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Cohen in Court for Sentencing; Cohen Sentenced to 36 Months; Michael Avenatti Speaks after Cohen Sentencing. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 12, 2018 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: This very busy, breaking news day with us.

Breaking and unfolding as we speak, the former Trump attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, speaking moments ago inside a New York federal courtroom. Cohen now says he accepts, quote, full responsibility for his crimes, the one he committed on his own and the ones he and prosecutors say he committed at the direction of the president of the United States. A judge today set to sentence Cohen and weigh his cooperation against his crimes. Nine counts of wrongdoing. What Judge William Pauley calls, quote, veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct. The crimes include tax evasion, misleading Congress and breaking campaign finance laws.

Prosecutors say Cohen orchestrated those illegal hush money payments at the direction of then candidate, now president, Donald Trump. The judge today says each of Cohen's crimes, taken alone, quote, warrant considerable punishment. Cohen said today he's now free from what he called the personal and mental incarnation of working for Donald Trump. Cohen went on to say his only weakness was, quote, a blind loyalty to Donald Trump.

CNN's Shimon Prokupecz is outside the federal courthouse in New York where all of this is playing out.

Shimon, so Cohen has asked for leniency. We're about to hear from the judge.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes. And the judge has started speaking. I'm just going over some notes here from the judge. And basically that's what's going on, the judge now is addressing the court. He's addressing Michael Cohen. And just to give you some idea of what he's saying, he's saying that somewhere along the way Mr. Cohen appears to have lost his moral compass.

I think what we're expecting is to here more as this hour goes on. We may have a sense here, the judge may impose the sentence at any moment. It looks like the judge is moving through the sentencing hearing. He's reading his statement now, addressing the different crimes that Michael Cohen has pleaded guilty to.

Things are moving much faster here certainly than we expected and hopefully soon we'll know what -- what -- how much jail time exactly Michael Cohen is going to be facing. KING: And, Shimon, is it fair to say a bit of a different approach

from the Southern District of New York, the federal prosecutors of New York, who have charged Michael Cohen with most of his crimes, and the office of the special counsel? The office of the special counsel saying, hey, he's cooperated, we believe he's telling the truth. The Southern District of New York saying, well, he's cooperated, but only within degrees, and we think he needs federal prison time.

PROKUPECZ: Right. This is one of the more kind of fascinating things that went on here at this investigation is that you have the special counsel taking one view of Michael Cohen, and then you have the Southern District of New York taking the complete opposite view on him because the cooperation here vary. Michael Cohen, though he has said he's been cooperative, was not very cooperative with the special counsel -- with the Southern District of New York, but very cooperative with the special counsel.

And it was also very interesting when the special counsel spoke. Jennie Reh (ph), who's one of the senior prosecutors from the Mueller team, who's been involved in this investigation from the beginning, involved on some of the bigger aspects of this investigation, she only spoke for a few minutes to say that Michael Cohen has told the truth and that was it. And that's very telling. And that is because the special counsel, as we know, in the Mueller team, do not want to reveal anything. They also understand that when they speak, when they file documents, it carries a certain weight.

So there is still a lot going on here and they're going to have their time to speak, but they're just not ready to speak. They have filed their documents explaining how Michael Cohen has cooperated, but they have not gone any further than that.

The Southern District of New York, obviously, not ultimately very happy with Michael Cohen. They would have liked more cooperation from him. But he was not willing, they say, to go all in, and that is give up everything he knows.

The other thing that's important and what's playing out inside this courtroom is the role that the president, we all wonder, how much are they going to go into about the president of the United States? And Michael Cohen here really just going at him, saying how he basically was covering up for the president's dirty deeds. Other things about how he did this really, you know, for the president and going after him. Michael Cohen has taken responsibility certainly -- for some of his actions here, but then again, important to note how he has gone at the president in his courtroom before this judge.

KING: Shimon Prokupecz outside the courtroom and in touch with our team inside the courtroom.

Shimon will come back to us as soon as we get more from the judge, including the sentencing details.

To Shimon's point about Michael Cohen talking inside the court, Cohen telling the court, referring to President Trump, quote, that he's committed to ensuring that history will not remember me as the villain of this story. That from Michael Cohen. Clearly taking a shot at his former boss, now the president of the United States.

With me to share additional reporting and analysis, CNN Sara Murray, CNN's Evan Perez, Michael Zeldin, our CNN legal analyst and former special assistant to Robert Mueller, in New York CNN's MJ Lee and also in New York CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Jennifer Rodgers.

Evan, to you first.

