Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer, pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to payments he arranged before the 2016 presidential election to silence two women who alleged having affairs with Mr. Trump, directly implicating his former boss for the first time in a scheme to violate campaign-finance laws.
For both payments, Mr. Cohen told a federal judge he acted at the direction of “the candidate,” referring to Mr. Trump. That was the first time Mr. Cohen admitted to coordinating with Mr. Trump on the hush-money deals with women.
Mr. Cohen, 51, pleaded guilty to a total of eight criminal counts: two counts of illegal campaign contributions related to payments to women; five counts of evading personal income taxes from 2012 to 2016; and one count of making false statements to a financial institution.
Mr. Cohen’s guilty plea includes an admission that he violated the law by paying $130,000 to Stephanie Clifford, a former adult-film star professionally known as Stormy Daniels, a month before the election.
The guilty plea came as part of an agreement with prosecutors that doesn’t require him to cooperate with prosecutors in any other cases. It stems from a grand jury investigation led by the Southern District and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
A lawyer for Mr. Cohen, Lanny Davis, declined to comment.
Prosecutors had threatened Mr. Cohen with an indictment later this week before he agreed to the plea deal, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported Mr. Cohen’s possible exposure to tax- and bank-fraud charges, stemming from his taxi-medallion business and personal finances, and possible campaign-finance violations related to two payments to women who alleged sexual encounters with Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump denies the encounters took place.
Mr. Cohen served for years as a top lawyer and self-described “fixer” of problems for Mr. Trump and the Trump family. The Manhattan-based probe into his business dealings was, in part, a referral from special counsel Robert Mueller’s office, which is investigating whether associates of Mr. Trump colluded with Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Mr. Cohen could still cooperate after entering into the plea agreement and receive a sentence reduction if he provided prosecutors with evidence in an ongoing investigation. Even without cooperating, pleading guilty spares him and his family from a trial and protracted legal battle. Defendants who plead guilty generally receive lighter sentences than those who go to trial and are convicted, regardless of cooperation.
Mr. Cohen once said he would “take a bullet” for the president, but more recently indicated he would seek to protect the interests of his own family and the country before those of Mr. Trump. For months, some of the president’s advisers have warned him that Mr. Cohen would cooperate with federal investigators.
Mr. Cohen has told associates in recent months that he was frustrated the president hadn’t offered to pay his legal fees, which he said were “bankrupting” him, the Journal previously reported. He has said he feels Mr. Trump owes him after his years of loyalty to the former real-estate developer, whom he served for nearly a decade at the Trump Organization.
Mr. Cohen acted as an informal adviser to Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign. Behind the scenes, he tried to suppress damaging stories about Mr. Trump, including reaching out to discourage women who had spoken negatively about the candidate, the Journal previously reported.
A month before the election, Mr. Cohen paid $130,000 to Stephanie Clifford, a former adult-film star professionally known as Stormy Daniels, under an agreement prohibiting her from publicly discussing an alleged sexual encounter with Mr. Trump, which he denies.
The investigation into Mr. Cohen was unusual because parts of it played out publicly for months.
In an extraordinary move against a sitting president’s lawyer, FBI agents on April 9 raided Mr. Cohen’s home, office and hotel room to seize millions of files. Prosecutors obtained the search warrant after a federal magistrate judge found probable cause to believe Mr. Cohen’s materials contained evidence of a crime.
Four days after the raid, lawyers for Mr. Cohen appeared in a public court hearing to stop federal prosecutors from reviewing the seized materials, claiming attorney-client privilege. Their motion set off a series of court hearings that each became their own media spectacle, including one attended by Ms. Clifford.
A federal judge ultimately appointed a “special master” to decide which records were protected by attorney-client privilege and which would be excluded from the investigation. After more than three months of review, it was determined that only a fraction of the seized records fell under such protection.
—Aruna Viswanatha contributed to this article.