Michael Cohen’s guilty plea Tuesday turned out to be a surprise in more ways than one, as the president’s former attorney stood in front of a federal judge and declared that he’d committed eight felonies, two of which were committed “in coordination with and at the direction of" President Donald Trump.
Cohen admitted to the court, under oath, that he’d arranged at least two payments to women alleging affairs with Trump in the lead-up to the 2016 election in an effort to suppress the information, which would have been damaging to Trump’s candidacy.
It was a resounding climax in the scandal, not only because of its finality — Cohen cannot withdraw his plea and is expected to serve somewhere between 4 and 8 years on crimes eligible for up to 65 — but also because both Cohen's and Trump’s explanations have shifted dramatically over time from total agreement to complete contradiction. Though they both initially denied any payments had ever been made, they — and a host of Trump staffers — began to contradict one another about who knew what, when they knew it, and at whose behest the payments were ultimately made.
And Cohen's involvement in other incidents, like the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 and various activities at the Trump Foundation, as well as his vehement rejection of any pardons that might be offered to him by Trump, indicate more disclosures may be on their way.
To help clarify the scandal, VICE News put together a definitive timeline of the shifting statements provided by Cohen, Trump, and a host of White House officials now implicated in a number of potentially illegal activities, including campaign finance violations and Russian collusion.
Here’s what we know for sure:
Michael Cohen, a personal injury attorney with holdings in the New York City taxi industry, begins working as a fixer for the Trump Organization. How he and Trump met remains unclear. Trump has said he noticed Cohen after Cohen bought several properties in Trump buildings and convinced his parents and in-laws to join him; Cohen says it was only after he handled a board dispute in one of them.
Cohen engages in a flurry of emails with Trump business associate and FBI informant Felix Sater, who offers to negotiate a deal for a Moscow Trump Tower — and an American Trump presidency.
“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote Cohen in one email obtained by the New York Times. “I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”
“I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected,” he wrote in another email to Cohen.
During these negotiations, Trump signs a non-binding letter of intent to build the Moscow property, but financing never comes through.
June 3, 2016:
A Russia intermediary named Rob Goldstone writes an email to Donald Trump Jr. offering information that “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” Donald Jr. responds, “Seems we have some time and if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer. Could we do a call first thing next week when I am back?”
June 7, 2016:
Trump gives a speech at a campaign rally indicating he expects to have damaging information on Hillary Clinton within the week.
“I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons,” Trump says. “I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting. I wonder if the press will want to attend, who knows.”
June 9, 2016:
Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and at least five Russians linked to Putin meet in Trump Tower ostensibly to discuss damaging information on Hillary Clinton, but the talks reportedly fall apart as it becomes clear no real information is being offered.
Karen McDougal sells the rights to her story about an affair with Donald Trump to American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer tabloid, which immediately buries it in a process commonly known as catch-and-kill. The tabloid is run by Trump’s longtime friend David Pecker and Cohen helps negotiate the deal.
October 17, 2016:
Cohen registers Essential Consultants LLC in the state of Delaware, the company through which he makes the Stormy Daniels payment.
October 27, 2016:
Cohen wires Daniels’ attorney $130,000.
October 28, 2016:
Daniels signs a nondisclosure agreement. A draft amendment obtained by the New York Times shows the parties’ names are listed as “Peggy Peterson” and “David Dennison.” Trump does not sign the agreement, which includes a provision that Daniels will be fined $1 million if she speaks publicly about it.
November 4, 2016:
The Wall Street Journal breaks news of the payoff to former Playboy model Karen McDougal arranged by American Media Inc. in August 2016.
November 4, 2016:
The campaign denies Trump had an affair with McDougal or knew about the payment made to her.
“We have no knowledge of any of this,” Hope Hicks (then White House comms director) tells the Wall Street Journal, calling allegations that Trump and McDougal had an affair “totally untrue.”
November 8, 2016:
Trump wins the election.
July 8, 2017:
Trump, aboard Air Force One, reportedly crafts a misleading statement released under his son’s name regarding the Trump Tower meeting after the New York Times reaches out for comment. Hope Hicks is also involved in the planning, reportedly through a conference call that is now under scrutiny by the Mueller investigation. The statement claims the meeting was about Russian adoption, despite emails later released by Donald Jr. showing it was clearly about obtaining dirt on Hillary Clinton.
“It was a short introductory meeting,” the statement attributed to Don Jr. says. “I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at that time and there was no follow-up.”
According to the New York Times, the word “primarily” is included at Don Jr.’s insistence.
July 12, 2017:
Responding to the news stories that revealed the 2016 Trump Tower meeting, Trump says on Twitter that he "only heard about it two or three days ago."
