Michael D. Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer, made the extraordinary admission in court on Tuesday that Mr. Trump had directed him to arrange payments to two women during the 2016 campaign to keep them from speaking publicly about affairs they said they had with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Cohen acknowledged the illegal payments while pleading guilty to breaking campaign finance laws and other charges, a litany of crimes that revealed both his shadowy involvement in Mr. Trump’s circle and his own corrupt business dealings.
He told a judge in United States District Court in Manhattan that the payments to the women were made “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office.”
“I participated in this conduct, which on my part took place in Manhattan, for the principal purpose of influencing the election” for president in 2016, Mr. Cohen said.
The plea represented a pivotal moment in the investigation into the president, and the scene in the Manhattan courtroom was striking. Mr. Cohen, a longtime lawyer for Mr. Trump — and loyal confidant — described in plain-spoken language how Mr. Trump worked with him to cover up a potential sex scandal that Mr. Trump feared would endanger his rising candidacy.
Mr. Cohen also pleaded guilty to multiple counts of tax evasion and a single count of bank fraud, capping a monthslong investigation by Manhattan federal prosecutors who examined his personal business dealings and his role in helping to arrange the financial deals with women connected to Mr. Trump.
The plea came shortly before another blow to the president: His former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was convicted in his financial fraud trial in Virginia. The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, had built a case that Mr. Manafort hid millions of dollars in foreign accounts to evade taxes and lied to banks to obtain millions of dollars in loans.
Mr. Trump’s lawyers have, for months, said privately that they considered Mr. Cohen’s case to be potentially more problematic for the president than the investigation by the special counsel.