National News

Cohen Asks Judge to Shield Trump Files From Prosecutors

Posted April 13, 2018 12:03 p.m. EDT
Updated April 13, 2018 12:06 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, asked a federal judge in Manhattan on Friday to block the Justice Department from reading documents related to his decadelong legal representation of Trump and that were taken in a recent FBI raid.

The hurriedly scheduled court appearance reflected the unease and worry inside Trump’s inner circle over this week’s raids. The documents could shed light on the president’s relationship with an adviser who has helped steer him through some of his thorniest personal and business dilemmas.

In an extraordinarily rare move, the FBI seized Cohen’s computer and files, looking for all contacts with Trump and his campaign about efforts to beat back negative publicity, including arranging payments to women who claimed affairs with Trump. The breadth of the search warrant shocked Trump and his advisers, who are still not sure exactly what records Cohen kept and what they could mean for Trump.

A lawyer representing Trump’s interest in the case also appeared and asked a judge to order the Justice Department to temporarily delay looking at the files until the matter could be litigated.

“Those searches have been executed and the evidence is locked down. I’m not trying to delay,” Joanna C. Hendon, an attorney for Trump, said during the hearing Friday. “I’m just trying to ensure that it’s done scrupulously.”

Cohen wants his lawyers to be able to review the files and withhold privileged material before prosecutors can see them. As an alternative, he asked that an independent lawyer be allowed to review the files first. A judge postponed any decision until a follow-up hearing Monday.

Federal agents seized documents that dated back years, some of which are related to payments to two women who have said they had affairs with Trump. Other documents seized included information about the role of The National Enquirer in silencing one of the women, people briefed on the investigation have said.

Cohen’s lawyers have called the raid of his offices and hotel room an overreach of the law, and the president has said that the attorney-client privilege is dead because of the action.

A federal judge authorized prosecutors to seize the records Monday, but Cohen is challenging their authority to review them. The warrant sought all documents, including emails between Cohen and Trump, related to Cohen’s efforts to suppress negative publicity ahead of the 2016 election.

Communications between lawyers and their clients are normally off limits to prosecutors, but there are exceptions, including when the materials are considered part of an ongoing crime.

The raid on Cohen surprised and angered the president, who has been frustrated with the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference, the Kremlin’s possible coordination with Trump associates and whether the president has been deliberately trying to obstruct those inquiries. On Monday, Trump called the raid an “attack on our country in a true sense.”

Federal agents in New York were looking for information about Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who claims she had a nearly yearlong affair with Trump shortly after the birth of his youngest son in 2006. American Media Inc., which owns the National Enquirer, paid McDougal $150,000. The chief executive of America Media is a friend of Trump’s.

Agents were also searching Cohen’s office and hotel room for information related to Stephanie Clifford, better known as Stormy Daniels, a pornographic film actress. Clifford has said she had sex with Trump while he was married. Cohen has acknowledged that he paid Clifford $130,000 as part of a nondisclosure agreement to secure her silence days before the 2016 presidential election. Trump recently told reporters he knew nothing about the agreement.

The seized records also include communications between Trump and Cohen, who joined Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, in 2006, which would most likely require a special team of agents to review because conversations between lawyers and clients are protected from scrutiny in most instances.

Searching a law office is one of the most sensitive — and most heavily reviewed — activities the Justice Department conducts. It is rare to seek documents from lawyers in any case, but doing so by search rather than subpoena is unusually aggressive and is typically reserved for cases when prosecutors believe that the lawyer would conceal or destroy evidence if asked for it.