[12:05:00] You've been covering this case from the beginning. Michael Cohen in court, facing prison time, length of that prison sentence to be determined any minute, essentially saying, I have done wrong, but. And the but being that most of what I have done wrong was at the direction of Donald Trump, the businessman, then the candidate, now the president.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Look, this is what you call singing for your supper. It is clear that Michael Cohen knows exactly the weight of every one of those words. The one you just read, history will not judge him to be the villain. Talking about the fact that the things that he did to cover up for these crimes was out of loyalty to the president, talking about how he's taking responsibility for crimes, including those involving the president. He's doing everything he can to twist the knife further in the back of the president because he knows that what he's doing, his performance here, is what's going to help the special counsel in their investigation, the New York -- the New York investigators as well in whatever case they're pursuing.

And, look, John, I mean it's clear now -- something that the -- the Trump lawyers, I think, already had been on top of for a couple of months, that they believe these prosecutors are out to get the president. They believe that at the end of this investigation, that the report that will come out will be damning towards the president. And so they are preparing for that. And I think that began emerging in this case.

KING: OK, the judge has just sentenced Michael Cohen to 36 months in prison. So three years of federal prison time for Michael Cohen. The sentencing is still going underway.

PEREZ: That's not bad.

KING: You say that's not bad.

Michael Zeldin, come into the conversation.

Three years in prison for Michael Cohen. One of the things we were discussing in e-mail conversations before this show is, Michael Cohen still has the option to try to get even that reduced by continuing to cooperate in prison. But 36 months for nine charges against him. Is Michael Cohen getting off easy? Is this about right?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think it's about right. I think we talked about this earlier and I thought that he would get somewhere in the three year range. The prosecutors had said that he deserves some downward departure from the sentencing guidelines. And that was 48 months to 63 months, four to five years. So he got a year off the down end of that. So I think Cohen's probably happy about that, all things considered. And, as you just mentioned, under rule 35 of the criminal rules of procedure, he can still cooperate and knock his time down. He's got a year in which to do that. And hopefully he'll now begin cooperating more fully in the Southern District of New York case, which is really where he's serving his time.

Mueller's case was on add on without any real consequences for the sentencing.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and let's remember, you know, Michael Cohen is in there saying now his only weakness was loyalty to the president. He was facing six counts that had nothing to do with the president. His weakness was not just loyalty to the president. It was greed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Greed, right.

MURRAY: It was trying to get himself very rich and very powerful. And that's what SDNY had a problem with. That's what this judge had a problem with.

And the fact that he also did -- has not fully cooperated with them. So, yes, he's come clean about some of the crimes he's committed, but he's not willing to tell all at this point. And that is something that the SDNY took very seriously. It's something the judge clearly took very seriously. And it's why they were not going to let him off scot- free, like he was hoping, to serve no time. It's why he's now got this three year sentence.

KING: And then let's get more from Shimon Prokupecz, who's outside the courthouse, on exactly -- imposing the sentence, Shimon, take us through the judge's reasoning.

PROKUPECZ: Well, we don't have word yet, John, as to what the judge's reasoning is yet, but what we can tell you is that the judge gave -- sentenced him to three years and then on the charge of lying to Congress that the special counsel here filed and that Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to and that's for the Moscow project, the judge sentenced him to two months, which means -- but the sentence is to be served concurrently. So he's not going to face any more than three years in jail.

And now what we're waiting to hear is, when does he have to report -- OK, we're now getting word that the judge, John, has ordered him to surrender on March 6th. So essentially Michael Cohen will be free until March 6th. He'll be able to stay home with his family, enjoy a couple more months of freedom, and then on March 6th he will have to report to jail where he will begin to serve his three year sentence.

KING: Shimon, keep getting us more information as it comes in.

So three years, two months to serve concurrent for lying to Congress.

Jennifer Rodgers in New York, join the conversation from your experience in the Southern District of New York.

So essentially you had a rivalry almost between the two sets of prosecutor play out in court today. The office of special counsel say he's telling the truth, he's been cooperative. Southern District of New York saying, no, he's only been -- you know, cooperating when he wants to cooperate, if you will.

We have from now until March before Michael Cohen has to report to federal prison. If you worked in the Southern District of New York still, do you view that as a key period of time to try to get additional cooperation?

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Not necessarily, honestly. He's made his decision knowing that he was likely going to prison for somewhere between three and four and a half years. So I don't expect him to change his mind now.

I think the only switch may come when he goes to prison, honestly. If he gets in there and says, you know, I don't think I can do this 36 months, it's probably time to call my lawyers and see if I can get another go, then probably that's when it will happen. But I think the next couple of months he'll just get his affairs in order. He'll go in there and we'll see what happens from there.

