NEW YORK (AP) — The sentencing of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer, brought a perilous investigation into the president's campaign one step closer to the Oval Office.
Though Cohen broke down during his sentencing hearing Wednesday, Trump remained uncharacteristically quiet, his Twitter feed still while he ignored shouted questions about his former attorney at a White House event. But Trump has been far from silent during the monthslong Cohen saga, with the president's explanations frequently shifting as his legal exposure grew.
Since the spring, Trump has gone from denying knowledge of any payments to women who claim to have been mistresses to apparent acknowledgement of those hush money settlements - though he claims they wouldn't be illegal in any case. But both Cohen and federal prosecutors said the payments were made at Trump's direction to fend off damage to his White House bid, an apparent campaign finance violation.
Though prosecutors have implicated Trump in a crime, they haven't directly accused him of one, and it's hardly clear that they could bring charges even if they want to because of Justice Department protocol. Nonetheless, Trump's evolving explanations have clouded the public understanding of what occurred and are running head-on into a problematic set of facts agreed to by prosecutors, Cohen and a media company that has acknowledged participating in the hush money scheme to aid the president's campaign.
"You now have a second defendant or group of defendants saying that these payments were made for the primary purpose of influencing the election, and that it was done in coordination with Trump and his campaign," said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine.
Trump's first explanation of the payment that would eventually help lead Cohen to a three-year prison sentence came at 35,000 feet over West Virginia.
Returning to Washington on Air Force One, Trump on April 6 for the first time answered questions about the reports of $130,000 in hush money given to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, issuing a blanket denial to reporters while saying they would "have to ask Michael Cohen."
Three days later, the FBI raided Cohen's office, seizing records on topics including a $130,000 payment to Daniels. Furious, Trump called the raid a "disgrace" and said the FBI "broke into" his lawyer's office. He also tweeted that "Attorney-client privilege is dead!"
Michael Cohen, Stormy Daniels hush payment scandal
Michael Cohen, Stormy Daniels hush payment scandal
Adult-film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels speaks to the media outside US Federal Court on April 16, 2018, in Lower Manhattan, New York.
President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen has been under criminal investigation for months over his business dealings, and FBI agents last week raided his home, hotel room, office, a safety deposit box and seized two cellphones. Some of the documents reportedly relate to payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, who claims a one-night stand with Trump a decade ago, and ex Playboy model Karen McDougal who also claims an affair. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen arrives at federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Michael Avenatti, lawyer for adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, leaves federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Michael Cohen's attorney Todd Harrison arrives at federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar
U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen (centre) leaves federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid
Adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels speaks to media along with lawyer Michael Avenatti (R) outside federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Michael Cohen's attorney Todd Harrison is pictured outside the Manhattan Federal Court in New York City, New York, U.S., April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon
U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen exits a hotel in New York City, U.S., April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, speaks to media along with lawyer Michael Avenatti (R) outside federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid
Attorney for Stormy Daniels, Michael Avenatti is pictured though a window as he arrives at federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and attorney Michael Avenatti arrive at Federal Court in New York, U.S., on Monday, April 16, 2018. Daniels claims she had sex with Donald Trump in 2006 and took a $130,000 hush payment shortly before the 2016 election from lawyer Michael Cohen. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images
President Trumps lawyer Michael Cohen exits the US Federal Court on April 16, 2018, in Lower Manhattan, New York. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen has been under criminal investigation for months over his business dealings, and FBI agents last week raided his home, hotel room, office, a safety deposit box and seized two cellphones. Some of the documents reportedly relate to payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, who claims a one-night stand with Trump a decade ago, and ex Playboy model Karen McDougal who also claims an affair. / AFP PHOTO / EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ (Photo credit should read EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Adult-film actress Stephanie Clifford, (C) also known as Stormy Daniels arrives for a court hearing at the US Courthouse in New York on April 16, 2018.
