NEW YORK (AP) — Special counsel Robert Mueller began investigating President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, for fraud in his personal business dealings and for potentially acting as an unregistered foreign agent at least nine months before FBI agents in New York raided his home and office, according to documents released Tuesday.
The series of heavily redacted search warrant applications and other documents revealed new details about the timing and depth of the probe into Cohen, who ultimately pleaded guilty to tax fraud, bank fraud, campaign finance violations and lying to Congress.
The records show the inquiry into Cohen had been going on since July 2017 — far longer than previously known— and that a big part of its focus was Cohen’s taxi businesses and misrepresentations he made to banks as part of a scheme to relieve himself of some $22 million in debt he owed on taxi medallion loans.
Prosecutors were also interested in money that was flowing into Cohen’s bank accounts from consulting contracts he’d signed after Trump won office. Some of those payments were from companies with strong foreign ties, including a Korean aerospace company and Columbus Nova, an investment management firm affiliated with Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg.
Cohen was ultimately not charged with failing to register as a foreign agent.
Many sections of the records dealing with the campaign-finance violations Cohen committed when he paid two women to stay silent about alleged affairs they had with Trump were redacted. A judge ordered those sections to remain secret after prosecutors said they were still investigating campaign finance violations.
Lanny Davis, an attorney for Cohen, said the release of the search warrant “furthers his interest in continuing to cooperate and providing information and the truth about Donald Trump and the Trump organization to law enforcement and Congress.”
The FBI raided Cohen’s Manhattan home and office last April, marking the first public sign of a criminal investigation that has threatened Trump’s presidency and netted Cohen a three-year prison sentence he’s scheduled to start serving in May. The agents who also scoured Cohen’s hotel room and safe deposit box, seized more than 4 million electronic and paper files in the searches, more than a dozen mobile devices and iPads, 20 external hard drives, flash drives and laptops.
Both Cohen and Trump cried foul over the raids, with Cohen’s attorney at the time calling them “completely inappropriate and unnecessary” and the president taking to Twitter to declare that “Attorney-client privilege is dead!”
A court-ordered review ultimately found only a fraction of the seized material to be privileged.
Tuesday’s release of the search warrant came nearly six weeks after U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III partially granted a request by several media organizations, including The Associated Press, that the search warrant be made public due to the high public interest in the case.
David E. McCraw, vice president and deputy general counsel for The New York Times, said he was hopeful Pauley would approve the release of additional materials in May after the government updates the judge on its investigation.
“The documents are important because they allow the public to see first hand why the investigation was initiated and how it was conducted,” McCraw said in an email.
The judge acknowledged prosecutors’ concerns that a wholesale release of the document “would jeopardize an ongoing investigation and prejudice the privacy rights of uncharged third parties,” a ruling that revealed prosecutors are still investigating the campaign-finance violations.
The judge ordered prosecutors to redact Cohen’s personal information and details in the warrant that refer to ongoing investigations and several third-parties who have cooperated with the inquiry. But he authorized the release of details in the warrant that relate to Cohen’s tax evasion and false statements to financial institutions charges, along with Cohen’s conduct that did not result in criminal charges.
“At this stage, wholesale disclosure of the materials would reveal the scope and direction of the Government’s ongoing investigation,” Pauley wrote in a ruling last month.
Cohen pleaded guilty over the summer to failing to report more than $4 million in income to the IRS, making false statements to financial institutions and campaign-finance violations stemming from the hush-money payments he arranged for porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Cohen implicated Trump in his guilty plea, saying the president directed him to make the payments during his 2016 campaign.
Read the just-released documents related to the Michael Cohen FBI raid in 2018 below.
Sweden Won’t Seek Julian Assange’s Detention, Court Rules
COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — A Swedish court has ruled that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is now jailed in Britain and suspected of rape in Sweden, shouldn’t be detained in absentia.
Monday’s ruling by the Uppsala District Court doesn’t mean a preliminary investigation in Sweden should be abandoned, only that Assange wouldn’t be extradited and could be questioned in Britain.
Last month, the 47-year-old Assange was evicted from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he had been holed up with political asylum since 2012. He was then immediately arrested by British police on April 11 and is currently serving a 50-week sentence in Britain for jumping bail in 2012.
He is also fighting extradition to the U.S., which accuses him of publishing secret documents.
Don McGahn Is A No-Show At House Judiciary Committee Hearing
WASHINGTON (AP) — House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler says the House will hold President Donald Trump accountable “one way or the other” after he directed former White House counsel Donald McGahn to defy the panel’s subpoena.
