FBI raids target Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen in expanding criminal investigation
FBI agents seized documents on Monday from Michael Cohen, President Trump’s longtime personal lawyer
FBI agents launched a series of raids Monday targeting Michael Cohen, President Trump’s combative personal lawyer and longtime confidant, prompting a furious denunciation from the president, who spoke for the first time in public of possibly firing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Armed with court-approved search warrants, FBI agents fanned out across Manhattan and reportedly seized computers, tax documents, emails, communications and business documents from Cohen’s home, his office at a law firm in Rockefeller Center and his hotel room on Park Avenue.
It is the first known federal investigation of a president’s lawyer in the modern era, and Trump was quick to denounce the FBI operation as a “total witch hunt” and a “disgraceful situation.”
The raids were carried out by FBI agents working with the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, which is headed by a Trump administration appointee, Geoffrey S. Berman. They acted after Mueller referred the case to them.
But Trump focused his anger at Mueller and his investigation.
“It’s an attack on our country, in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for,” Trump said angrily at a White House meeting with military chiefs that was supposed to focus on a U.S. response to a suspected poison gas attack in Syria.
Trump’s lawyers have repeatedly said that the president was not considering sacking Mueller, but Trump made clear it was on his mind. “Many people have said, ‘You should fire him,’” Trump said in response to a question. “We’ll see what happens.”
The raids also boosted Trump’s wrath toward prosecutors who have dogged him and his inner circle, casting a stubborn cloud over his presidency. He bitterly criticized the team working for Mueller, a Republican and former FBI director.
“This is the most biased group of people,” Trump said. “These people have the biggest conflicts of interest I have ever seen. Democrats all.”
Cohen has come under scrutiny in the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election because he worked on Trump’s proposal to build a luxury development in Moscow during the campaign. The idea was dropped and the project was never built.
He also crafted a hush-money agreement with the pornographic actress known as Stormy Daniels, who said she had a sexual affair with Trump years ago. Daniels was given $130,000 shortly before the 2016 election, a payment that critics have described as a potentially illegal campaign expenditure because of its political implications.
Cohen also figures in the controversial dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent. It claims he traveled to Prague for meetings with Russians during the 2016 campaign. Cohen has vigorously denied the allegation and has filed a defamation suit against Fusion GPS, the company hired to research Trump, and BuzzFeed, which first published it.
The FBI raids on Monday increase the chance of legal peril for Cohen and even Trump.
Cohen is intimately familiar with the finances of Trump’s businesses, something the president has tried to shield from public scrutiny. Trump has never publicly released his tax returns, and he routinely requires employees to sign nondisclosure agreements.
The president told the New York Times last year that it “would be a violation” if Mueller investigated his company. The special counsel’s office has since issued a subpoena to the Trump Organization.
Mueller’s decision to refer information about Cohen to the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York suggests a federal investigation involving the lawyer that is separate from the ongoing Russia inquiry. The Washington Post reported that Cohen is under investigation for possible bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations.
Cohen’s lawyer, Stephen Ryan, called the FBI raids with search warrants “completely inappropriate and unnecessary.”
“These government tactics are also wrong because Mr. Cohen has cooperated completely with all government entities, including providing thousands of non-privileged documents to Congress and sitting for depositions under oath,” Ryan said in a statement.
The raids could also gain new insight into the president, who is considering whether to grant an interview to the special counsel’s office.
Few people are as close to Trump as Cohen, the son of a surgeon and concentration camp survivor who grew up on Long Island, N.Y. He started working for the Trump Organization in 2006, bringing a brash and confrontational style to the future president’s complex business and personal affairs.
He’s compared himself to the fictional character Ray Donovan, a fixer who makes problems disappear for Hollywood clients, and told the magazine Vanity Fair that he would “take a bullet” for Trump.
“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,” he said to ABC News in a 2011 interview.
But Cohen has entangled himself in controversy with his attempts to squelch negative publicity and spearhead business deals for Trump.
“Michael Cohen has never had a particularly good reputation as a lawyer,” said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor. “The first rule of being a fix-it man is not getting yourself into a fix.”
Cohen is facing the most heat for his role in paying off Daniels to buy her silence. He said he used his own money for the $130,000 payment and denied being reimbursed by Trump’s company or campaign.
Trump last week denied knowing about the payment but has stuck by his lawyer, even dining with him at his Palm Beach, Fla., club, Mar-a-Lago, the night before “60 Minutes” broadcast an interview with Daniels.
Michael Avenatti, a lawyer for Daniels, raised the possibility that Cohen could provide investigators damaging information on Trump, saying on Twitter that there’s been “misplaced faith” in him.
“If he does not hold up, this could end very, very badly for DJT [Donald John Trump] and others,” he said. Avenatti declined to comment further.
Daniels is suing Cohen for defamation, accusing him of falsely calling her a liar. Avenatti is also seeking to depose Trump.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s work, could face criticism from Trump. Under Justice Department regulations, Mueller could not have referred information to the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan without Rosenstein’s consent.
Rosenstein supervises Mueller because Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, who worked on Trump’s campaign, recused himself shortly after he was confirmed by the Senate last year. The recusal has been a sore spot for Trump, and he repeated his harsh criticisms of Sessions on Monday.
“The attorney general made a terrible mistake when he did this,” Trump said, adding that Sessions “should have let us know” in advance so that he could have “put a different attorney general in.”
“So he made what I consider to be a very terrible mistake for the country,” he added.
The raids are a legally sensitive situation. Ryan, Cohen’s lawyer, said the FBI had seized “privileged communications” between Cohen and his clients.
But attorney-client privilege is not ironclad, according to legal experts. Investigators can pierce that protection if they believe a lawyer has participated in a fraud or crime with a client.
Turley said prosecutors would probably need to carefully examine the material to determine how it can fit into their investigation.
“They can seize it all,” he said. “The question is whether they can review it and can they use it.”
Mueller has dealt with these issues before in the Russia investigation. In October, his office convinced a federal judge to allow prosecutors to force the grand jury testimony of a lawyer who previously represented Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, who helped lead Trump’s presidential campaign.
Gates has since pleaded guilty to lying and conspiracy, and he’s agreed to cooperate with the investigation. Manafort has pleaded not guilty in two separate cases, one in Virginia and one in Washington, involving charges of bank fraud, money laundering and tax evasion.
The charges stem from their lobbying work on behalf of Ukraine’s former pro-Kremlin government, not their work on Trump’s campaign.
It’s unclear whether Cohen’s work on behalf of Trump’s business overlapped with Trump’s campaign.
Cohen has said he worked on the Moscow development deal for five months with Felix Sater, a Russian-born businessman in New York who had worked with Trump’s company on previous hotel projects, and who claimed to have access to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote in an email to Cohen. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”
The deal went nowhere, and Cohen said Sater, who became a cooperating FBI witness after he was caught in a stock scam years ago, was prone to puffery.
In the Vanity Fair interview last fall, Cohen brushed aside a question on whether he thought Trump would pardon him or others who might be caught up in the Russia investigation.
“I know that I will never have to ask him to do that,” Cohen said.
5:35 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with new details.
2:07 p.m.: The story was updated with staff reporting.
The story was originally published at 1:15 p.m.
Get our Essential Politics newsletter
The latest news, analysis and insights from our politics teams from Sacramento to D.C.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.