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The Latest On The Mueller Investigation Following Cohen's Sentencing


President Trump has been tweeting this morning about the Mueller investigation and also about his former lawyer, Michael Cohen. In part, the president said, quote, "I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer, and he's supposed to know the law," end quote. Now, we should say, the president didn't say what he did or did not direct Michael Cohen to do, which is one of the critical legal questions here. Cohen was sentenced in New York yesterday.

And in another legal development, federal prosecutors in New York signed a deal with American Media Incorporated, or AMI. The tabloid publisher behind the National Enquirer admitted to helping arrange a payment to one-time Playboy model Karen McDougal to help Trump's campaign keep her quiet about their alleged affair. Now, to talk more about this, we're joined by NPR's Ryan Lucas, who covers the Justice Department. Good morning, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: OK. So what exactly do you know about this - do we know about this agreement that involves National Enquirer?

LUCAS: It's important, first of all, to make clear that this is a deal that prosecutors in New York reached with AMI. This has nothing to do with the special counsel and his investigation.

GREENE: Not Robert Mueller's team? OK.

LUCAS: This is not Robert Mueller's team. Under this agreement, AMI will not be prosecuted for its role in the payment made to former Playboy model Karen McDougal. McDougal, of course, says that she had an affair with Trump around a decade ago. Now, in this non-prosecution agreement, AMI admits that it made the $150,000 payment to McDougal, that it did so in concert with and at the request of the Trump campaign.

The goal was, basically, to ensure that McDougal's story didn't get out, was not made public and thereby damaging the Trump campaign. So basically, the goal was to influence the election. This is one of the payments that Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, was involved in. And he pleaded guilty to a campaign finance violation related to this payment.

GREENE: OK. So just trying to piece things together as best we can. If this potentially violates campaign finance law, if President Trump was involved, as has been suggested, what does this mean legally for the president himself?

LUCAS: Well, it's not a positive development for the president. It means the prosecutors have corroborated at least some of what Cohen told them about the payment, which is that they were made to protect the Trump campaign. Now, prosecutors did not say, in their agreement with AMI, that the payment was directed by Trump, which is something that Cohen has said.

But it's not clear where all of this goes from here legally. One, campaign finance violations are rarely prosecuted. And two, more importantly, hanging over all of this, is that the Justice Department's prevailing view is that a sitting president cannot be indicted. So you can't really move that far on this because President Trump is president.

GREENE: Well, you did, though, have his former lawyer - the former lawyer to the president of the United States, Michael Cohen, being sentenced to three years in prison. You were there for the sentencing, right? I mean, how did it play out?

LUCAS: It was a very emotional hearing. This was a packed courtroom in Manhattan. Cohen's wife, two kids were there, as was more of his family. That includes his father, a Holocaust survivor, who was there in a wheelchair. Cohen spoke to the court for about 10 minutes before he was sentenced. He took responsibility for his actions, said that he had been living in what he called a mental and personal incarceration since he began working for Trump about a decade ago.

He said that his blind loyalty to Trump led him to choose what he described as a path of darkness. He said that he viewed it as his job to cover up what he described as Trump's dirty deeds. He regretted not having the strength to refuse Trump's demands. Cohen apologized to his family, to his parents, said that he was ashamed. And he also apologized to the American people for lying to them.

GREENE: And after all that, he gets three years. I mean, is that about what was expected?

LUCAS: It is. It's about what was expected. Now, he was also ordered to pay $1.4 million in restitution, along with other financial penalties. So there is a bit of a sting there in addition to those three years in federal prison.

GREENE: NPR's Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thanks.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.