Cohen saga reaches dramatic climax in federal court

President TrumpDonald John TrumpSarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor The US-Iranian scuffle over a ship is a sideshow to events in the Gulf South Korea: US, North Korea to resume nuclear talks 'soon' MORE’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen will be sentenced on Wednesday, capping off months of public scrutiny that saw him morph from a fierce defender of Trump into a key witness for federal investigators probing possible wrongdoing by the president.

Cohen faces sentencing for nine federal charges, including campaign finance violations stemming from a scheme to pay off women alleging affairs with Trump and a false-statements charge brought about in connection with special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerMueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony MORE’s Russia investigation.

His appearance in a federal court in Manhattan promises high drama, coming days after federal prosecutors in New York recommended he serve “substantial” prison time despite his ongoing cooperation in the Mueller probe and assistance in other active law enforcement investigations.

Cohen’s sentencing does not mean an end to Trump’s legal woes, which have emerged as a result of the guilty pleas of his former personal attorney. Cohen has agreed to continue to cooperate with the special counsel investigation and signaled he is willing to do so in other inquiries in New York.

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Cohen, 52, is likely to face significant prison time for charges of tax fraud, false statements and campaign finance violations that stemmed from his work for Trump. Federal sentencing guidelines call for him to spend roughly four to five years in prison for the eight offenses he pleaded guilty to in August. Comparatively, the separate charge he admitted to in Mueller’s investigation carries minimal potential jail time.

Cohen’s attorneys have asked U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III for leniency, arguing that he should be spared prison time because of his extensive cooperation with law enforcement.

However, federal prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York unequivocally pushed back on that argument last week. They recommended the judge impose a sentence reflecting “a modest downward variance” from federal guidelines, but one that carries considerable prison time, describing Cohen as someone motivated by greed and accustomed to using his power to “deceptive ends.”

There was another detail, though, from Friday’s court filing that caught considerable attention. Prosecutors alleged that Cohen paid off two women at the “direction” of “Individual-1,” who is widely assumed to be Trump.

Prosecutors said the payments amounted to illegal campaign contributions, which Cohen pleaded guilty to in August, because they were made with the intent to prevent damaging information from surfacing during the 2016 presidential election. 

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Legal experts view the filing as an ominous sign for Trump, suggesting prosecutors have evidence beyond Cohen’s public admissions implicating the president in the payoff scheme. While the Justice Department has said previously that a sitting president cannot be indicted, that would not stop prosecutors from bringing charges against Trump once he leaves office.

Steven Cash, a Washington-based lawyer at Day Pitney and former chief counsel to Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinTrump administration urges Congress to reauthorize NSA surveillance program The Hill's Morning Report - More talk on guns; many questions on Epstein's death Juan Williams: We need a backlash against Big Tech MORE (D-Calif.), said the use of the word “direction” was particularly significant.

“You can have conspiracies and you can have individuals associated with the conspiracy who you coordinate with, cooperate with, they know about it, they’re there,” Cash said. “When you use the word ‘directed,’ it states an affirmative and specific act that certainly implies leadership.”

Trump asserted in a series of tweets Monday that the payments were a “simple private transaction” and not a violation of campaign finance law.

Cohen declined to enter into a formal cooperation agreement with prosecutors in Manhattan, which in part contributed to their argument that he should serve a robust sentence. Still, Cohen has met with officials there twice about an ongoing investigation and through his lawyers has offered further help.

The New York Times reported Sunday that prosecutors are now examining whether Trump Organization executives played a part in the payoff schemes.

Meanwhile, Cohen has entered into a cooperation agreement with Mueller, going to “significant lengths” to assist the Russia investigation in lengthy meetings with the special counsel’s office in recent weeks, according to a separate filing on Friday.

Cohen, who pleaded guilty to lying to the House and Senate Intelligence committees about discussions to build a Trump property in Moscow, has shed new light on what now amount to numerous Russian attempts to engage with the Trump campaign.

Mueller also revealed Friday that Cohen disclosed “useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to the special counsel investigation that he obtained by virtue of his regular contact with Company executives during the campaign,” a signal the special counsel is continuing to scrutinize the proposed Trump Moscow project and other Trump business dealings.

Additionally, Cohen’s information about his interactions with the White House and the circumstances surrounding his false statements to Congress is likely to shed light on whether Trump or others played a role in Cohen’s lies.

Mueller did not take a position on what Cohen should serve for the eight other offenses he pleaded guilty to in August, but asked that he be allowed to serve any sentence imposed for lying to Congress concurrently. Cohen is expected to continue to share information with the special counsel after he is sentenced in Wednesday.

The relationship between the president and his former personal “fixer” has broken down in the eight months since a federal raid on Cohen’s office that was triggered by a referral from Mueller. It culminated in Cohen implicating Trump in the payment scheme in courtroom testimony over the summer, on the same day that a jury in Virginia convicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortTrial of ex-Obama White House counsel suddenly postponed Top Mueller probe prosecutor to join Georgetown Law as lecturer DOJ releases notes from official Bruce Ohr's Russia probe interviews MORE on charges of bank and tax fraud.

Cohen’s sentencing is certain to inspire reaction from Trump, who has attacked his former confidant as a liar undeserving of leniency.

It’s possible, but unlikely, that Cohen will reverse his decision to decline a cooperation deal with prosecutors in New York in order to reduce his prison time at sentencing, which is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday. Prosecutors said last week that Cohen refused repeatedly to provide “full information” about other criminal conduct he may have engaged in or been privy to, though they neglected to provide details.

“Could he try to say, ‘Judge I’m going to do full cooperation, please don’t sentence me'? I don’t know,” Cash said. “This is an unusual situation.”