Just an ordinary day in 2018, when FBI agents are rifling through the president’s lawyer’s papers to find out about a hush-money payoff to a porn star.
Two things about this. One: It surely has to do with more than Stormygate. The FBI wouldn’t make a move this explosive because they’re worried about an undeclared two-year-old campaign contribution.
Two: Trump is going to blow a gasket, above and beyond his usual Russiagate indignation. With the possible exception of Keith Schiller, there may be no one in TrumpWorld who knows as many secrets about the president as Michael Cohen. If he’s done anything criminal in the past, Cohen not only would probably know about it, he might have the paperwork to prove it. I wonder who’s getting fired — Sessions, Rosenstein, or Mueller himself.
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan obtained the search warrant after receiving a referral from the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, according to Mr. Cohen’s lawyer, who called the search “completely inappropriate and unnecessary.” The search does not appear to be directly related to Mr. Mueller’s investigation, but likely resulted from information he had uncovered and gave to prosecutors in New York…
The payments to Ms. Clifford are only one of many topics being investigated, according to a person briefed on the search. The F.B.I. also seized emails, tax documents and business records, the person said.
The seized records include communications between Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen, which would likely require a special team of agents to review because conversations between lawyers and clients are protected from scrutiny in most instances.
Trump warned Mueller early on not to cross the line by expanding his investigation into Russia-related matters in 2016 into a full-blown investigation of the president, his business, etc. Mueller’s answer appears to be, “Fine. If I stumble across anything unrelated to Russia, I’ll just hand that off to the relevant U.S. Attorney.” He won’t exceed the scope of his inquiry but others prosecutors will.
How unusual is it for the feds to raise a lawyer’s office? Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken White:
A federal search of an attorney’s office is a Very Big Deal, requiring layers of approval, including at DoJ. See USAM 9-13.420 https://t.co/P41hJdXU2M
— SubjectHatNotTargetHat (@Popehat) April 9, 2018
Imagine how many layers of approval it would require when it’s the president’s lawyer. At a minimum, notes White, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman (a Trump appointee) would have signed off. I wonder if Rod Rosenstein was consulted. The politics are so explosive that it’s unimaginable lower-ranking DOJ officials would have ordered it without letting the higher-ups know. More from White:
3. A Magistrate Judge signed off on this. Federal magistrate judges (appointed by local district judges, not by the President) review search warrant applications. A Magistrate Judge therefore reviewed this application and found probable cause — that is, probable cause to believe that the subject premises (Cohen’s office) contains specified evidence of a specified federal crime. Now, Magistrate Judges sometimes are a little too rubber-stampy for my taste. But here, where the Magistrate Judge knew that this would become one of the most scrutinized search warrant applications ever, and because the nature of the warrant of an attorney’s office is unusual, you can expect that the Magistrate Judge felt pretty confident that there was enough there.
That raises the question: What could be so terribly incriminating that Berman, Rosenstein, and a federal magistrate judge would risk embarrassing Trump by doing something like this? What do they think Cohen has but hasn’t turned over that’s worth a raid?
Coincidentally, McClatchy published this story just three days ago:
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators this week questioned an associate of the Trump Organization who was involved in overseas deals with President Donald Trump’s company in recent years.
Armed with subpoenas compelling electronic records and sworn testimony, Mueller’s team showed up unannounced at the home of the business associate, who was a party to multiple transactions connected to Trump’s effort to expand his brand abroad, according to persons familiar with the proceedings.
Investigators were particularly interested in interactions involving Michael D. Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal attorney and a former Trump Organization employee. Among other things, Cohen was involved in business deals secured or sought by the Trump Organization in Georgia, Kazakhstan and Russia.
Maybe Mueller has information about a business deal not involving Russia and felt it’d be safer to refer that matter to the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan rather than pursue it himself and risk violating the boundaries of his Russiagate authority. The Stormy Daniels matter may be low-hanging fruit that Mueller’s interested in as a way to potentially flip Cohen. If he can find written evidence somewhere that Cohen made the payment with an eye to influencing the election, that would potentially make it easy to prove that it was in fact a campaign contribution for legal purposes — an undeclared one, for which Cohen could be punished. Unless he’s willing to cooperate.
Is he? The core, core, core duty of being Donald Trump’s “fixer,” one would think, is taking as many bullets as is necessary for the boss. If that means going to jail for a thousand years on contempt charges because you won’t testify against him, that’s what it means.
His lawyer is outraged:
— Monica Alba (@albamonica) April 9, 2018
It wasn’t just Cohen’s law office either:
CBS’s Pat Milton reports the FBI stormed not only Michael Cohen’s office, but also his New York residence, seizing documents and other material, as authorized in a search warrant.
— Steven Portnoy (@stevenportnoy) April 9, 2018
It was more than that! Vanity Fair says they raided his hotel room as well. I wonder if that’s standard practice or if they feared Cohen might start destroying evidence in other locations once he found out that they were raiding another.
He’s now involved in two criminal investigations, one Mueller’s, the other the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s. That’s extra pressure to cooperate with Mueller, as he could conceivably be indicted by the DOJ in two different jurisdictions if he doesn’t. This is Russiagate’s boldest squeeze play yet.
Here’s Bill Kristol noting, correctly, that “This is war.” Stand by for updates.
“This is war.” @BillKristol thinks the FBI raiding Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s office “shows that we are very close to the end game” regarding special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation https://t.co/UiA4ob7HPZ pic.twitter.com/pNNNdagQ98
— The Lead CNN (@TheLeadCNN) April 9, 2018
Update: How can the feds seize communications between a lawyer and client? Aren’t those privileged? They are, but see this Forbes piece from last summer about what happens when a prosecutor thinks an attorney is mixed up in crime. A separate team of lawyers that isn’t working on the case are brought in to review seized communications for privilege concerns; the privileged stuff is culled from the non-privileged stuff and only the latter is handed over to the prosecuting attorneys. A key point, though: Communications showing that the client intended to commit a crime or fraud are *not* privileged. Those would also be handed over to the U.S. Attorney’s prosecuting attorneys by the “taint team” in this case.
Update: I asked White if it’s safe to assume that the triple raid — home, office, hotel room — means the feds feared Cohen would destroy evidence. Quote: “The search of a law firm means that the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and someone high up in the Department of Justice, agreed that less intrusive methods like cooperation or a subpoena were not enough — and that almost certainly means they concluded that destruction of evidence or non-compliance were serious risks.”
Update: It was Rod Rosenstein who told Mueller to hand the matter off to the Manhattan U.S. Attorney, per Bloomberg: “Mueller brought information involving Cohen to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who decided that the matter should be handled by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York rather than by Mueller’s team, according to a person familiar with the matter.”
Update: Stormy Daniels’s lawyer, Michael Avenatti, is keeping his eyes on the prize: “As I predicted last week on CNN and MSNBC, Mr. Cohen has been placed in the crosshairs by Mr. Trump. He has been set-up to take the fall.”