The USB drive was black and red, and its white label seemed inscrutable — Tracking #: 180208140208.
But on Feb. 8, 2018, the tiny digital storage device helped change history when special counsel Robert S. Mueller III gave it to the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan.
The drive contained Michael Cohen's emails, and it linked the Mueller-led Russia probe, which is nearing an end, and an ongoing investigation into an illegal hush money scheme that prosecutors said was directed by President Trump.
Cohen, who served as a Trump Organization executive and as Trump’s personal lawyer, is due to begin a three-year prison sentence on May 6 for his role in that scheme and a variety of other crimes.
New details about the investigation were revealed Tuesday when lengthy search warrants used to seize evidence from Cohen last year were released in New York. The nearly 900 pages disclosed that Mueller began secretly collecting Cohen’s emails in July 2017, two months after he was named special counsel.
After Mueller handed over the thumb drive, federal agents in New York collected more of Cohen’s communications and used electronic surveillance to pinpoint the location of his cellphones, the warrants show.
The inquiry exploded into public view last April 9 when teams of FBI agents raided Cohen’s home, office, hotel room and safety deposit box in Manhattan.
The brash lawyer later broke with Trump and began cooperating with prosecutors, ultimately pleading guilty to nine felonies, including campaign finance violations involving the hush money payments to two women who alleged affairs with Trump.
Nearly 20 pages on "the illegal campaign contribution scheme" were redacted in the documents released Tuesday, and U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III indicated that was done because the investigation was still underway.
“At this stage, wholesale disclosure of the materials would reveal the scope and direction of the government’s ongoing investigation,” Pauley wrote in a Feb. 7 decision.
Many details about the hush money payments have already become public.
Cohen arranged for the National Enquirer’s publisher to pay $150,000 to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy playmate. He also paid $130,000 to Daniels, a porn star, out of his own pocket. The money was intended to keep them from speaking out before election day.
Prosecutors have said Trump himself directed the scheme. The president has denied the affairs and any wrongdoing, saying he had trusted his lawyer to handle things the right way. He tweeted this month that “there were no violations of the campaign finance laws by me.”
Some of Trump’s allies view the New York investigation as a greater potential threat to Trump than the special counsel’s office because he was directly implicated in a federal crime in the hush money scheme. Prosecutors in Manhattan are also probing the president’s inaugural committee.
Lanny Davis, Cohen’s lawyer, said the warrants’ release "only furthers [Cohen’s] interest in continuing to cooperate and providing information and the truth about Donald Trump and the Trump Organization to law enforcement and Congress.”
The warrants showed that prosecutors pursued some charges against Cohen that they ultimately did not file.
Investigators told a judge they had "probable cause" to believe a search through Cohen’s emails would reveal evidence of wire fraud and conspiracy to defraud the United States, for example. The documents also suggest Cohen may have acted as an unregistered foreign lobbyist.
The search warrants included extensive discussion of Cohen’s work as a corporate consultant after Trump won the presidency and business leaders sought an inside track with the new administration.
Cohen collected consulting fees through Essential Consultants LLC, the same company he used to pay Daniels.
Cohen told First Republic bank that Essential Consultants was a "real estate consulting company" and all of his clients "would be domestic individuals," neither of which was true.
His clients included pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG, telecommunications conglomerate AT&T, a South Korean aerospace company, a Kazakhstani bank and an investment firm tied to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.
He was paid $3 million in the year after Trump’s inauguration, short of the $5 million to $6 million that he had hoped to draw annually as a consultant, according to the search warrant.
Prosecutors did not file any charges against Cohen for his consulting work.
Since publicly breaking with Trump, Cohen has met extensively with federal and state investigators probing the president, his finances and his businesses. Cohen told a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Feb. 27 that he remained “in constant contact” with the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan.
He also called Trump a “racist,” a “con man” and a “cheat.”
Republicans repeatedly attacked Cohen’s credibility and accused him of lying in his testimony, especially his claim that he never sought a pardon from President Trump.
Cohen’s lawyer Michael Monico later told Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who chairs the oversight committee, that Cohen “could have been clearer” in his testimony.
Monico wrote that Trump “publicly dangled the possibility of pardons” after the April raids and Cohen directed his attorney at the time to discuss the issue with a lawyer for the president.
“Nothing ever happened,” Monico wrote.
In addition to the New York investigation, Cohen pleaded guilty in the Russia probe. He admitted lying to Congress about pursuing a Trump Tower Moscow during the presidential campaign, a lucrative proposal that could have earned Trump hundreds of millions of dollars while he was proposing closer ties with Russia.