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Judge orders Michael Cohen released from prison, accuses government of ‘retaliation’

Michael Cohen arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 19, 2017.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

A federal judge said Thursday that the Justice Department had improperly imprisoned Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer who has become an outspoken critic, in retaliation for his upcoming tell-all book about his former boss.

The startling accusation by the judge, who ordered officials to release Cohen on Friday, provided the latest accusation that government lawyers have been serving the president’s personal interests, and it raised concerns that the administration was attempting to silence an adversary in an election year.

Cohen was a key figure in multiple Trump scandals, including the Russia investigation and hush-money payments, before he turned against the president, pleaded guilty to multiple crimes and was sent to prison. He was released in May to finish his sentence under home confinement but was sent back this month after a dispute with probation officials.

The Justice Department said Cohen had refused several conditions of home confinement, such as electronic monitoring, but Cohen’s lawyer said he had objected to a provision that prevented “engagement of any kind with the media,” including books.

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U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein on Thursday indicated he believed Cohen’s version, and he sharply criticized federal authorities for trying to limit Cohen’s free speech.

“How can I take any other inference than that it’s retaliatory?” Hellerstein asked during a telephone hearing on Cohen’s lawsuit against the government, according to the Associated Press. “It’s retaliatory because of his desire to exercise his 1st Amendment rights to publish a book.”

Referencing the provision that limited Cohen’s communications, Hellerstein said, “I’ve never seen such a clause in 21 years of being a judge and sentencing people and looking at terms of supervised release.”

Cohen plans to release his book before the Nov. 3 election. According to his court filings, “he intends to tell the American people about Mr. Trump’s personality and proclivities, his private and professional affairs, and his personal and business ethics,” including allegations that he made racist and anti-Semitic remarks.

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Trump has struggled to prevent embarrassing books from being published. The Justice Department unsuccessfully sued to stop John Bolton, the president’s third national security advisor, from releasing a scathing book about working for Trump. And the president’s family failed to halt publication of a searing book from his niece, who described Trump as an insecure and troubled person unfit to lead the country.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, a division of the Justice Department, rejected the judge’s conclusion Thursday.

“Any assertion that the decision to remand Michael Cohen to prison was a retaliatory action is patently false,” the agency said in a statement. It also said “it is not uncommon for BOP to place certain restrictions on inmates’ contact with the media.”

Atty. Gen. William Barr has faced repeated accusations that he’s using his role as the nation’s top law enforcement official for Trump’s benefit.

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Barr has appointed prosecutors to look for missteps in the Russia investigation, which he’s described as an injustice against the president. He’s also pushing to drop the case against Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor who pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents. Flynn was the only White House official charged during the Russia investigation.

The attorney general has also played a key role during nationwide protests over racist policing. When Trump wanted to hold a photo op in front of a church across the street from the White House last month, Barr was spotted surveying the police perimeter. The White House later said he directed officers to clear demonstrators out of Lafayette Square, although Barr said the decision had already been made.

Barr has also helped deploy federal forces to cities over the objections of local and state officials, who believe their neighborhoods are being targeted for political purposes.

Trump has also used his power over the criminal justice system to reward allies. He recently commuted the sentence of Roger Stone, a longtime political advisor convicted of witness intimidation and lying to Congress during the Russia investigation, to prevent him from serving any time in prison.

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Cohen was once one of Trump’s most loyal and aggressive defenders, playing a role more akin to a fixer than a traditional lawyer. He helped arrange for hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, two women who said they had affairs with Trump, to keep them quiet during the 2016 presidential race. The arrangement, which prosecutors said was directed by Trump himself, violated campaign finance laws.

Cohen also lied to Congress about Trump’s attempt to build a luxury skyscraper in Moscow, a deal he was pursuing while running for president.

He angered Trump by pleading guilty to several crimes and agreeing to cooperate with prosecutors. He also testified about Trump to the Democratic-controlled House Oversight Committee, accusing the president of being a “racist,” a “con man” and a “cheat.”

Cohen’s book is expected to include similar and more extensive allegations. According to his court filing, “the manuscript describes the President’s pointedly anti-Semitic remarks and virulently racist remarks against such Black leaders as President Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela.”

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As the coronavirus spread through federal prisons this year, Cohen asked to be released because of health concerns. He was furloughed May 21, then met with probation officials July 9 to review his home confinement agreement.

According to the Justice Department, the officials were not aware that Cohen was working on a book when they drafted the agreement. During the meeting, Cohen was “antagonistic” and objected to several provisions, including electronic monitoring and limits on his contact with the media.

The government’s court filing said Cohen’s “behavior was unacceptable and undermined his suitability for placement in home confinement.” Flashing a combative persona that he once deployed on behalf of the president, he told one probation official to say hello to “Mr. Barr,” the filing said.

Cohen presented a different perspective on the probation meeting.

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“At no time did Mr. Cohen refuse electronic monitoring, or any other condition of home confinement,” the lawsuit said.

Instead, the lawsuit said, Cohen balked at limitations on his free speech. Probation officers offered to take his concerns “up the chain of command” and asked Cohen to sit in a waiting room.

After more than an hour and a half, the filing says, three U.S. marshals “arrived with handcuffs and shackles and placed them on Mr. Cohen in order to remand him back to prison.”


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