President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen has been under criminal investigation for months over his business dealings, and FBI agents last week raided his home, hotel room, office, a safety deposit box and seized two cellphones. / AFP PHOTO / Hector RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Attorney for Stormy Daniels, Michael Avenatti(C), arrives for a court hearing at the US Courthouse in New York on April 16, 2018.
President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen has been under criminal investigation for months over his business dealings, and FBI agents last week raided his home, hotel room, office, a safety deposit box and seized two cellphones. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 13: Michael Avenatti (R), attorney for Stormy Daniels, arrives for a court proceeding regarding the search warrants served on President Donald Trump's longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen, at the United States District Court Southern District of New York, April 13, 2018 in New York City. Cohen and his lawyers are asking the court to block Justice Department officials from reading documents and materials related to his relationship with President Donald Trump that they believe should be protected by attorney-client privilege. Officials with the FBI, armed with a search warrant, raided Cohen's office and two private residences earlier in the week. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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The raid was overseen by the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan and arose from a referral from special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian election interference. At the time, Cohen had said he took out a personal line of credit on his home to pay Daniels days before the 2016 election without Trump's knowledge.
Later that month in a free-wheeling "Fox & Friends" interview, Trump acknowledged that Cohen represented him in the "crazy Stormy Daniels deal." In May, Trump and his attorneys began saying Cohen received a monthly retainer from which he made payments for nondisclosure agreements like the one with Daniels. In a series of tweets, Trump said those agreements are "very common among celebrities and people of wealth" and "this was a private agreement."
People familiar with the investigation say Cohen secretly recorded Trump discussing a potential payment for Karen McDougal, another woman who alleged an affair with the president, two months before the election. On the tape, Cohen is heard saying that he needed to start a company "for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David," a possible reference to David Pecker, Trump's friend and president of American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer.
When Cohen began to discuss financing, Trump interrupted him and asked, "What financing?"
"We'll have to pay," Cohen responded.
Prosecutors announced Wednesday that AMI acknowledged making one of those payments "in concert" with the Trump campaign to protect him from a story that could have hurt his candidacy. The company avoided prosecution under a deal with prosecutors.
In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations and other charges, saying he and Trump arranged the payment of hush money to Daniels and McDougal to influence the election. That next day, Trump argued that making the payments wasn't a crime and that the matter was a civil dispute, then took a swipe at his former employee.
"If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don't retain the services of Michael Cohen!" he tweeted.
Earlier this week, Trump compared his situation to one involving President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. The Federal Election Commission, which typically handles smaller campaign-finance violations, where the actions aren't willful, with civil penalties that are typically fines, docked the Obama campaign $375,000 for regulatory civil violations.
But legal analysts said the accusations against Trump could amount to a felony because they revolve around an alleged conspiracy to conceal payments from campaign contribution reports - and from voters. It remains unclear what federal prosecutors in New York will decide to do if they conclude that there is evidence that Trump himself committed a crime.
The Justice Department, in opinions issued by its Office of Legal Counsel, has said a sitting president cannot be indicted because a criminal case would interfere with the duties of the commander in chief. Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, and with Mueller's office, would presumably be bound by that legal guidance unless the Justice Department were to somehow nullify the opinions.
Photos of the week: 12/7 - 12/14
Photos of the week: 12/7 - 12/14
Michael Cohen, former personal lawyer to U.S. President Donald Trump, arrives at federal court with his wife Laura Shusterman, second right, daughter Samantha Cohen, second left, and son Jake Cohen, left, in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. Cohen is heading to prison for three years on a gross miscalculation. He was also ordered to forfeit $500,000, pay a restitution of $1.4 million and fines totaling $100,000. Photographer: Peter Foley/Bloomberg via Getty Images
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence meet with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, hugs her husband, Kent in front of Charlottesville Circuit Court after a jury recommended life plus 419 years for James Alex Fields Jr. for the death of Heyer as well as several other charges related to the Unite the Right rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, Va., Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018.
(AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Policemen speak with a military in the streets of Strasbourg, eastern France, after a shooting breakout, on December 11, 2018. - At least two people have been killed and 11 critically wounded in a shooting in the French city of Strasbourg, police said, updating the number of victims. (Photo by Frederick FLORIN / AFP) (Photo credit should read FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. first lady Melania Trump sits beside Nathan Simm while reading a children's Christmas story during her visit to Children's National Health System in Washington, U.S., December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Snow-covered roads made traffic move slowly on I-85 in Lexington, NC on Sunday, December 9, 2018. (H. Scott Hoffmann/News & Record via AP)/News & Record via AP)
Honduran migrant Jonatan Matamoros Flores, 33, who arrived in October with a migrant caravan, climbs the U.S. border wall to stand atop it before returning to the Mexican side in Tijuana, Mexico, Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. U.S. inspectors at the main border crossing in San Diego are processing up to about 100 asylum claims day, leaving thousands of migrants waiting in Tijuana, while some are avoiding the wait by crossing illegally to turn themselves in. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 10: A child stands next to the 'Fearless Girl' after a ceremony to unveil the statue's new location across from the New York Stock Exchange, December 10, 2018 in New York City. The bronze statue of a young girl standing with her hands on her hips has been moved from Bowling Green Park, where it stood across the iconic Charging Bull statue for over a year. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
French President Emmanuel Macron poses before a special address to the nation, his first public comments after four weeks of nationwide 'yellow vest' protests, at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, Monday, Dec. 10, 2018. Facing exceptional protests, French President Emmanuel Macron is promising to speed up tax relief for struggling workers and to scrap a tax hike for retirees. (Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP)
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials detain a migrant woman and children, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, after they crossed illegally with other migrants from Mexico to the U.S, at International Friendship Park, in San Diego, U.S., December 9, 2018. Picture taken from Tijuana, Mexico. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
LINFEN, CHINA - DECEMBER 08: Icicles hang from rocks at the Hukou Waterfall scenic spot of the Yellow River on December 8, 2018 in Linfen, Shanxi Province of China. (Photo by Lyu Guiming/VCG via Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 12: British Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement outside Number 10 Downing Street on December 12, 2018 in London, England. Theresa May survived a confidence ballot in her leadership this evening as Conservative MPs voted 200/117 in favour of her staying on as leader of the Conservative Party. She will now be safe from another challenge from her own party for 12 months. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., right, and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y., left, walk out of the West Wing to speak to members of the media outside of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, following a meeting with President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
A firefighter helps a boy stranded in debris following a landslide in Xuyong county, Sichuan province, China December 9, 2018. Picture taken December 9, 2018. China Daily via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. President Donald Trump (2nd R) is joined by Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer (2nd L) at the Army-Navy college football game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, U.S., December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Young TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
ADANA, TURKEY - DECEMBER 13 : A cow is seen fallen inside a manhole in Adana, Turkey on December 13, 2018. Cow was noticed after a dog constantly barked near the manhole. (Photo by Eren Bozkurt/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Fire crew work at the site of a fire at the Serbian Mission on Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in New York City, U.S., December 9, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 11: Ian Madrigal (R) dresses as Mr. Monopoly as Google CEO Sundar Pichai (L) testifies before the House Judiciary Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on December 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on 'Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
A boat sail along the Naviglio canal decorated with Christmas lights, in Milan, Italy, Monday, Dec. 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with newly elected governors in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 14: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks during a naturalization ceremony at the Rotunda of the National Archives December 14, 2018 in Washington, DC. The National Archives held the ceremony to mark the Bill of Rights Day. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
SRINAGAR, KASHMIR, INDIA - DECEMBER 10: Kashmiri labourers cover their heads with buckets after dumping soil at the river bank during a cold day on December 10, 2018 in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir, India. Dry, cold weather continued in Kashmir valley with most places in the state recording sub-zero temperatures. (Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 11: Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge joins some of the children as they take part in Christmas-themed activities during a visit to Evelina London Children's Hospital on December 11, 2018 in London, England. Evelina London, which is part of Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust, is preparing to mark its 150th anniversary in 2019. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
