NEW YORK, Dec 12 (Reuters) - Michael Cohen, U.S. President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer, was sentenced to a total of three years in prison on Wednesday for his role in making illegal hush-money payments to women to help Trump's 2016 election campaign and lying to Congress about a proposed Trump Tower project in Russia.
U.S. District Judge William Pauley in Manhattan sentenced Cohen to 36 months for the payments, which violated campaign finance law, and to two months for the false statements to Congress. The two terms will run simultaneously. The judge set March 6 for Cohen's voluntary surrender.
Cohen pleaded guilty to the campaign finance charge in August and to making false statements in November. As part of the sentence, the judge ordered Cohen to forfeit $500,000 and pay restitution of nearly $1.4 million for the campaign finance law violations.
Cohen, 52, had walked into court on Wednesday morning with his wife, son and daughter, amid a crowd of photographers and reporters.
The sentencing capped the stunning about-face of a lawyer who once said he would "take a bullet" for Trump but has now directly implicated the president in criminal conduct. The three-year sentence imposed by the judge was a modest reduction from the four to five years recommended under federal guidelines, but still underscored the seriousness of the charges.
"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 about their past relationships with Trump, who is married. Trump denies having the affairs.
Prosecutors have said the payments violated campaign finance laws. Cohen told prosecutors the payments were directed by Trump, implicating the president in a possible campaign finance law violation.
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.
Cohen was sentenced on the 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.
"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. Cohencooperated knowing "the president might shut down" Mueller's investigation, Petrillo said.
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 an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, Trump denied the payments 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.
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 was never built.
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.
(Reporting By Brendan Pierson and Nathan Layne in New York; Writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Frances Kerry and Will Dunham)