In an extraordinary turn, the man known as Donald Trump’s long-time fixer is facing intensifying scrutiny by U.S. authorities, a situation which could pose new legal risks for the President himself.
Michael Cohen, the President’s personal lawyer, is in the crosshairs of a federal investigation that is examining his role in payments made to two women who say they had affairs with Mr. Trump, according to The New York Times.
Federal agents raided Mr. Cohen’s office in Manhattan on Monday, an aggressive move authorized by a judge and approved by top officials at the U.S. Justice Department.
To secure permission for such a raid, experts say, prosecutors had to convince a judge that a crime may have been committed and also that evidence was in danger of being lost or destroyed.
According to the Washington Post, investigators are examining whether Mr. Cohen may have violated campaign-finance laws or statutes against bank fraud.
For Mr. Trump, the perils are different, former prosecutors said. It is possible that in the course of their probe into Mr. Cohen, investigators could uncover improprieties in Mr. Trump’s business dealings. Prosecutors may also attempt to use Mr. Cohen’s growing legal woes as leverage to turn him into a co-operating witness against Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump reacted forcefully to the news of the raid, calling it a “disgraceful situation” and “an attack on our country.” On Tuesday morning, Mr. Trump struck back on Twitter: “Attorney-client privilege is dead!” he wrote, “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT!!!”
Mr. Cohen is “a unique fulcrum point in the Trump universe,” said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas, noting Mr. Cohen’s deep involvement both in Mr. Trump’s business and his political campaign. “He’s uniquely situated to have interesting paperwork about the President.”
Mr. Cohen, 51, joined the Trump Organization back in 2006. “If somebody does something Mr. Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr. Trump’s benefit,” Mr. Cohen told ABC News in 2011. “If you do something wrong, I’m going to come at you, grab you by the neck and I’m not going to let you go until I’m finished.” On Tuesday, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she was not sure whether Mr. Cohen remained Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer.
“This is actually very surreal,” said Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney appointed by George W. Bush, of the raid on the President’s personal lawyer. “We probably won’t see anything like this in our lifetimes.”
Prosecutors are “undoubtedly looking more broadly than Stormy Daniels,” added Mr. Tolman. Ms. Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, is a porn star who said she had an affair with Mr. Trump and who was paid US$130,000 from an account controlled by Mr. Cohen days before the 2016 presidential election.
A lawyer for Mr. Cohen said Monday’s raid was “inappropriate and unnecessary.” The seizure of documents was carried out under the auspices of federal prosecutors in Manhattan, not the special counsel investigation led by Robert Mueller, which is probing possible ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
But Mr. Trump made clear he views the two probes as interconnected. On Monday, he once again mused about the possibility of firing Mr. Mueller. “Many people have said, ‘You should fire him,’ ” said Mr. Trump. “We’ll see what happens.”
Raids such as the one conducted Monday are unusual because federal prosecutors need to follow special guidelines to justify searches of an attorney’s offices. The documents seized from Mr. Cohen will be reviewed first by a “taint” team, a group of agents who determine which records are subject to attorney-client privilege. Only documents that are not protected by that privilege will be handed over to investigators.
(In general, attorney-client privilege protects communications related to legal advice between a lawyer and a client. However, if a client seeks assistance in committing or concealing a crime, the privilege does not apply.)
According to The New York Times, investigators are searching for records connected to payments to two women who say they had affairs with Mr. Trump: Ms. Daniels and Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who was paid US$150,000 months before the presidential election by the company that owns the National Enquirer tabloid. The parent company’s chief executive, David Pecker, is a friend of Mr. Trump’s.
Common Cause, a watchdog group, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission earlier this year alleging that the US$130,000 payment to Ms. Daniels was an “unreported in-kind contribution” to Mr. Trump’s campaign and against the law. Mr. Cohen has said he made the payment on his own initiative and used a home-equity line of credit to finance it. If Mr. Cohen misled banks about the purpose of such transactions, he could face charges of bank fraud.
Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor, said that U.S. authorities went ahead with the high-profile raid knowing that their motives and procedures would come under scrutiny. “They feel this is justified and defensible,” Mr. Zeidenberg said. “This is not happening because they want to see billing records for some client back in 2009. This is going to be something really significant.”