NEW YORK – Federal prosecutors said Friday that President Donald Trump directed illegal payments to ward off a potential sex scandal that threatened his chances of winning the White House in 2016, putting the weight of the Justice Department behind accusations previously made by his former lawyer.
The lawyer, Michael Cohen, had said that as the election neared, Trump directed payments to two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump. But in a new memorandum arguing for a prison term for Cohen, prosecutors in Manhattan said he "acted in coordination and at the direction of" an unnamed individual, clearly referring to Trump.
In another filing, prosecutors for the special counsel investigating Russia's 2016 election interference said an unnamed Russian offered Cohen "government level" synergy between Russia and Trump's campaign in November 2015. That was months earlier than other approaches detailed in indictments secured by prosecutors.
And in a separate case Friday, the special counsel accused Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign chairman, of lying about his contacts with an individual they accuse of ties to Russian intelligence, and about his interactions with Trump administration officials after he was indicted on criminal charges.
Together, the filings laid bare the most direct evidence to date linking Trump to potentially criminal conduct, and added to an already substantial case that Russia was seeking to sway the 2016 election in his favor.
Trump sought on Friday to dismiss the news, wrongly claiming it "Totally clears the President. Thank you!"
The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was less unequivocal. "The government's filings in Cohen's case tell us nothing of value that wasn't already known," she said in a statement. "Mr. Cohen has repeatedly lied and as the prosecution has pointed out to the court, Mr. Cohen is no hero."
The prosecutors for the Southern District of New York mounted a scathing attack on Cohen's character. They rejected his plea to avoid a prison term, saying that he had "repeatedly used his power and influence for deceptive ends."
They argued that he deserved a "substantial" prison term. Under sentencing guidelines, that would most likely amount to about four years.
Cohen, 52, is to be sentenced next week for a guilty plea to campaign finance violations and financial crimes, and a second plea to lying to Congress about the extent of Trump's business dealings in Russia.
Cohen's crimes marked "a pattern of deception that permeated his professional life," the Manhattan prosecutors wrote, saying that he did not deserve much leniency in exchange for cooperating with the government.
In a lengthy memo to the judge, William Pauley III, prosecutors wrote that Cohen was motivated by "personal greed" and had a "rose-colored view of the seriousness of the crimes."
They emphasized that Cohen had implicated the president in his guilty plea. "Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1," the prosecutors wrote. "Individual-1" is how Trump is referred to in the document.
Cohen's actions "struck a blow to one of the core goals of the federal campaign finance laws: transparency," the prosecutors wrote, adding that he "sought to influence the election from the shadows."
The special counsel's prosecutors seemed to offer a more positive view of Cohen, saying he "has gone to significant lengths to assist the special counsel's investigation.
They said Cohen had told them about a meeting that appeared to be the earliest-known contact between a Russian offering to help Trump's campaign.
In November 2015, as discussions about a possible Trump Tower Moscow project were gaining momentum, Cohen told prosecutors he was approached by a Russian claiming to be a "trusted person" in the Russian Federation," who offered "synergy on a government level" with the Trump campaign, they said.
The individual, who was not named, pushed for a meeting between Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Such a meeting, he said, could have a " 'phenomenal' impact 'not only in political but in a business dimension as well.' "
Cohen told the special counsel's team that he never followed up on the invitation.
In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to multiple crimes, including campaign finance violations, implicating Trump in a felony by saying he directed election-year hush-money payments to two women — adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model — to conceal affairs they said they had with Trump.
On Nov. 29, Cohen entered his second plea, revealing in court that Trump had been more involved in discussions over a potential deal to build a tower in Moscow than was previously known. He also said those discussions had continued until June 2016, well after Trump had clinched the Republican nomination.