Recently, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation has become red hot and getting much closer to Donald Trump. On Monday, April 9, 2018, the FBI raided the home, office, and hotel room of Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen as part of a fraud and campaign finance investigation. The raid was carried out by US attorney’s office of the Southern District of New York, where the US attorney in question is a Trump appointee named Geoffrey Berman. According to the New York Times, federal agents “business records, emails, and documents related to several topics,” including Cohen’s payment to Daniels, and “privileged communications” between Cohen and his clients, according to Cohen’s attorney. The raid brings the case closer to Trump’s door than any to date, touching a close confidante and possibly a speech Trump made himself. Though not responsible for the raid, Mueller’s investigation has looked into Michael Cohen and uncovered potential crimes by him during the Russia investigation. He then brought the findings to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, which he’s mandated to if the info’s not directly connected to his investigation. Rosenstein then sent the case to the New York Office leading to a search in Cohen’s house, office, and hotel.
As you know, Michael Cohen is in the middle of the Stormy Daniels controversy, where he plays the guy who paid the porn star $130,000 days before the 2016 election as a way to get her to shut up about her 2006 affair with Donald Trump. The investigation into Cohen is tied to that payment. If he used the money to keep the affair secret and help Trump win the election, they payoff could be considered a donation violating campaign finance law. Sure he might’ve tried to help keep an embarrassing story from the press. Even so, he didn’t report the donation to the federal government, and would substantially the legal cap on donations. The FBI is also looking at whether Cohen violated any banking or wire transfer laws by using a personal bank loan to pay off Daniels. For the lawyer claimed to have drawn on his home equity line of credit from First Republic Bank of Manhattan to obtain the funds. However, while Trump has plenty of lawyers who’ll respond to lawsuits or file papers, Cohen is much more than his “personal” attorney. He’s a fixer, a deal-maker, and a wartime consigliere as well as a key link between Trump and Russia. As journalist Adam Davidson told The Week, “Michael Cohen is the most important non-Trump in the Trump business world. He oversaw nearly all the foreign deals as the Trump Org shifted its focus to sketchy third-tier overseas oligarchs.” With the possible exception of his children, no one knows about the shady stuff Trump has been involved in than this guy. Now they’re combing through Cohen’s files, papers, and phone records.
Then there’s the Steele dossier claiming that Michael Cohen secretly met with several Russian Presidential Administration (PA) Legal Department officials in Prague during the summer of 2016. Obviously, Cohen has adamantly denied taking such a trip, tweeting in January 2017, “I have never been to Prague in my life. #fakenews.” But a new McClatchy report states that special Counsel Robert Mueller has evidence that the sleazy lawyer made a Prague trip through Germany at the height of the 2016 campaign. Now their report is based on anonymous sources and we don’t know what the alleged evidence is. So it can still prove mistaken. But if the McClatchy report is accurate, it could potentially devastate the argument that there was no Trump-Russian collusion. Because there’s no reason for Cohen to try to debunk the Steele dossier by lying that he didn’t visit Prague at all if he actually did, unless he did something extremely serious that he wanted to get away with during the trip. However, if Cohen did go to Prague for innocuous reasons like a vacation, he could’ve just said so.
Nonetheless, whatever evidence federal prosecutors have collected on Michael Cohen must’ve been extraordinarily strong. Before feds could raid his home, hotel room, and office, they had to convince high-ranking Department of Justice officials and a federal judge that a search warrant was necessary for obtaining the evidence sought. As former FBI agent and senior fellow for the Foreign Policy Institute Clinton Watts told The Atlantic, “Doing a search warrant rather than a subpoena suggests the investigators thought Cohen, if given a subpoena, would possibly destroy evidence or withhold key evidence, particularly if it were incriminating.” Under normal circumstances, getting a search warrant for a federal investigation subject’s lawyer is an incredibly aggressive move. If that lawyer represents the President of the United States, the stakes can’t be higher. According to former associate special counsel in the Iran-Contra Affair and law professor at St. Johns John Q. Barrett, “These things are not anonymized, so you know you’re talking about Michael Cohen, the longtime attorney for the person who is now president of the United States, so you know you’re in very deep water. Any law-enforcement official would proceed very carefully.” Former FBI agent and a fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security David Gomez added, “You don’t just have to have the evidence that the documents may or may not exist, you have to show that there’s no other way to get them besides serving a warrant on the attorney, because of the sensitivity of attorney-client privilege.”
