Could Michael Cohen's Testimony Reduce His Prison Time?

The president's former lawyer is likely seeking a sentence reduction, but that won't depend on his public testimony.
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Michael Cohen, former attorney and fixer for President Donald Trump, testifies before the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill on February 27th, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

On Wednesday, Michael Cohen, the president's former lawyer, condemned Donald Trump's dishonesty and conduct in the White House during testimony to Congress. In the morning's biggest reveal, Cohen told the House Oversight and Reform Committee that the president ordered him to lie about involvement in hush-money payments to former adult-film star Stephanie Clifford (known as Stormy Daniels) while in office, the New York Times reports.

But even before Cohen took the floor, the president and some Republican lawmakers attempted to undermine his credibility by suggesting he was motivated by self-interest. "He was just disbarred by the State Supreme Court for lying & fraud," Trump tweeted early Wednesday morning. "He is lying in order to reduce his prison time."

Reports on Tuesday say Cohen was indeed disbarred, since lawyers convicted of a felony are not allowed to practice under state law. In December, a federal judge in New York sentenced him to three years in prison for campaign financial violations, tax fraud, and other crimes—a sentence that, as some lawmakers have pointed out, begins in two months. He's also admitted to lying to Congress about plans for a Trump Tower Moscow.

But could he reduce his prison time by testifying to Congress, as the president suggests? Under federal rules of criminal procedure, a court may reduce a sentence "provided substantial assistance in investigating or prosecuting another person," according to Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute.

While Cohen could be angling for this "Rule 35" reduction, legal analysts have noted that it wouldn't depend much on his public testimony today. Cohen is already restricted in what he can tell the House Oversight Committee: The Department of Justice and Representative Adam Schiff (D-California), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, developed a list of "allowable subjects" for the testimony, a routine practice, according to Lawfare—and Special Counsel Robert Mueller may also have gotten a say. Cohen may also be cooperating with the Southern District of New York on future investigations, which would further limit what he can say publicly in a hearing such as this one. "I think he will be likely to stay within the parameters of whatever the Southern District tells him, talk about, don't talk about," former assistant United States attorney in the SDNY Mimi Rocah told the Washington Post

On Wednesday, Cohen said that he is seeking a post-conviction sentence reduction. "I am in constant contact with the Southern District of New York," he told Congress. He also alluded to further SDNY investigations; the New York Times reported last week that Cohen met with federal prosecutors looking into the president's inauguration and family business.

But Cohen also maintains that a reduction is not why he's cooperating: He has nothing else to lose. "The more people who follow Mr. Trump as I did blindly are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering," he said. "I lost it all." In fact, while Wednesday's testimony won't be the only factor, experts say the promise of a reduction is actually more incentive to tell the truth than to lie.

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