[12:10:18] KING: MJ Lee, you've been tracking this story for months. From a personal perspective, Michael Cohen had hoped that by suddenly deciding to cooperate, that he was going to get no or minimal prison time. Three years might not be the full extent of what he could have received, but three years in federal prison, it's a long time.

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, for a man who was hoping to get no jail time, 36 months away from his family, away from the world that he operates in, obviously, is very, very significant and it's going to be a huge gut punch for Michael Cohen. The argument that his lawyers had tried to make had to do with the cooperation that he has given to investigators. There was also obviously the personal angle of not wanting to inflict more pain on Cohen and his family.

And then just the argument that we saw unfold just this morning inside the courtroom, which was that he was essentially this victim who fell prey to President Trump and his ways. The fact that he was sort of persuaded by this powerful person to do these things, including lie. Those things ultimately ended up not helping him avoid the jail time, obviously. This was the argument, though, that his legal team was trying to make, that if you take in the whole picture everything that Michael Cohen has done since he decided to cooperate with investigators, that should give him a good amount of leniency. I think that if you were to ask Michael Cohen, I'm willing to bet that he doesn't see three years as getting a lot of leniency. The three years obviously down from the five years, plus some months, that he could have gotten.

And, again, I go back to the argument that SDNY investigators made just last week when we saw their sentencing memo. They said, just because you suddenly decide to plead guilty does not make you a hero. So even though from Michael Cohen's perspective he may have thought, I'm doing everything right now by cooperating, by helping investigators get to the truth, and telling the truth about my former boss, that doesn't suddenly make these things go away.

And I know that Sara was noting earlier that there were a number of counts that he pleaded guilty to that actually had nothing to do with the president, even though we're very focused on how the president may be potentially implicated in some of these things that have gotten Michael Cohen in trouble, there were also other aspects of this that simply just had to do with Michael Cohen's business life that had gotten him in trouble. And it's clear from this judge's sentencing that those things are not just going to suddenly go away just because Michael Cohen decided towards the end that he kind of had no choice but to cooperate with investigators and start talking.

KING: That's an important point. Two tracks essentially here, Michael Cohen's personal crimes and the crimes that Michael Cohen committed that he says, and the Southern District of New York prosecutors agree, the special counsel office's agrees, in some coordination with the White House or then candidate businessman, now president, Donald Trump.

You're watching the scene outside the courthouse in New York. We expect Michael Cohen to come out. Will he speak? We don't know the answer to that question.

But to the point, I want to bring Shimon Prokupecz back into the conversation for the color and to the point MJ Lee was just making. The judge at one point said this of Michael Cohen, he thrived on his access to wealthy and powerful people and he became one himself. Somewhere along the way, Mr. Cohen appears to have lost his moral compass.

Shimon, help us break down. Michael Cohen clearly tried to convince the judge, I was a guy who worked for Donald Trump. My loyalty to him made me do these terrible things. The Southern District of New York used very tough language about the campaign finance violations in which in the court filings they have specifically indicated candidate Trump, businessman Donald Trump, saying he directed Michael Cohen in the very strong language in the courtroom.

PROKUPECZ: That's right.

KING: What does that tell us about the next step here, which continues to be, the president's long time attorney and fixer is going to prison. The president still remains a central focus of two investigations, the office of special counsel and clearly still the Southern District of New York.

PROKUPECZ: Right. This investigation is by far not over. If you read those documents that the Southern District of New York filed, they clearly talk about how the organization, the Trump Organization, hid the ways in which this money was paid for -- on their accounting -- their accounting files. They did not admit as to why they were making these payments to Michael Cohen. So that's an issue for them. And that's something that's still being investigated. The other thing, I think it's fine to make the point, as MJ did, that

this -- that there are these other crimes that Michael is charged with that have nothing to do with the president. But let's remember what started this investigation. It was the Mueller team. It was Mueller that referred these charges to the Southern District of New York. So perhaps if Donald Trump never ran for office, never became president, this investigation had never begun, Michael Cohen may not be here today and no one may have ever looked into any of this.

[12:15:08] So we can't lose sight of that because, in the end, what really started this, may, in some ways, is the special counsel's office. So that's one point.

The other thing is there are still people that are clearly in the crosshairs of the Southern District of New York. There are still people that they want to talk to. There are things that they are still looking into and very much interested in that should concern the president, should concern people who work for the Trump Organization and the president's family. And we know they're all concerned about it. There are still a lot of unknowns in this investigation, as well as on the Mueller team and the special counsel. What's going to happen there and where that investigation goes?

KING: And --

PROKUPECZ: One of the biggest concerns, certainly ongoing for the president and his family, John, has been this Southern District of New York investigation.

