and bank employees, bank loan applications, paper documents and audio recordings seized from Cohen’s premises, encrypted messages, text messages, phone records, emails, and subpoenaed records from search warrants to the National Enquirer’s parent company and the Trump Organization.
A trial on these charges, for which Cohen is facing up to 65 years, would have been a high-profile, grinding affair, scrutinizing Cohen’s businesses and potentially involving his family. And as we saw with a Virginia jury convicting Paul Manafort on eight counts Tuesday, it wasn’t guaranteed to end up much better for Cohen.
Copping to his wrongdoing with a plea deal likely prompted prosecutors to recommend a lighter sentence of only 46-63 months for Cohen. It likely made him appear more favorably to the judge who would ultimately decide what sentence Cohen received.
And it also meant that Cohen was able to walk out of court into the late-summer sun, free to go home to his family until his sentencing date in December.