Editor’s Note: Elie Honig, a former federal and state prosecutor, is a CNN legal analyst and a Rutgers University scholar. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Judge William Pauley sentenced Michael Cohen to three years in prison on Wednesday, marking the end of a stunning rise and fall for President Donald Trump’s former longtime personal attorney. Cohen went from knockaround New York City lawyer to hardball enforcer for an avaricious real estate mogul. He then ascended to consigliere for a presidential campaign that pulled off one of the most unlikely political upsets in history, before becoming an influential presence in the inner sanctum of the White House. And then he came crashing down.
On Wednesday, Cohen hit rock bottom as he stood at the defendant’s table in a federal courtroom and received a tongue-lashing and a stern sentence from a judge for his “veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct.”
Cohen’s request to the judge for mercy – his attorneys sought a sentence involving no imprisonment whatsoever – perfectly embodied the one consistent theme in Cohen’s professional life: He always wants it both ways. At the sentencing proceeding, Cohen tried to play the hero and the victim. He purported to accept full responsibility for his actions, yet he cited his relationship with the President as the reason he followed “a path of darkness rather than light.”
We have not necessarily heard the last from Cohen just yet. Special counsel Robert Mueller made clear in his sentencing memo that Cohen provided “relevant and useful” information that was “credible and consistent with other evidence.”
Mueller further disclosed that Cohen has provided information on several high-stakes topics that could bring serious political or criminal consequences to Trump or inner-circle members of his administration, including “useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to (Mueller’s) investigation.” We still do not know the full extent of information that Cohen provided to Mueller, but it promises to be explosive when fully revealed.
Still, as the US attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) noted in its sentencing memo, Cohen thus far has failed to cooperate fully, as he “repeatedly declined to provide full information about the scope of any additional criminal conduct in which he may have engaged or had knowledge.” The SDNY also noted that “(h)ad Cohen actually cooperated, it could have been fruitful.”
Get our free weekly newsletter
Now that he has been hit with the cold reality of a three-year prison sentence, Cohen might find that extra spark of motivation to cooperate on topics that he previously declined to discuss with the SDNY. There is a mechanism, known as Rule 35, by which prosecutors can seek a reduction of a defendant’s initial sentence if that defendant provides additional cooperation. Cohen clearly cannot expect a pardon from the President – who has derided Cohen as “a weak person” and whose attorney has claimed that Cohen has “lied all his life” – so Rule 35 may be his only hope for reducing his time behind bars.
Wednesday’s sentencing felt like the end of a Shakespeare play: the rapid rise, the precipitous fall, and the ultimate comeuppance. But there just might be one more act ahead, and it could have enormous consequences for the future of the administration.