July 19, 2017:
Trump reaffirms on Twitter that he "didn't know anything about the meeting" because "nobody told me" about it.
September 7, 2017:
Donald Trump Jr. testifies about the meeting in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The transcripts are not released until May 2018. Though he is not under oath, he is, by law, required to answer the senators’ questions truthfully.
September 19, 2017:
Cohen is scheduled to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, but the meeting is abruptly canceled, apparently because he spoke to the press beforehand, angering the legislators.
October 24, 2017:
Cohen testifies before the House Intelligence Committee.
October 25, 2017:
Cohen testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
December 7-8, 2017:
Hope Hicks has a private interview with Mueller's team.
January 12, 2018:
The Wall Street Journal breaks news of the Stormy Daniels payoff, arranged by Michael Cohen a few weeks before the election. Cohen denies Daniels and Trump ever had an affair and sends out a letter purportedly signed by Daniels saying the same.
“President Trump once again vehemently denies any such occurrence, as has Ms. Daniels,” Cohen says in a statement.
“Rumors that I have received hush money from Donald Trump are completely false,” the statement distributed by Cohen and attributed to Daniels reads.
An unnamed White House official also denies the allegations, saying, “These are old, recycled reports, which were published and strongly denied before the election.”
January 17, 2018:
Cohen again denies the president had an affair with Stormy Daniels after new details about their relationship are published in In Touch magazine.
“This is not breaking news. It’s old news that wasn’t true then and not true now,” he tells the New York Times. “All they did is recirculate an old and debunked story that Ms. Clifford denied in 2011, 2016, and again in 2018.”
January 31, 2018:
Hicks’ attorney issues a statement denying news reports that Hicks participated in a conference call with Trump about burying the Trump Tower story, wherein Hicks allegedly assured the president Donald Jr.’s emails arranging the meeting “would never get out.”
“As most reporters know, it’s not my practice to comment in response to questions from the media. But this warrants a response,” said her attorney Robert P. Trout. “She never said that. And the idea that Hope Hicks ever suggested that emails or other documents would be concealed or destroyed is completely false.”
February 13, 2018:
Cohen admits for the first time that he paid off Stormy Daniels, but he says Trump didn’t know about it or reimburse him for it.
“Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly,” Cohen says in a statement provided to The New York Times. “The payment to Ms. Clifford was lawful, and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone.”
February 27, 2018:
Cohen files for a temporary restraining order against Daniels in a secret arbitration proceeding, which is granted. Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, says she was never given a chance to respond.
The same day, Hope Hicks testifies before the House Intelligence Committee, where she admits she told “white lies” on behalf of the president.
McDougal sues American Media Inc. claiming the agreement is invalid.
March 6, 2018:
Daniels sues Trump claiming the agreement is invalid because he never signed the document. In the complaint, Daniels alleges this was intentional “so he could later, if need be, publicly disavow any knowledge of the Hush Agreement and Ms. Clifford.”
March 7, 2018:
At a White House press briefing, Trump’s press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says Trump denies the allegations and knows nothing about the payments.
“I’ve had conversations with the president about this,” Sanders says. “This case has already been won in arbitration, and there was no knowledge of any payments from the president, and he has denied all these allegations.”
March 9, 2018:
Cohen says Trump knew nothing about the payments, which he made with money he obtained by refinancing his home. (Cohen will later plead guilty to lying on the loan application.) He blames the news reports on a coordinated campaign of sabotage perpetrated by the liberal mainstream media to distract the country from Trump’s historic achievements.
“These incessant attacks against me are meritless and are concocted by the liberal mainstream media to continue to malign our President and distract the country from his historic achievements over the past year. This witch hunt has now gone from ludicrous to insane," Cohen said in a statement. "You can’t prove a negative. They make up stories based on unnamed, unverified and unreliable sources and that becomes the breaking news of the day. This is no different than the fake dossier that placed me in Prague and thrust me into the center of this Russian collusion delusion.”
April 5, 2018:
Trump tells a gaggle of reporters he didn’t know about the payment to Stormy Daniels or where Cohen got the money from.
Before boarding Air Force One, Trump engages in the following back and forth:
Q: Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels? THE PRESIDENT: No. No. What else? Q: Then why did Michael Cohen make those if there was no truth to her allegations? THE PRESIDENT: Well, you’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney. And you’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Q: Do you know where he got the money to make that payment? THE PRESIDENT: No, I don’t know. No.
April 9, 2018:
The FBI, with the U.S. Attorney’s Manhattan public corruption bureau, execute a raid on Cohen’s apartment, office, and hotel room, seizing hard-copy files, electronic records and emails, and electronic devices like cell phones and laptops, as part of an investigation into the hush-money payments. They also seize audio recordings, though the New York Times reports Cohen has assured people none of them involve President Trump.