Not surprisingly, Donald Trump’s supporters in the conservative press have invoked attorney-client privilege, the legal rule saying communications between an attorney and their client are typically protected. But there are important exceptions. As Fordham University professor Bruce Green told The Atlantic, “Records of conversations between Mr. Cohen and Mr. Trump are not necessarily privileged. If the conversations do not relate to a legal representation, but Mr. Cohen was providing business assistance or other non-legal services, the privilege probably will not apply.” There’s also the crime-fraud exception to attorney-client privilege. As Barrett said, “When the communications between an attorney and client are in furtherance of criminal activity, it’s viewed as an exception to attorney-client privilege.” When an attorney’s records are seized a separate investigation team called a “taint team” will go through those records and sort out which are protected and which ones prosecutors will be allowed to use. “There are various other limitations and exceptions that could make the privilege inapplicable. If it isn’t clear whether documents are privileged, the issue may get litigated,” said Green. This might go for Cohen’s records payments to Daniels. Even if the evidence seized from Cohen is sought for another investigation, Mueller will have access to anything federal prosecutors deem worthy to the Trump-Russia investigation. Though his lawyer Stephen Ryan called the raid, “completely inappropriate and unnecessary” and pointed that attorney-client privilege may shield many of Cohen’s files from investigators. But this doesn’t apply if the lawyer is committing a crime.
Meanwhile, Mueller’s probe is looking at a $150,000 from a Ukrainian billionaire made to the Donald J. Trump Foundation, which previously admitted to violating tax law and helping Trump during the campaign. One critical question in the probe has looked into is whether foreign money flowed into Trump’s 2016 campaign. That has led Mueller’s team to a September 2016 speech Trump gave to a conference in Kiev, Ukraine. In exchange, a Ukrainian steel magnate donated $150,000 to his personal “charity” which he actually used as a personal piggy bank. Though this has nothing to do with the raid, Michael Cohen reportedly solicited the donation for Trump. The focus on the speech and donation is part of Mueller’s growing interest in overseas money and the Trump campaign. Much of his case against Paul Manafort is tied to the latter’s work in Ukraine. And in March, Mueller’s team has subpoenaed Trump’s businesses to look at his overseas deals.
Though Mueller’s team wasn’t responsible for the raid, Donald Trump has directed his fire and fury toward him. Right before a White House meeting with military leaders on Syria’s situation, he fielded a string of questions about the probe and attacked the special counsel. He told them, “It’s a real disgrace. It’s an attack on our country in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for, so when I saw this and when I heard it, I heard it like you did, I said that is really now in a whole new level of unfairness.” He repeated his claim of the investigation as a “witch hunt,” and declined to answer whether he’d fire the special counsel, with a reply, “We’ll see what happens. I think it’s disgraceful, and so do a lot of other people.” He also called the prosecutors involved “have the biggest conflicts of interest I have ever seen. Democrats—all. Either Democrats or a couple of Republicans who worked for President Obama.” Despite that all the major players involved are Republicans, some of whom Trump or his appointees hired themselves. The next day he tweeted “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT!” and “Attorney-client privilege is dead!” While several factors make firing Mueller a difficult and politically disastrous choice, Trump has toyed with the idea before. Since Mueller has just built a case against his own lawyer and is digging into Trump’s personal activities, we need to take this seriously. This speech payment brings the investigation to Trump personally. The focus on Trump’s businesses and professional colleagues might violate Trump’s previous assertions that Mueller shouldn’t look into his companies. Thus, Trump’s non-answer in regard to Mueller’s future means the special counsel has to work quickly if he wants to finish his investigation before losing his job.