KING: Right. And to that point, to Michael Zeldin first and then to Jennifer Rodgers, the lawyers who understand how the prosecutors work.

If you're in the Southern District of New York, you're in, I don't know what the right word is, but contested. I was going to say precarious legal position in the sense that what are your limits, or are there limits, when it comes to the conduct of a sitting president of the United States? The court documents in the campaign finance violations say specifically they accuse the now president, then candidate, of two felonies. They just lay out -- they just straight out say he directed Michael Cohen to do this and they say it was so egregious that it's not, to their -- not misdemeanor campaign finance violation, in the view of the Southern District of New York, felony campaign finance violations. The prosecutor today, in making a case for prison time for Michael Cohen, described these crimes, said they carried a tremendous societal cost. Mr. Cohen has eroded faith in the electoral process and compromised the rule of law.

In making that case, prosecute say against Mr. Cohen, aren't they making the same case about the president and where do they take it next?

ZELDIN: Sure. Absolutely. If the president did what the Southern District alleged, and, remember, these are allegations. They're not proof. The prosecutors still have to prove their theory. But if it were proven that the president did this, then, yes, he would have exacted on society the same cost that the court and Southern District believe that Michael Cohen did.

But make no mistake, Cohen really was sentenced in large measure because of his financial crimes. And that's what he has not fessed up to. He's got to make a decision about whether he wants to now be forthcoming about what he did. He was very forthcoming with respect to the crimes of others, particularly the president, not so as to himself.

So he's got three years, actually you gain about 47 days of good time per year. You serve about 85 percent. So he's got two and a half years to figure out what he wants to do with his life, but he's got 120-ish days to now decide whether he's going to start cooperating more fully, enter into a cooperation agreement, that he didn't do in the first instance.

PEREZ: But some of that -- some of what he's doing is actually protecting his family. There was -- before he decided to plea, he was warned that his wife and other family members were at risk because of their implications -- there were implications that they were involved in some of this behavior. So that's what he's got to weigh also, that he's got to protect his family members. That's one reason why he pleaded.

KING: All right, we're going to continue to watch this. We're waiting to see Michael Cohen, also the prosecutors and the defense lawyers to come out of the courthouse in New York.

We're going to work in a quick break. But, again, some major, breaking news playing out in court, stakes (ph) for Michael Cohen, prison time, three years is the sentence, stakes for the president as well. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:22:38] KING: Welcome back.

You're looking at the pictures of the federal courthouse in New York there. The breaking news today, the longtime Trump lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, sentenced to three years in federal prison for nine crimes total. Eight crimes charged by the Southern District of New York. That's why he received the three year sentence. Another crime by the special counsel's office, lying to Congress, a sentence, a couple of months there, but to be served concurrently. Judge William Pauley also ordering $1 million in restitution for Michael Cohen.

Our Shimon Prokupecz is outside the courthouse. We're waiting to see the key players emerge from the big sentencing hearing today. Michael Cohen, obviously, the prosecutors and defense attorneys as well.

Shimon, help us set the scene there.

PROKUPECZ: Yes, so, obviously, just looking over my shoulder here, you can see the court security staff, the U.S. marshals, now all outside. We're all waiting for Michael Cohen and his attorneys to walk out of court. The police have also closed the street down to traffic waiting for him to leave so that he can quickly get out of here. There's a black car parked outside the courthouse here that we believe he's going to get into.

But everyone right now outside of the courthouse just waiting for Michael Cohen to come outside. Some of the reporters -- and here we go. Here's his family, John. This is his daughter, his son, his wife coming out first.

KING: All right, we'll see Michael Cohen.

PROKUPECZ: So there you just -- you just saw his daughter come out with his wife and son. We're now waiting for Michael Cohen to come outside with his attorney. We don't know if they're going to speak. There is some microphones set up for them to speak if they choose to, but we don't know yet if they're going to come out and say anything. But, clearly, that's what everyone out here right now is awaiting for him to come outside.

Since we just saw his family, I assume he should be coming out shortly. And you'll just see a lot of the security staff of the court (ph). And there's probably, you know, close to 100 photographers, reporters out here waiting for him to come outside, which should be at any moment now.

KING: One of the closest aides to businessmen Donald Trump, candidate Donald Trump, left on the outside when it became President Donald Trump, being sentenced to three years in prison. Again, nine federal crimes he's being sentenced for, eight of them really have little or nothing to do with Donald Trump. Personal financial crimes. The judge saying Michael Cohen may have taken advantage of his reputation for working for Donald Trump, his high profile in Manhattan working for Donald Trump for these greedy crimes. The other one, lying to Congress about Trump Tower business dealings in Moscow, trying to sell a Trump Tower idea in Moscow during the presidential campaign. That has ramifications.

