Trump supporters are whining that Michael Cohen is being treated like a mob lawyer. Yeah, he is, isn’t he? And probably for good reason.
Several op eds and analyses say it is extraordinarily difficult to get a search warrant on records from a lawyer unless there is really, really, really solid evidence that said lawyer is engaged in criminal activity. And there would have to be good reason to think that a subpoena wouldn’t do.
Whatever evidence federal prosecutors have collected concerning Michael Cohen, President Trumpâ€™s longtime attorney, it is most likely extraordinarily strong.
Before federal agents raided Cohenâ€™s home, hotel room, and office Monday afternoon, they would have had to convince high-ranking officials at the Department of Justice and a federal judge that a search warrant was necessary to obtain the evidence sought.
â€œDoing a search warrant rather than a subpoena suggests the investigators thought Cohen, if given a subpoena, would possibly destroy evidence or withhold key evidence, particularly if it were incriminating,â€ Clinton Watts, a former FBI agent and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said.
So, yes, raiding rather than subpoena-ing is what is done with mob lawyers who are thought to be themselves engaged in ongoing criminal activity. It would not be done if the lawyer were only representing someone thought to be guilty of ongoing criminal activity.
If Cohen were being raided only for material related to the Stormy Daniels payoff, it could be argued that he hadn’t been acting as Trump’s lawyer, since Trump himself said he didn’t know anything about it. But even then I don’t think they would have raided Cohen if they didn’t think he himself had reason to hide something pretty consequential from the law. Whether that “something” also incriminates Trump is not something we can know, yet.
Several news outlets are reporting this morning that yesterday’s raid was looking for information on payments to women, not just Stormy Daniels. But many people are skeptical that’s all the raid was about. As Josh Marshall wrote, what we know about the payment to Stormy Daniels and probably other women doesn’t rise to the level of gravity “to merit this kind of action.”
CNN is reporting that the FBI also sought information relating to Cohen’s ownership of taxi medallions. There have been rumors that Cohen’s taxi business is somehow connected to the Russian mob and various criminal activities. So maybe Cohen literally is a mob lawyer. But I can’t find anything more than rumors. There’s also talk of bank fraud, which might relate to where Cohen got the money to pay off Daniels et al., and campaign finance violations, which might relate to seeing the payoff money as campaign contributions, which I understand is a stretch.
ABC is reporting that the warrant was not sought by the U.S. Attorney from the Southern District of New York,Â Geoffrey Berman, because Berman (a Trump appointee who was interviewed by Trump for the job) actually is recused from the Michael Cohen investigation. The raid was handled by other people in Berman’s office and approved by a judge.
Now, why did Mueller hand off this investigation to the Justice Department and the Southern District of New York? It might really be that what Cohen is suspected of doing really isn’t related to Trump or the Trump campaign. But let’s assume that isn’t it.
Why might this U.S. attorneyâ€™s office have been involved? One answer is the most basic: a raid of at least two locations simultaneouslyâ€”office and hotelâ€”requires a lot of bodies and coordination. If you need that many FBI agents, you already need to coordinate with the local office for it to go smoothly. Former prosecutors say that Mueller might have referred this raid to the Southern District for logistical reasons alone. But he still chose to refer the investigation to this U.S. attorneyâ€™s office rather than simply use their logistical support.
What else might this move tell us about Robert Muellerâ€™s thinking? First, remember that Mueller has learned that Trump has already tried to fire him, and the person whoÂ reportedlystopped himâ€”White House counsel Don McGahnâ€”isÂ rumoredÂ to be on his way out of the administration.
The Post isÂ reportingÂ that the subject of the Cohen warrant was an investigation into possible bank fraud, wire fraud, and campaign finance violations, possibly related to a hush money contract with adult film performer Stormy Daniels. Mueller probably could have made a claim that Cohen already fell under his jurisdiction, which is to investigate Russian election interference, links between the Trump campaign and Russia, and â€œany matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.â€ But it hasÂ been reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made the call to involve the U.S. attorney, and perhaps Rosenstein made a strategic calculation about Trump, or they agreed together. It seems, though, that both men know they need to spread Muellerâ€™s work around as a hedge against his firing, and maybe even to try to deter Trump from firing him.
In other words, in order to shut down the investigation Trump would have to not just stop Mueller’s investigation, he’d also have to move against the Southern District of New York.
Republicans are warning Trump not to fire Mueller. Whether there is anything that can be done to protect Mueller is a matter of dispute.Â But it’s not hard to imagine that Republicans in Congress really don’t want to deal with the fallout of another Saturday Night Massacre. Especially not in a midterm year.
Meanwhile, Mueller himself is making other news.
The special counsel is investigating a payment made to President Trumpâ€™s foundation by a Ukrainian steel magnate for a talk during the campaign, according to three people briefed on the matter, as part of a broader examination of streams of foreign money to Mr. Trump and his associates in the years leading up to the election.
InvestigatorsÂ subpoenaedÂ the Trump OrganizationÂ this year for an array of records about business with foreign nationals. In response, the company handed over documents about a $150,000 donation that the Ukrainian billionaire, Victor Pinchuk, made in September 2015 to the Donald J. Trump Foundation in exchange forÂ a 20-minute appearanceÂ by hMr. Trump that month through a video link to a conference in Kiev.
Michael D. Cohen, the presidentâ€™s personal lawyerÂ whose office and hotel room were raided on MondayÂ in an apparently unrelated case, solicited the donation.
Oh, my. And did any of that $150,000 find its way into the Trump campaign, I wonder? Trump has already been caught using his “foundation” as a slush fund for self-dealingÂ (which is something he’s accused Hillary Clinton of doing, without evidence).
Mr. Mueller has also examined a deal Mr. Cohen was putting together with Mr. Trump to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Mr. TrumpÂ said last summerÂ that Mr. Mueller should not look at his or his familyâ€™s finances beyond issues related directly to Russia.
But the special counselâ€™s investigators have questioned witnesses about whether money from the Persian Gulf had been usedÂ to finance Mr. Trumpâ€™s political effortsÂ and asked for information on Mr. Pinchuk.
So, Cohen could have lots of information on Trump that is very incriminating, indeed.
Here’s a rundown of Trump associates who are under investigation, under indictment, or have already pleaded guilty.