A girl laughs while her brother cries being held by Santa Claus at the King of Prussia Mall, in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, U.S., December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Makela TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Giant pandas Chengjiu and Shuanghao play in the snow at a zoo in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China December 9, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
WEEHAWKEN, NJ - DECEMBER 8: A bride is photographed in front of lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center at sunset on December 8, 2018 as seen from Weehawken, New Jersey. (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)
A man carries an infant on a cold winter day in a village of south Kashmir's Pulwama district December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Ismail
U.S. first lady Melania Trump is handed a young girl during the Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots campaign at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, U.S., December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 08: A man dressed up as Baby Jesus takes part during the annual New York SantaCon on December 8, 2018 in New York City. SantaCon is in it's 20th year in New York City. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
YAMALO- NENETS, RUSSIA - DECEMBER 11: A Nenet woman is seen in the Obdorskiy Ostrog , center Salekhard town of Yamalo-Nenets autonomous district, Russia on December 11, 2018. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Michael Cohen, U.S. President Donald Trump's former attorney, arrives for his sentencing at United States Court house in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
STRASBOURG, FRANCE - DECEMBER 12: Soldiers patrol near the Christmas market where, yesterday, a man shot 14 people, killing at least three, on December 12, 2018 in Strasbourg, France. Police have identified the man as Cherif Chekatt, a French citizen on a police terror watch-list. Chekatt exchanged gunfire with soldiers after the attack, is reportedly injured and is still on the loose. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 13: Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) hugs his wife Cheryl after delivering his farewell speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate December 13, 2018 in Washington, DC. During his speech Flake said, “Let us recognize from this place here today that the shadow of tyranny is once again enveloping parts of the globe. And let us recognize as authoritarianism reasserts itself in country after country, that we are by no means immune.' (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Virgin Galactic’s carrier airplane WhiteKnightTwo carrying space tourism rocket plane SpaceShipTwo takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California, U.S. December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Gene Blevins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Mandarin Duck, a native species to East Asia, swims in The Pond in Central Park in Manhattan in New York City, New York, U.S., December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Window cleaners, dressed as a dog (R) and wild boar, this year's and next year's Chinese zodiac animals, pose while cleaning the windows of Ryumeikan hotel during a promotional event to celebrate the upcoming new year in Tokyo, Japan, December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A visitor is seen walking in a traditional Arabic design lights shop in down town Manama, Bahrain, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 13: Firefighters work to put out the smoldering remains of an overnight fire that engulfed six businesses on Queens Boulevard, December 13, 2018 in the Queens borough of New York City. A dozen people were injured in the fire, including six firefighters. The cause of the fire is still under investigation. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
This mosaic image of asteroid Bennu, composed of 12 PolyCam images collected on December 2, 2018 by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a range of 15 miles (24 km). NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
Palestinian wrapped in Hamas flag rides a bike during clashes with Israeli troops at the Hawara checkpoint, south of the West Bank city of Nablus, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
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Politically, Trump's shifting claims could harm his credibility with voters, but legally they may not make much of a difference.
"It's not clear to me that he's made any false statements in legal documents that could open him to liability for perjury," Hasen said.
For the payments themselves to be a crime rather than a civil infraction, prosecutors would need to show that Trump knew that what he was doing was wrong when he directed Cohen to pay the women and that he did so with the goal of benefiting his campaign.
Trump has not yet laid out a fulsome defense, though he could conceivably argue that the payments were made not for the purposes of advancing his campaign but rather to prevent sex stories from emerging that would be personally humiliating to him and harm his marriage.
That argument was advanced by former Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, in a similar campaign finance case that went to trial. But that may be tougher for Trump than it was for Edwards given the proximity of the president's payment to the election — timing that, on its face, suggests a link between the money and his political ambitions.
Still, the cases aren't always easy, as proven by the 2012 trial of Edwards. Jurors acquitted Edwards on one charge of accepting illegal campaign contributions, but couldn't reach a verdict on the five remaining counts including conspiracy and making false statements. Prosecutors elected not to retry Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004 and a candidate for president in 2004 and 2008.