[12:25:22] So we're going to keep our eyes on these pictures to see if Michael Cohen comes out. We see some of the attorneys coming out now.

PROKUPECZ: Here he is.

KING: Here he is. Let's see if he speaks.

There you see Michael Cohen getting into the black car with his wife, his son and his daughter and driving off, choosing not to speak. That in and of itself a big development in the sense that for years, for years, Michael Cohen threw punches for Donald Trump. There's no other way to put it.

PEREZ: Oh, yes. (INAUDIBLE) --

KING: He tried to spin -- he tried to spin stories for Donald Trump. If you wrote things or said things about the businessman, even before he was in politics, then the candidate, and even the president in the early months of the Trump administration, Michael Cohen would, I don't say this in a bad way, get in your face.

PEREZ: Right. KING: He was -- he was a sharply loyal counterpuncher and sometimes puncher.

Julie Pace of the "Associated Press" joins the conversation. Part of the conversation here, Michael Cohen is now facing a three year prison sentence. The question is, number one, how does the president react. And, number two, does it affect -- does it affect -- you're seeing some of the attorneys in the case coming out here as well. Let's listen just for one second here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He said no comment. So should we get somebody else? Let's go.

KING: All right, we'll bring the conversation back in the room. Sometimes -- we're all laughing. Sometimes its --

PEREZ: That's a New York moment.

KING: That's a New York moment outside a courthouse. The lawyers emerge. You trying to see if they have anything to say. It's not always pretty looking. But as people -- reporters trying to do their job. Photographers trying to do their job.

One of the questions here is, a, how does the president react, and, b, does this change here in Washington? This case playing out in New York. Here in Washington, this has played out largely along what tribe are you in. Democrats say Michael Cohen's testimony, Michael Cohen's guilty pleas, now Michael Cohen going to federal prison is proof that the president was part of this corrupt -- and the leader of this corrupt group of people. Republicans say, Michael Cohen committed these crimes, he says these things about the president, who knows if they're true.

Let's go -- here we go, Michael Avenatti, I'm told, is speaking now. What he has to do with this, I'm not quite so sure, but there he is.

MICHAEL AVENATTI, STORMY DANIELS' ATTORNEY: And only until his back was against the wall and he faced significant prison time did he decide to, quote, come clean. He even lied to the office of the special counsel in July of this year.

Michael Cohen is no hero. He is no patriot. His choice, time and time again, was to degrade my client, seek to intimidate her, call her and me liars, and seek to degrade the office of the presidency of the United States by seeking to buy effectively an election.

This is an outrage. He deserves every day of the 36 month sentence that he will serve. And I will also note with great irony, Michael Cohen --

KING: All right, you're listening to Michael Avenatti, who is the attorney for Stormy Daniels, of course. One of the allegations, one of the guilty -- one of the things Michael Cohen has now been convicted of is the Southern District of New York says in the payments to Stormy Daniels and in the payments to Karen McDougal, Stormy Daniels being the adult film actress, Karen McDougal, a Playboy centerfold, that the Southern District of New York alleges Michael Cohen and candidate Donald Trump, named as individual number one in the documents, violated campaign finance laws. That is what is alleged. That's why Michael Avenatti, like a moth to light, I guess, is in the courthouse here. He's someone who likes attention.

Julie Pace, I was trying to have a conversation about things that actually matter -- sorry, Michael Avenatti -- here in Washington in the sense that we don't know how the president's going to react to this. He cannot say this is the coffee boy, George Papadopoulos --

JULIE PACE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "ASSOCIATED PRESS": Right.

KING: Or he cannot say, which is ludicrous, Paul Manafort, I think he was around for a couple of months at one point. Paul Manafort was central. But the president often dismisses, like, I think I barely knew that person. This was his right-hand man in all things sort of gray, if you will. What happens now?

PACE: It's really difficult for the president to separate himself from Michael Cohen. Where he has been leaning, and where I think it's likely he will continue to lean, is on the idea, as you said, that much of what Cohen is being sentenced with here didn't have anything to do with Trump directly. But one piece of it did, and that's the campaign finance violation. That is directly related to Donald Trump and his campaign. And as Michael Cohen says, an effort to basically conceal information that could have been damaging from the public.

[12:29:53] I think the reaction from Republicans around that has been really fascinating. You do have some people saying, it doesn't matter, or, it's not that big of a deal. I think Democrats are going to try to make it a big deal. We've seen other politicians get off on similar campaign finance violations.