National News

Trump and His Fixer Seek Secrecy for Documents in Probe

Posted June 7, 2018 10:46 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — For nearly two months, a mystery has stood at the center of the investigation of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s longtime personal fixer: What exactly did the government find when federal agents raided Cohen’s office, apartment and hotel room in April?

The answer may remain a mystery — at least for the foreseeable future.

This week, Trump’s lawyers, writing on behalf of the president and Cohen, asked a federal judge in Manhattan for permission to file under seal their objections to the findings of a court-appointed special master who is reviewing documents and data files seized in the raids. That review is being conducted to determine if any of the materials are protected by attorney-client privilege and should be withheld from the prosecutors who are investigating Cohen, a lawyer.

“The court has not previously addressed the circumstances under which it intends to receive documents under seal in this case,” the president’s lawyers wrote Wednesday to the judge, Kimba M. Wood. The lawyers proposed to file their objections to the special master’s findings directly to Wood, keeping them from the eyes of both the public and the prosecutors handling the inquiry.

The government, in a letter to Wood on Thursday, agreed that Trump’s lawyers did not have to publicly disclose the substance of the files that they objected to as privileged. But the prosecutors asked Wood to bar the lawyers from filing under seal their legal reasons for making objections to the special master, Barbara S. Jones.

“There is no reason why the government and the public should be deprived of access to the balance of the filing,” the prosecutors wrote.

It is hardly unusual for a federal criminal investigation to be shrouded in secrecy, but the public’s interest in the Cohen investigation could not be higher given who is involved: the president and a lawyer who has helped him to navigate some of the most sensitive parts of his personal and professional lives.

Late on Thursday, a group of news organizations, including The New York Times, wrote to the judge opposing the broad secrecy request from Trump and Cohen and supporting the government’s more limited proposal.

“The public has a right to know the legal arguments being advanced by the parties,” the news organizations said. “And ultimately, the public has a right to know what categories of documents this court determines should remain privileged and why.

“Stated simply, maintaining public confidence in the administration of justice in this case is paramount.”

While all of this jockeying over how the seized materials should be treated might seem obscure or technical, it could have a major impact, shaping the contours of the evidence the government can use as it continues to investigate Cohen. For months now, prosecutors have been looking into Cohen’s wide-ranging business deals, including two hush-money payments he made to women who claim they had affairs with Trump.

At least so far, it seems that the government will get the vast majority of the materials taken in the raids, contained in eight boxes of Cohen’s paperwork, more than 30 of his cellphones, iPads and computer drives — even one of his shredders.

On Monday, Jones, issued a preliminary report saying that most of the files she has already looked at were not protected by attorney-client privilege. (Jones is not reviewing all of the nearly 4 million files seized from Cohen, only those that his and Trump’s lawyers have claimed are privileged.)

When the raids took place on April 9, Trump was enraged, calling them “disgraceful.” The president’s advisers have concluded that the Cohen investigation could pose a greater threat to him than even the special counsel’s inquiry into potential collusion with Russia.

The issue of secrecy has been simmering since the FBI raids. At a hearing on April 13, Wood, responding to comments from a lawyer representing news organizations, said, “The compelling interest here is protecting the ongoing criminal investigation as well as attorney-client privilege.”

Trump’s lawyers cited that comment Wednesday in their letter to the judge seeking confidentiality. They did not specify the extent to which they are objecting to Jones’ findings, or how many of her privilege findings they are contesting.

In a recent court hearing, Wood said that lawyers for Trump and Cohen had been moving too slowly in making claims that certain files were protected by attorney-client privilege. She said that if that process was not completed by June 15, she would hand it over to the government, which has said it would conduct a review with a taint team, a separate group of prosecutors walled off from the Cohen investigation.