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Michael Cohen, center, the former lawyer for President Donald Trump, exits federal court after his sentencing in Manhattan, on Dec. 12, 2018.CHANG W. LEE/The New York Times News Service

U.S. President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, has been sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to buying the silence of two women who claimed to have had extramarital affairs with Mr. Trump, lying to Congress about secret negotiations to build a Trump Hotel in Moscow during the presidential campaign and cheating on his taxes.

In addition, the company that owns the National Enquirer, which was involved in the hush-money scheme, admitted as part of a deal with prosecutors that the payment was explicitly made to influence the 2016 election by smothering embarrassing allegations about Mr. Trump before the vote.

The developments on Wednesday marked the toughest sentence handed down so far from the investigations into Mr. Trump’s circle, and ratchets up pressure on the President: People once in Mr. Trump’s orbit now accuse him of violating campaign-finance laws by ordering the payments, and one of his former confidants has given extensive co-operation to the people probing the administration.

Mr. Cohen, who was counsel and fixer to Mr. Trump for more than a decade, told the Manhattan courtroom he had gone down a “path of darkness” because of “blind loyalty” to Mr. Trump.

“I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the day that I accepted the offer to work for a real estate mogul whose business acumen that I deeply admired,” Mr. Cohen said. “Time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds.”

Mr. Cohen admitted breaking campaign-finance laws by arranging payments of $150,000 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal and $130,000 to adult-film actress Stephanie Clifford (also known as Stormy Daniels) to stop them from publicizing their alleged relationships with Mr. Trump before the election.

When he pleaded guilty in August, Mr. Cohen told court he arranged the payments “at the direction of a candidate for federal office.” His lawyer later put out a statement saying Mr. Cohen meant that “Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women.”

Ms. Clifford signed a non-disclosure agreement in exchange for the funds. Ms. McDougal’s payment was funnelled through National Enquirer owner American Media Inc. (AMI), which bought the exclusive rights to her story to ensure it was not published.

Mr. Cohen made payments out of pocket, and received $420,000 in reimbursement and compensation from the Trump Organization.

In sentencing documents, prosecutors said Mr. Cohen had tried to “influence the election from the shadows” and “acted in co-ordination with and at the direction of” Mr. Trump.

In an agreement not to charge AMI that was made public on Wednesday, prosecutors said the company admitted its chief executive, David Pecker, a friend of Mr. Trump’s, met with Mr. Cohen and “at least one other member of the campaign” to offer his help suppressing negative stories about Mr. Trump. AMI also admitted in the deal that Ms. McDougal was paid to ensure she “did not publicize damaging allegations about the candidate before the 2016 presidential election.”

In exchange for not facing prosecution, AMI admitted its role in the scandal and agreed to make sure it never breaks campaign-finance rules again.

Jennifer Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor in New York, said it is significant that prosecutors have explicitly said Mr. Trump ordered the payoffs and publicized AMI’s admission that they were to influence the election. It could indicate they intend to charge Mr. Trump when he leaves office.

“It’s a big deal, as they think there is evidence that puts him in the middle of it,” said Ms. Rodgers, who now teaches at Columbia University’s law school.

The prosecutors’ contentions take aim at the most obvious defense: that the payments were made for personal reasons – to spare Mr. Trump from family trouble, for instance. Former senator John Edwards was acquitted of illegally using campaign funds after arguing that payments to cover up his extramarital affair during a presidential bid were not related to the election.

Mr. Cohen is the latest Trump associate caught up in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between the President’s campaign and Russian attempts to influence the election. Several former campaign officials and volunteers have been convicted on charges ranging from laundering money to lying to investigators about contacts with Russia.

Whether Mr. Trump ever faces prosecution, the sheer fact that the President is accused of orchestrating a breach of campaign-finance rules is a significant moment in U.S. history, political scientist Chris Edelson said.

“That by itself is an enormous deal, whether there’s criminal liability or not,” said Prof. Edelson, who teaches at American University in Washington.

Equally ominous for the White House is that Mr. Cohen – who spent 12 years at the centre of Mr. Trump’s business empire and political aspirations – has met several times with Mr. Mueller’s investigators. In court filings, Mr. Mueller has hinted that information from Mr. Cohen has been helpful in more than one investigation.

“That should send shudders through both Trump and his family and inner circle,” said Paul Schiff Berman, a law professor at George Washington University in Washington. “It’s almost certainly true that Cohen knows far more than we have found out about so far."

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