The raid is personally signed off on by Rod Rosenstein, Trump’s deputy attorney general.
“Attorney-client privilege is dead!” Trump tweets after the news breaks. He also deems the raid “an attack on our country.”
April 13, 2018:
Trump’s attorneys attempt unsuccessfully to stop prosecutors from reviewing Cohen’s files. Trump also calls Cohen to “check in,” according to the New York Times.
April 26, 2018:
In an appearance on “Fox and Friends,” Trump distances himself from Cohen, saying his longtime attorney handled just “a tiny, tiny fraction” of his legal work. He appears to acknowledge, for the first time, that the Stormy payoff is real and was made on his behalf.
“He represents me, like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal, he represented me,” he said.
May 2, 2018:
Rudy Giuliani admits for the first time that Trump reimbursed Cohen for the Stormy payment by paying him phony retainer fees, but he says Cohen acted on his own, “funneling the money through a law firm,” and acted without Trump’s knowledge
In a bombshell interview, Giuliani contradicts Trump’s April 5, 2018, statement saying he didn't know about the payments or where the money came from, telling Sean Hannity that Trump reimbursed Cohen in “installments” designed to look like retainer payments.
"When I heard Cohen’s retainer of $35,000, when he was doing no work for the president, I said that’s how he’s repaying it, with a little profit and a little margin for paying taxes for Michael," Giuliani said.
In a follow-up interview with the New York Times, Giuliani says Cohen was paid between $460,000 to $470,000 in $35,000 installments from Trump’s “personal family account” to cover the payoffs and “incidental expenses.”
May 3, 2018:
Trump admits for the first time that he was aware of the Daniels payment and reimbursed Cohen for it, but denies having had an affair.
In a series of tweets, Trump confirms he reimbursed Cohen but says his lawyer only paid off Daniels “to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair.”
May 4, 2018:
Trump says Giuliani, his attorney and spokesperson, has no idea what he’s talking about.
“Virtually everything said has been said incorrectly, and it’s been said wrong, or it’s been covered wrong by the press,” Trump says, adding that Giuliani “just started a day ago.”
“He is a great guy,” Trump says. “He’ll get his facts straight.”
Giuliani issues a statement saying that “references to timing were not describing my understanding of the president’s knowledge, but instead, my understanding of these matters.”
May 9, 2018
The New York Times reports that Cohen made millions of dollars from companies like Novartis and AT&T for services that included "advice on regulatory matters" in the months after Trump's election. Another unidentified company "paid him even after concluding that he could not provide the services he had promised." In all, the Times reports, $4.4 million flowed through Essential Enterprises, the LLC Cohen created to pay off Daniels, between October 2016 and January 2018. The details were released by Daniels' attorney, Michael Avenatti.
May 16, 2018:
The Senate Judiciary Committee releases 1,800 pages of transcripts from hearings on the Trump Tower meeting. The transcripts show the president’s son outright denied his father had any knowledge of the Trump Tower meeting in advance.
"He wasn't aware of it," Trump Jr. told the committee. "And, frankly, by the time anyone was aware of it, which was summer of this year, as I stated earlier, I wouldn't have wanted to get him involved in it because it had nothing to do with him."
June 6, 2018:
New York's Attorney General sues Trump and three of his children, Donald Jr., Eric, and Ivanka, alleging a "pattern of persistent illegal conduct" at the Trump Foundation, including self-dealing and "extensive unlawful political coordination with the Trump presidential campaign," in particular, Trump's then-campaign director Corey Lewandowski.
July 20, 2018:
A secret recording Cohen made of himself and Trump apparently discussing how to proceed with the McDougal payment is released.
July 26, 2018:
Cohen tells CNN Trump knew about the Trump Tower meeting in advance of the July 2017 New York Times report, explaining that he was in the room along with several other people in June 2016, when Trump was briefed that the Russians had emailed his son to arrange a meeting.
July 27, 2018:
Trump denies knowing about the Trump Tower meeting in advance of the July 2017 New York Times report.
"I did NOT know of the meeting with my son, Don jr. Sounds to me like someone is trying to make up stories in order to get himself out of an unrelated jam (Taxi cabs maybe?). He even retained Bill and Crooked Hillary's lawyer. Gee, I wonder if they helped him make the choice!" Trump tweets.
August 21, 2018:
Michael Cohen pleads guilty to eight federal crimes, telling the court, under oath, that he arranged the payments to McDougal and Daniels “in cooperation with and at the direction” of the president.
August 22, 2018:
Trump tweets that he would not recommend Cohen to anyone looking for an attorney, which quickly becomes a moot point as news breaks that Cohen's license to practice will soon be revoked due to his guilty plea.
Cohen is subpoenaed by the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance as part of an investigation into the Trump Foundation.