The group of people Donald Trump has targeted in his angry response at the White House is wide and deep. They comprise of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, former FBI Director James Comey, and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman. Taken together, it’s apparent that Trump isn’t just angry at individuals but also the rule of law. Each step of the way, the actions angering Trump have been by senior officials specifically following the law. In fact, the point of having a special counsel is to insulate a federal investigation from political pressure. Rosenstein appointed Mueller when he felt the tenor of Trump’s earlier comments and actions made it impossible to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election through normal channels. While Trump hasn’t broken any laws in his comments about Mueller, he’s violated the spirit of the special counsel regulation and has attempted to pressure Mueller at all turns. Hell, he’s pissed at Sessions for recusing himself on advice by Justice Department career staff and in accordance with department guidelines. Because Trump has no regard for rules and procedures. His beef with Sessions prevents him from being in a position to politically protect his boss. Because Trump has voiced publicly and privately his belief that the attorney general’s job is to protect the president, rather than the serve as the country’s top lawyer. This is a radical departure from the standard approach. Because Trump would rather have Sessions break the rules for his benefit. He’s also angry that Hillary Clinton wasn’t prosecuted and has publicly complained about Sessions not pursuing her. As he said, “The other side, they don’t even bother looking. And the other side is where there are crimes, and those crimes are obvious. Lies, under oath, all over the place.” But not only has Clinton been subject to investigations, but Trump fails to grasp that the president can’t decide who’s committed a crime and should be prosecuted. Expect that a Saturday Night Massacre could be just around the corner.
The idea of a regimented process for charging people and that it ought to not be decided by political vendettas or a government head’s whims is central to the American project, even if the nation has at times fallen short of it. Donald Trump doesn’t care to understand or accept the idea of the rule of law. On the campaign trail, he promised to lock up Hillary Clinton and questioned the right of a federal judge overseeing a case on Trump University. His comments of the raid, including ridiculously equating a legally sanctioned FBI raid to a burglary demonstrates that Trump’s not just engaging in a political attack but is also campaigning against the rule of law and the U.S. approach to justice. He may regard due process as political correctness in regards to racial and religious minorities, leftists, immigrants, and victims of systematic police abuse. But when he or his allies are on the receiving end of justice, no proof of evidence is necessary to prove their innocence, even in the face of strong grounds against them. Whereas, any rival or enemy who dares criticize him or anyone he sees as a threat is a criminal. Such discrepancies aren’t just soundbites. They’ve guided Trump administration, causing real human suffering or abdicating the federal government’s responsibility to alleviate it. Under Trump, the White House tried to ban immigrants from 7 Muslim countries, the Justice Department has backed off its responsibility to oversee local police departments to ensure they’re respecting Americans’ constitutional rights, casualties from drone strikes have increased, and immigration authorities have become more aggressive and indiscriminate in who they seek to deport. Such rhetoric also points to how Trump wishes the laws would operate. For those outside his circle, the laws bars no cruelty, brutality, or injustice. To himself and his allies in his gilded circle, no scrupulous adherence to due process in sufficient and no crime can justify prosecution.
Nonetheless, the raid on Michael Cohen’s home, hotel, and office, shows that the Mueller probe has gone beyond Russia. This has always been the greatest danger to Donald Trump since he’s spent a lifetime skirting around both the letter and spirit of the law. It’s why he’s repeatedly stated that his business records are off limits and why he keeps his tax returns secret. Because if we knew what goes on in Trump’s businesses, we’d be appalled. Hell, what we already know about Trump’s businesses is simply mindboggling with stories of corruption that you really can’t make up. And the closer the investigation gets to Trump the more unpredictable he gets since he hasn’t handled any of it well from the beginning. Mark my words, Donald Trump is a dangerous man.