Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer has alleged the tycoon directed him to arrange the payment of hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels and a former Playboy model to influence the election.
Michael Cohen raised the allegations as he pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations and other charges on Tuesday.
Cohen’s account appears to implicate Mr Trump himself in a crime, though whether – or when – a president can be prosecuted remains a matter of legal dispute.
The guilty plea was part of a double dose of bad news for Mr Trump.
It came at almost the same moment his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was convicted in Alexandria, Virginia, of eight financial crimes.
Manafort’s was the first trial to come out of special counsel Robert Mueller’s sprawling Russia investigation.
In a deal reached with federal prosecutors, Cohen, 51, pleaded guilty to eight counts, including tax evasion.
He could get from four to five years in prison when sentenced on December 12.
In entering the plea, Cohen did not name the two women or even Mr Trump, recounting instead that he worked with an “unnamed candidate”.
But the amounts and the dates all lined up with the 130,000 dollars (£101,000) paid to Daniels and the 150,000 dollars (£116,000) that went to Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal to buy their silence in the weeks and months leading up to the 2016 White House election.
Both women claimed to have had affairs with Mr Trump, which he denies.
Cohen, his voice shaky as he answered questions from a federal judge, said one payment was “in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office”.
The other was made “under direction of the same candidate”, he said.
Daniel Petalas, a former prosecutor in the Justice Department’s public integrity section, said: “This brings President Trump closer into the criminal conduct.
“The president has certain protections while a sitting president, but if it were true, and he was aware and tried to influence an election, that could be a federal felony offence.
“This strikes close to home.”
However, in the charging documents, a news release and comments outside the courthouse, prosecutors did not go as far as Cohen did in open court in pointing the finger at the president.
Prosecutors said Cohen acted “in coordination with a candidate or campaign for federal office for purposes of influencing the election”.
As the conviction and plea bargain by two of his former loyalists was reported the president boarded Air Force One on his way to a rally in West Virginia.
He ignored shouted questions about the men.
Mr Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, noted in a statement that “there is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr Cohen”.
After the court hearing, which ended with Cohen released on 500,000 dollar (£387,000) bail, the lawyer wiped away tears as he gazed out a courthouse window.
Under federal law, payments to protect a candidate’s political fortunes can be construed as campaign contributions, subject to federal laws that bar donations from corporations and set limits on how much can be given.
“If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?” Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, tweeted.
Cohen’s plea follows months of scrutiny from federal investigations and a falling-out with the president, for whom Cohen once said he would “take a bullet”.
The FBI raided Cohen’s hotel room, home and office in April and seized more than 4 million items.
The search sought bank records, communications with Mr Trump’s campaign and information on the payments to the two women.
According to prosecutors, the payment to Ms McDougal was made through the parent company of the National Enquirer.
Cohen made the payment to Ms Daniels through his own company and then was reimbursed by Mr Trump, he said.
The president denied to reporters in April that he knew anything about Cohen’s payments to Ms Daniels, but the explanations from him and Mr Giuliani have shifted multiple times since.
The president has fumed publicly about the raid, branding it “a witch hunt”, an assault on attorney-client privilege and a politically motivated attack by enemies in the FBI.
But privately he has worried about what information Cohen may have after working for the Trump Organisation for a decade.
“Obviously it’s not good for Trump,” Sol Wisenberg said of the plea bargain.
He conducted grand jury questioning of Bill Clinton during the Whitewater investigation, a 1990s probe into the property investments of the former president and his wife, Hillary.
“I’m assuming he’s not going to be indicted because he’s a sitting president, Mr Wisenberg added.
“But it leads him closer to ultimate impeachment proceedings, particularly if the Democrats take back the House.”
The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has held that a president cannot be indicted while in office.
Mr Trump’s lawyers have said that Mr Mueller plans to adhere to that guidance, though the prosecutor’s office has never confirmed that.
There would presumably be no bar against charging a president after he leaves the White House.
Ms Daniels said Tuesday that she and her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, feel vindicated and look forward to apologies “from the people who claimed we were wrong”.
Nothing made public so far indicates Cohen has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, but Mr Avenatti said he is certain that is happening.
Mr Mueller’s team, which is looking into Russian interference in the presidential election, came across some of the evidence against Cohen in the course of its investigation and referred the matter to federal prosecutors in New York.
When Cohen’s team produced a recording he had made of Trump discussing one of the hush-money payments, Trump tweeted: “What kind of lawyer would tape a client? So sad!”