President Donald Trump is infuriated after investigators raided the office of his personal lawyer and longtime close confidant Michael Cohen.
- President Donald Trump is infuriated after the investigators raided the office and home of his personal lawyer and closest confidant, Michael Cohen.
- Cohen is a central figure in several investigative threads relating to Trump, and he is also privy to the president's personal finances and business dealings.
- "This just got personal for Trump," said one former federal prosecutor. "It hits close to home and he's scared."
- Experts noted that Trump's anger is also likely fueled by the knowledge that even if he moves to stonewall the investigation into Cohen, there are other avenues investigators can use to publicize their findings.
President Donald Trump is enraged, but there may not be much he can do about it.
The latest trigger: a Monday morning FBI raid on the offices and home of his personal lawyer and closest confidant, Michael Cohen.
Armed with a search warrant, the FBI raided Cohen's Manhattan office and hotel room after a tip from the special counsel Robert Mueller, according to The New York Times.
Investigators working with the US attorney's office at the Southern District of New York (SDNY) reportedly gathered records on various topics, such as the $130,000 non-disclosure payment Cohen made to porn star Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 US presidential election.
Investigators also seized a computer, phone, personal financial records, and most importantly, attorney-client communications, according to The Times.
Trump went back to a frequent line of attack Monday evening, calling the development a "witch hunt" and "an attack on our country."
Later, The Times reported, he privately fumed to his aides and began floating the possibility of firing deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia investigation and the SDNY. Trump is said to have been angry enough that his advisers worried whether he would use the raid as a reason to fire or order the firing of top Justice Department officials in charge of the Russia probe.
"This just got personal for Trump. It hits close to home and he's scared."
"This just got personal for Trump," said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who spent 12 years at the Department of Justice. "It hits close to home and he's scared."
The president is Cohen's primary and most high-profile client. Cohen left the Trump Organization in early 2017 and has served as a personal attorney to Trump since then. However, his relationship with the president stretches back years, and he has long been known as one of Trump's closest allies.
Cohen's knowledge of Trump's personal finances is likely a key aggravating factor for Trump, who warned last year that investigators would be crossing a "red line" if they ventured into his or his family's financial dealings.
"This search warrant is like dropping a bomb on Trump's front porch," Joyce White Vance, a former federal prosecutor from Alabama, told the Washington Post.
"You can't get much worse than this, other than arresting someone's wife or putting pressure on a family member," Washington attorney Mark S. Zaid told the Post. "This strikes at the inner sanctum: your lawyer, your CPA, your barber, your therapist, your bartender. All the people who would know the worst about you."
Trump goes off
Cohen is a central figure in at least four investigative threads that relate to Trump and his finances.
In addition to being a subject of scrutiny in the Russia probe, SDNY is also reportedly investigating Cohen for possible bank fraud and campaign finance law violations related to the Daniels payment.
If the records investigators seized were related in any way "to hush money bank fraud or campaign finance violations, then the president faces significant legal exposure," said Andrew Wright, a former associate in the White House counsel's office under President Barack Obama.
Trump could also face heightened liability if Cohen is forced to testify against his clients or flips and becomes a cooperating witness for the FBI.
Trump made it clear he was still heated about the episode on Tuesday morning.
"Attorney–client privilege is dead!" the president tweeted a little after 7 a.m. ET. "A TOTAL WITCH HUNT!!!"
Much of Trump's fury since news of the raid emerged has been directed at Mueller, even though it was not carried out by investigators working for the special counsel. Plus, prosecutors must meet a high legal standard to justify a search warrant on a lawyer, since attorney-client privilege is such a lauded aspect of the justice system.
Geoffrey Berman has served as the interim head of SDNY since January. Berman is a Trump appointee with ties to former New York mayor and Trump supporter Rudy Giuliani. Berman also donated to Trump's 2016 campaign.
"Trump can't go after a guy he appointed, so he targets Mueller, because that's what riles his base up," Cramer posited.
But that might change.
ABC News reported Tuesday that Berman has recused himself from the office's investigation into Cohen and had no role in approving the raid. The news will likely infuriate Trump, who often rails against Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing the Russia investigation last year.
In addition to repeatedly launching broadsides at Sessions since his recusal, and the president is also said to have considered replacing him on multiple occasions. But in this case, experts pointed out that even if Trump were to remove Berman or replace him, it would not hinder the investigation into Cohen.
'The president can't stop this train'
SDNY — often dubbed the Sovereign District of New York — is one of the most highly regarded US attorneys' offices in the country and has a long reputation of remaining apolitical.
"Firing the US attorney at the SDNY wouldn't hurt or shut down the investigation at all," Cramer said. "The president can't stop this train and it's careening off the tracks. He can pardon people, but he cannot stop the train."
The role of the US Attorney's office for SDNY in the Cohen raid is difficult to gauge without more details about the search warrant.
According to The Times, the office carried out the raid after receiving a referral from Mueller's office, likely after it uncovered evidence of potential wrongdoing related to Cohen that was not within the special counsel's investigative focus.
Cramer said a referral of this nature is not unusual, adding that in the event that prosecutors at the US attorney's office discover information relevant to Mueller's investigation, they will likely cooperate with the special counsel's office.
But SDNY veterans raised two other possibilities about the office's role in the matter.
"I need to see more specific reporting before I'm 100% convinced this is a full-on 'referral' to SDNY," tweeted Preet Bharara, the former head of the office who Trump fired last year. "I could be completely wrong but such a referral seems peculiar. Of course much is peculiar these days."
Harry Sandick, a former assistant US attorney at the office, also said he had a lot of "unanswered questions" about SDNY's involvement in the raid.
"One possibility is that because the premises that needed to be searched were within the district, the office would play a part in getting that search warrant," Sandick said. "That's not uncommon, because in general, when you want to search a place within the district, you need a warrant from them."
Another possibility both Bharara and Sandick suggested was that SDNY was acting as a "taint team" for Mueller.
One way or another, the truth is going to get out.
A taint team is an internal group, walled off from investigators, that the government sets up when it seizes electronically stored documents with a search warrant.
The team's primary responsibility is to separate out materials that are protected by attorney-client privilege in order to avoid later claims that the government improperly accessed the documents, according to The New York Law Journal.
"The SDNY might do this, because that entire office can be kept separate from Mueller's office to the extent that there are privileged materials that need to be reviewed," Sandick said. "That way, Mueller's team can't be accused of improperly using information obtained from the warrant."
In that scenario, SDNY would be responsible for collecting all evidence, sorting out non-privileged materials, and handing it to Mueller, wrote former DOJ spokesman Matt Miller. In other words, the case would not have been a full referral to SDNY, and could still be within Mueller's scope.
Cramer said Tuesday that Trump's anger was not surprising given the enormous implications of the Cohen raid.
While he may not be able to shut down the investigation into Cohen, Trump could theoretically pardon anyone convicted of a federal crime.
But even if he does, Cramer said, "the New York attorney general is going to pick up this trail, and that's where the president has absolutely no authority, because he can't pardon state crimes."
"One way or another, the truth is going to get out," he added. "It may be in an indictment, it may be in a report. But sooner or later, everyone will know what Bob Mueller knows."