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A Head-Spinning Week In The Mueller Probe Produces A Sentence And A Plea


Another head-spinning week on the Russia beat. The president's former personal lawyer was sentenced to three years in prison after he implicated Donald Trump in a scheme to make hush-money payments to women during the 2016 campaign. Prosecutors in New York unveiled a cooperation agreement with the publisher of The National Enquirer, who may have stories to share. And the investigation seems to have widened to include the funding of the Trump inauguration committee. Here to discuss all that and more is NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks so much for being with us.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Let's, of course, begin with Michael Cohen. He once promised to take a bullet for President Trump. Now he's flipped on him. What's the latest?

JOHNSON: Michael Cohen says Trump directed him to take care of payments for two women with whom Trump allegedly had affairs. The idea, Cohen says, was to influence the election. Cohen says he had blind loyalty to Donald Trump, but that's over now. Here he is talking to ABC News this week.


MICHAEL COHEN: People of the United States of America - the people of the world don't believe what he's saying. The man doesn't tell the truth. And it's sad that I should take responsibility for his dirty deeds.

JOHNSON: Well, President Trump and the White House say it's Michael Cohen who's the liar. Trump has also called Cohen weak. A judge in New York has sentenced Cohen to three years of prison time. But here's the problem for the president - the special counsel investigating Russian interference says Cohen has been a big help. He's provided prosecutors with information about his contacts with executives in the Trump Organization and at the White House.

SIMON: And Mr. Cohen gets support for his story from the publisher of The National Enquirer. What did we learn from him this week?

JOHNSON: We learned that AMI, which publishes The National Enquirer, got a nonprosecution agreement with the Justice Department. AMI basically admitted it made a $150,000 payment to a woman who said she had an affair with Donald Trump. And the company says it paid the hush money to ensure this woman did not publicize damaging allegations about Trump before the 2016 election. And that's a crime, Scott.

SIMON: Yeah.

JOHNSON: For his part, President Trump says he relied on Michael Cohen. That's what lawyers are for, he says.

SIMON: Just as the news maybe started to move past President Trump, a new revelation - The Wall Street Journal. Nobody's who's obviously the opinion page has often supported the president. The news page reports that prosecutors are investigating how the inauguration was funded.

JOHNSON: Yeah. That seems to have Michael Cohen connection, too. The Journal says Cohen has a recording of a woman who worked on inaugural events. And she was apparently raising questions about spending. Now, the committee itself says it's not aware of any investigation and that it complied with the law. But it's worth noting that over the summer, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist pleaded guilty to steering foreign money to the inaugural events. Prosecutors in New York are not talking about how far along this investigation is.

SIMON: You have a secret court case you can tell us about?

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

SIMON: I understand it came up this week.

JOHNSON: Yeah. I was staking out the courthouse on Friday along with a bunch of other reporters. The thinking is that there was a hearing on Friday in the appeals court and a case that somehow relates to the Mueller investigation - the special counsel investigation. But court officials closed the entire floor during the arguments. So we staked out the elevators. We staked out the parking garage. The lawyers involved got away without being seen. You know, it's hard to know how big a deal this is. But it is a sign of how intense the interest in this investigation has become.

SIMON: And we have to ask you before you go about the event coming up this week - the sentencing of Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser.

JOHNSON: Yeah...

SIMON: Does it look like he's going to prison?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Michael Flynn, remember, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the former Russian ambassador. He's got 33 years of military service under his belt. He tried to, in some ways, minimize the seriousness of his offense. And prosecutors slapped back at him late Friday in a motion. But they still say he's been a model cooperator, Scott. And they believe he deserves little or no prison time when he's sentenced on Tuesday.

SIMON: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thanks so much for joining us.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.