DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This morning we are looking at the cases of two Trump associates, both declared guilty of multiple crimes in two different courtrooms in two different states at around the same time yesterday afternoon. One was Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. The other, who we're going to focus on now, is Michael Cohen. He served for years as Donald Trump's personal lawyer and self-described fixer. Yesterday in federal court in Manhattan, Cohen pleaded guilty to financial crimes and other offenses. And let's talk this through with NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas. Hi, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: OK. So what exactly did Cohen plead guilty to here?
LUCAS: To eight felony charges in all. There are five counts for tax evasion. Basically, Cohen carried out a scheme to evade taxes from the years 2012 to 2016, didn't report about 4 million in income, which allowed him to avoid about $1.4 million in taxes. There's one count of false statements to a bank. That's in connection with an application for a home equity line of credit. And then there are the two final charges, and these are for campaign finance violations. And these are significant because they tie back into Trump.
GREENE: OK. These are significant. They tie back to Trump. They're related to Cohen's role in payments made to two women for their silence about alleged affairs with the president. The women are not named in the court papers, but we are sure that it's Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, who we've heard about before, right?
LUCAS: That's right. The women weren't named yesterday. The facts, though, line up with the payments that were made to McDougal - she's the former Playboy playmate - and to Daniels, who is an adult film star. Now, the specific charges here are causing an unlawful corporate contribution and an excessive campaign contribution. But what that basically breaks down to is this, that Cohen played a role in getting the parent company of the National Enquirer tabloid to pay $150,000 for the rights to McDougal's story about her alleged affair with Trump.
And then with Daniels, Cohen paid $130,000 himself with a shell company - through a shell company. Now, both payments happened in the run-up to the 2016 election. Court papers make clear that these payments were made to kill the stories and, quote, "influence the election." And at his court hearing yesterday in New York, Cohen said that he made those payments in coordination and at the direction of the candidate. That, of course, is Donald Trump.
GREENE: Which leads to the big question that we're asking now. Could Trump be in legal trouble himself now?
LUCAS: Well, Cohen's lawyer, Lanny Davis, is certainly suggesting as much. He asked rhetorically yesterday, if those payments were a crime for Cohen, why wouldn't they be a crime for Trump as well? Now, we're hearing a different tune, of course, from Trump's attorney, Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani says there's no allegation of wrongdoing by the president in the Cohen charges. And as he has in the past, Giuliani is also going after Cohen's credibility, saying that there's been a pattern of lies and dishonesty from Cohen.
Now, what the lawyers are saying, let's set that aside. It is significant that Cohen implicated Trump. That is a big deal. Right now, we only have Cohen's word. Former prosecutors say that there would need to be other evidence to corroborate this. We would need to know how involved Trump was, how much he knew and so on. And as for immediate legal trouble, remember, the Justice Department has current guidance that says, basically, that a sitting president cannot be indicted. So that insulates Trump for now from direct legal peril.
GREENE: Is Cohen going to cooperate with prosecutors here?
LUCAS: There's nothing in his plea agreement that talks about cooperation, but that doesn't mean that he couldn't cooperate in the future. And that includes, of course, cooperation potentially with special counsel Robert Mueller.
GREENE: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thanks for all of this.
LUCAS: Thank you.