WASHINGTON — The FBI raided the office, home and hotel room of President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, on Monday and seized privileged attorney-client documents.
Though the raid was based on warrants issued by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, Cohen’s lawyer blamed the action on special counsel Robert Mueller, who has been investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In a statement, Stephen Ryan, Cohen’s attorney, called the seizure of “protected attorney-client communications … inappropriate and unnecessary.”
Trump denounced the action, which he described as a break-in and called “an attack on our country in a true sense.” He also repeated his description of the Russian probe as a “witch hunt,” blamed Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the probe and told reporters many people had told him to fire the special counsel.
The Office of Special Counsel declined to comment.
The apparent involvement of Mueller’s office left it unclear if the raid followed information linking Cohen to possible coordination between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and the Russian government, or a separate matter. The Justice Department letter authorizing the Russian investigation also allowed the special counsel to investigate “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
Full speculation mode
With only a tight group of individuals aware of what really happened, Washington went into full speculation mode as to which angle prompted the sweep.
The Washington Post cited a person familiar with the investigation as saying that Mueller was looking for information on Cohen’s 2016 $130,000 payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels, who claims to have had sexual relations with Trump in 2006.
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, now claims the payment is void because Trump never signed a non-disclosure deal as she did.
On Air Force One Thursday, Trump made his first comment on the allegation, telling reporters he did not know about the payment and urging those with questions about her claim to “ask Michael Cohen,” who has said he made the payment himself and that Trump was not a party to the deal.
Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation with Common Cause, the good government group, filed a complaint calling for a federal probe into the payment to Daniels on Jan. 22, saying it appeared to violate campaign finance laws.
“Any payment by a person such as Cohen on behalf of or in consultation with a candidate to influence an election is an in-kind ‘contribution’ to the candidate under campaign finance law subject to a $2,700 limit and disclosure requirements,” said a Common Cause statement at the time.
On Monday, Common Cause’s Ryan said the argument by Cohen’s attorney that it was wrong for federal agents to seize privileged information related to Daniels’ claim ran counter to the president’s assertion.
‘No privileged communication’
“Donald Trump told the nation last week that he had no knowledge” of the payment to Daniels, he said, which if true “would mean there is no privileged communication.”
Cohen’s name first entered America’s political consciousness in January 2017 when then President-elect Trump held a press conference inside Trump Tower to discuss how he would address potential conflicts of interest. But the event was quickly overtaken by a report by the online news site Buzzfeed on a controversial 35-page “dossier” written by a former British intelligence officer. Among other things, the document alleged that “the Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for at least five years.”
The document placed Cohen, then an attorney with the Trump organization, at a meeting with Kremlin officials in Prague. That information proved to be false.
“It turned out to be a different Michael Cohen,” Trump protested to reporters at the time. “It’s a disgrace what took place. It’s a disgrace and I think they ought to apologize to start with Michael Cohen.”
On Monday, when Trump spoke briefly with reporters before a meeting on Syria with his military advisers, he returned to a familiar theme as far as the spark that led to Mueller’s investigation.
“They found no collusion whatsoever with Russia,” he said.
New focus of investigation?
But cases can morph as investigators find new rabbit holes to explore. Just ask former President Bill Clinton, who was impeached after independent counsel Ken Starr found out about his untruthful testimony about a former White House intern named Monica Lewinsky while Starr was investigating a real estate development known as Whitewater.
One individual familiar with the Mueller investigation, who spoke with the Review Journal on condition of anonymity, said that the aggressive raids on Cohen may signal that the investigation’s focus has indeed shifted.
“A federal judge authorized a no-knock search on a law firm – how the heck have they managed that one?” asked the source, referring to the general reluctance among federal judges to issue warrants for privileged material without rock solid evidence, as well as protections to safeguard attorney-client privilege.
The move also raises the stakes for the special counsel, the source said, adding, “The odds of Mueller getting fired just went up.”
When a reporter asked Trump if he had thought about firing Mueller, the president responded that he had been right to fire then-FBI chief James Comey in May, a turn of events that led Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint Mueller as special counsel.
“We’ll see what happens,” Trump said.
Contact Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.