Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen pleads guilty, admits to making illegal payments at direction of candidate to influence election

Mark Kauzlarich | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Michael Cohen, former personal lawyer to U.S. President Donald Trump, exits from federal court in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018.

Michael Cohen, the former personal lawyer and fixer for President Donald Trump, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to eight counts related to tax fraud, excessive campaign contributions, making false statements to a financial institution, and unlawful corporate contributions at a court hearing in New York on Tuesday. He could face more than five years in prison.

Two of the counts that Cohen pleaded guilty to appear to relate to Trump directly. Cohen admitted on Tuesday to making payments to two women at the direction of an unidentified candidate for political office who appears to be the president. Those payments, Cohen said, were made to influence the outcome of the election.

While Cohen didn't name Trump directly during the hearing, his attorney Lanny Davis said shortly afterward that "Donald Trump directed [Cohen] to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election." The Justice Department confirmed late Tuesday that Trump was the unidentified candidate.

Cohen pleaded guilty to one count of causing an illegal corporate contribution in 2016 by working with the CEO of a media company, at the direction of a federal candidate for federal election, to keep information from the public. Cohen said he paid a woman $150,000 "for the principal purpose of influencing the election."

Last month, a recording was released of Cohen and Trump discussing a $150,000 payment from a tabloid publisher to a former Playboy model for the rights to her story about an alleged affair with the president. The recording was made two months before the 2016 presidential election.

Jane Rosenberg | Reuters
President Donald Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen (R), is seen in courtroom sketch at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Court House in New York City, August 21, 2018. 

Cohen also pleaded guilty to a count of making an excessive campaign contribution. He said he used a company under his control to pay $130,000 to a woman at the direction of the same candidate.

That payment is thought to refer to the $130,000 hush money payment Cohen facilitated to the porn star Stormy Daniels, who claims that she had sex with the president. Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, is suing Cohen and the president to void a nondisclosure agreement. In a statement to NBC News following Cohen's plea, Clifford said she felt "vindicated."

When U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III asked Cohen whether he knew what he was doing was illegal, Cohen said "yes," according to NBC News.

Cohen's comments during his plea hearing mark a significant legal setback for the president, legal experts have said.

Mimi Rocah, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York, said the disclosures from Cohen were "huge."

"He has now said under oath that these campaign finance violation payments we made under the direction of what everyone understands to be Donald Trump," Rocah said during a Tuesday interview on MSNBC.

News of Cohen's plea deal comes as the president's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was found guilty on eight criminal counts by a jury in Virginia. Manafort's trial was the first to come as a result of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.

In a statement, Trump's attorney Rudy Giuliani noted that there "is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the President in the government's charges against Mr. Cohen."

"It is clear that, as the prosecutor noted, Mr. Cohen's actions reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time," Giuliani said.

Cohen came under investigation by federal prosecutors in New York City earlier this year after they received a referral from Mueller's investigators.

In April, prosecutors seized thousands of items from Cohen's New York office and hotel room, including the tape of Cohen and Trump discussing the payment to the former Playboy model, Karen McDougal.

In addition to the counts related to Cohen's hush money payments, Cohen also pleaded guilty to concealing more than $4 million from the IRS and making false statements to a financial institution in connection with a $500,000 home equity loan.

Cohen, a longtime friend and advisor to the president, once said he would take a bullet for Trump. But in recent months, Cohen began to signal that he could cooperate with investigators. In an interview with ABC News in July, Cohen said he put "family and country" before Trump.

Cohen was released on Tuesday on $500,000 bail. Sentencing is scheduled for December 12.

WATCH: What Cohen's plea deal means

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