By Brendan Pierson, Nathan Layne and Karen Freifeld
NEW YORK (Reuters) - President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday for financial crimes and orchestrating hush payments to women before the 2016 election, telling the judge his "blind loyalty" led him to cover up for Trump.
The sentencing by U.S. District Judge William Pauley in Manhattan capped a stunning about-face by a lawyer who once said he would "take a bullet" for Trump but has now implicated the Republican president in criminal conduct. Cohen said in his guilty plea in August he was directed by Trump to make hush money payments to two women who said they had sexual affairs with Trump in the past.
Trump has denied the affairs and any involvement in the payments.
The three-year sentence was a modest reduction from the four to five years recommended under federal guidelines, but still underscored the seriousness of the charges of violating campaign finance laws and seeking to influence the outcome of an election.
Pauley sentenced Cohen to 36 months for the payments and to two months for Cohen's lies to Congress about a proposed Trump Tower project in Russia. The two terms will run simultaneously. The judge set March 6 for Cohen's voluntary surrender.
As part of the sentence, the judge ordered Cohen to forfeit $500,000 and pay restitution of nearly $1.4 million.
Cohen pleaded guilty in August to charges including tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations in a case brought by federal prosecutors in New York. Cohen was sentenced on a separate charge of lying to Congress brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russia's role in the 2016 election and possible coordination between Trump's campaign and Moscow. Cohen pleaded guilty to that charge last month.
Cohen, 52, walked into court on Wednesday morning with his wife, son and daughter amid a crowd of photographers and reporters. His family members cried in the courtroom following the sentencing.
"While Mr. Cohen pledges to help in further investigations that is not something the court can consider now," Pauley said.
Federal prosecutors in New York charged that Cohen, just before the November 2016 election, paid adult film actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 and helped arrange a $150,000 payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal so the women would keep quiet.
Federal law requires that the contribution of "anything of value" to a campaign must be disclosed, and an individual donation cannot exceed $2,700.
"It was my own weakness and a blind loyalty to this man that led me to choose a path of darkness over light," Cohen told the judge during the sentencing hearing.
"I felt it was my duty to cover up his own dirty deeds," Cohen said, referring to Trump.
The ongoing Mueller investigation represents a threat to Trump's presidency. Mueller, who also is examining whether the president has unlawfully sought to obstruct the probe, has secured guilty pleas from several former Trump aides including his former campaign chairman and national security adviser, as well as a series of Russia individuals and entities.
'MOST POWERFUL PERSON'
"He came forward to offer evidence against the most powerful person in the country," one of Cohen's lawyers, Guy Petrillo, told the court on Wednesday, arguing for leniency.
Cohen cooperated knowing "the president might shut down" Mueller's investigation, Petrillo said.
Cohen is a former member of Trump's inner circle who in the past called himself the president's "fixer." After Cohen pleaded guilty to the Mueller charges on Nov. 29, Trump called his former lawyer a liar, "a weak person and not a very smart person."
Trump last month submitted written answers to questions posed in Mueller's investigation.
Michael Avenatti, Daniels' lawyer, attended the sentencing and told reporters outside the courthouse, "Michael Cohen is neither a hero nor a patriot. He lied for months about his conduct. ... Michael Cohen was sentenced today, President Trump is next."
Trump has denied any collusion with Russia and has accused Mueller's team of pressuring his former aides to lie about him, his campaign and his business dealings. Russia has denied U.S. allegations of interfering in the election to help Trump.
In his guilty plea to Mueller's charge, Cohen admitted he lied to Congress about the timeline for discussions about plans for real estate businessman Trump's proposed skyscraper in Moscow. The project never went ahead.
Cohen said in written testimony to two congressional committees that the talks ended in January 2016, before the first electoral contests to select the Republican presidential nominee, when they actually continued until June 2016 after Trump clinched the Republican nomination.
In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, Trump denied the payments to the women were campaign contributions. "If it were, it's only civil, and even if it's only civil, there was no violation based on what we did," Trump said.
Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani has argued the hush payments cannot be considered campaign finance violations because they were made to protect Trump's reputation and would have been made even if he had not been a presidential candidate.
(Reporting By Brendan Pierson and Nathan Layne in New York; Writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Will Dunham)