Here’s how much time Michael Cohen is likely to spend in prison

Here’s how much time Michael Cohen is likely to spend in prison
Michael Cohen/Shutterstock
Michael Cohen/Shutterstock

Even when he was getting ready to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, President Donald Trump found time to visit Twitter and attack his former personal attorney Michael Cohen. Trump accused the 52-year-old lawyer, who is testifying publicly before the House Oversight Committee in Washington, D.C. today, of lying in the hope of reducing his three-year prison sentence. Cohen is expected to report to federal prison on May 6, but how much time he will actually serve remains to be seen.


Trump obviously knew that Cohen’s testimony would paint him in an extremely negative light: major media reported that Cohen would be testifying on the ways in which the president is a “racist” and a “con man.” And at roughly 1:08 eastern time, Trump tweeted, “Michael Cohen was one of many lawyers who represented me (unfortunately). He had other clients also. He was just disbarred by the State Supreme Court for lying & fraud. He did bad things unrelated to Trump. He is lying in order to reduce his prison time. Using Crooked’s lawyer!”

In federal court, Cohen has pled guilty to a long list of criminal charges. On August 22, 2018, he pled guilty to eight charges, ranging from bank fraud and tax evasion to campaign finance violations. And in November, he also pled guilty to lying to Congress about plans to build a Trump Tower Moscow in Russia—a real estate project that was abandoned.

After that guilty plea, different groups of federal prosecutors—Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team and the Southern District of New York—released separate sentencing memos on December 7. Mueller’s memo described Cohen as a cooperative witness and recommended a more lenient sentence, while Southern District prosecutors viewed him less favorably in their memo. And on December 12 in New York City, U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III sentenced Cohen to three years in federal prison—which doesn’t necessarily mean that he will serve the entire sentence.

There is no parole per se for civilians in the federal prison system in the United States, where parole boards exist at the state level (more than 50 altogether). But there is time off for good behavior—for example, cooperating with federal prosecutors.

In Forbes Magazine, Walter Pavlo (who has written and lectured extensively about white collar crime) estimated that Cohen will probably end up spending about two years in prison. According to Pavlo, Cohen “will earn about 5.5 months in good time credit: additional days off of his sentence for obeying the rules in prison.”

Pavlo added that “beyond that,” Cohen “can be placed at a halfway house and home confinement for a portion of his prison term. My guess is that he will get about four months halfway house/home detention. Total time served in prison will be about two years—a long time to be away from one’s family.”

Writing in New York Magazine in December, Nick Tabor predicted that “if Cohen’s sentence does stick, he could wind up serving much less than three years” due to good-behavior credits as well as “an early release to spend his last several months at home, under supervision.” Tabor stressed that Cohen is a valuable witness for federal prosecutors, and valuable witnesses are less likely to serve their full sentences.

One of the legal experts Tabor interviewed was David Kris, who was with the U.S. Justice Department under President Barack Obama. Kris told Tabor that in Mueller’s Russia investigation, Cohen is considered more helpful than Paul Manafort (Trump’s former campaign manager) but less helpful than Michael Flynn (who briefly served as national security advisor in the Trump Administration in 2017 and, like Manafort, is awaiting sentencing).

Cohen could escape prison altogether if President Trump were to grant him a federal pardon. But Cohen has stressed that even if Trump offered him one, he wouldn’t accept it. And given Trump’s obvious contempt for his former employee, the chances of him offering Cohen a pardon are slim and none.

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