The Judiciary panel is holding a brief hearing Tuesday in McGahn’s absence with an empty chair where he was supposed to sit. Nadler said that if McGahn doesn’t “immediately correct his mistake” in not showing, the committee will have to enforce the subpoena.
Nadler has said the committee is ready to hold McGahn in contempt. The committee will hear McGahn’s testimony, “even if we have to go to court,” Nadler said.
Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the committee’s top Republican, said it’s time to move on. He said Nadler wants “the fight and the drama.”
President Donald Trump directed McGahn to ignore the committee’s subpoena to testify on Tuesday. A lawyer for McGahn said he would follow the president’s directive.
McGahn was a key witness in the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller.
Michael Cohen Told House Panel That Trump’s Lawyers Instructed Him To Falsely Claim End of Moscow Negotiations
Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former longtime personal attorney, told a House panel during closed-door hearings earlier this year that he had been instructed by Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow to falsely claim in a 2017 statement to Congress that negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow ended in January 2016, according to people familiar with his testimony.
In fact, Cohen later admitted that discussions on the Moscow tower continued into June of the presidential election year, after it was clear Trump would be the GOP nominee. Cohen is serving three years in prison for lying to Congress, financial crimes and campaign finance violations.
House Democrats are now scrutinizing whether Sekulow or other Trump attorneys played a role in shaping Cohen’s 2017 testimony to Congress. Cohen has said he made the false statement to help hide the fact that Trump had potentially hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in a possible Russian project while he was running for president.
“We’re trying to find out whether anyone participated in the false testimony that Cohen gave to this committee,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said in an interview. He did not comment on who, if anyone, might have instructed Cohen to lie.
Jane Serene Raskin and Patrick Strawbridge, attorneys for Sekulow, said in a statement that “Cohen’s alleged statements are more of the same from him and confirm the observations of prosecutors in the Southern District of New York that Cohen’s ‘instinct to blame others is strong.’”
“That this or any Committee would rely on the word of Michael Cohen for any purpose — much less to try and pierce the attorney-client privilege and discover confidential communications of four respected lawyers — defies logic, well-established law and common sense,” they added.
Cohen’s claims about Sekulow are laid out in transcripts of his February and March appearances before the House intelligence panel that could be released as soon as Monday afternoon.
Cohen’s closed-door testimony before the committee led congressional Democrats this month to press Sekulow and other Trump family lawyers who were involved in a joint defense agreement for more information about work they did preparing Cohen’s 2017 statement. Schiff has askedfour attorneys to turn over documents and schedule interviews with the panel, a request they have so far rebuffed as an threat to the long-standing protection provided to communications between lawyers and their clients.
In his public testimony before the House Oversight Committee in January, Cohen said that “Mr. Trump’s personal lawyers reviewed and edited my statement to Congress about the timing of the Moscow Tower negotiations before I gave it.”
He accused Sekulow of making changes to the 2017 statement.
“There were changes made, additions, Jay Sekulow, for one,” Cohen told the panel.
Sekulow denied the claim by Cohen at the time, calling such assertions “completely false.”
In subsequent closed-door appearances before the House Intelligence Committee in February and March, Cohen was more specific, saying Sekulow told him it would be important to use Jan. 31, 2016, as the date when discussions about the Moscow project ended, according to the people familiar with his testimony, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the panel’s ongoing investigation.
Sekulow told Cohen the date was significant because it came before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, the opening contest of the White House race, Cohen said to the committee.
When asked about the account of Cohen’s closed-door testimony, Lanny Davis, an attorney for Cohen, said, “I cannot disagree with that.”
It is unclear how much detailed knowledge Sekulow had about the timeline of Trump’s most recent effort to build a branded tower in Moscow, which Cohen began in September 2015 and ended in June 2016, according to court documents. Sekulow joined Trump’s legal team after he was elected.
Despite Cohen’s history of lying to Congress, senior Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees indicated that they are taking his allegations seriously.
“If it is accurate that one of the President’s personal attorneys encouraged him or edited his testimony to give Congress a false date, it’s further evidence that the President had some reason for not wanting the American people, or the Senate Intelligence Committee, to know the truth about his dealings with Russia as a candidate,” Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
Cohen’s claims were reviewed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who sought — but did not succeed — in questioning one of Trump’s personal attorneys about interactions he had with Cohen about the 2017 testimony.
According to Mueller’s report, Cohen spoke to a counsel for Trump frequently in the days before he submitted his statement to Congress on Aug. 28, 2017. The Trump lawyer was not named in the report.
Cohen told investigators that he recalled telling the president’s lawyer that the statement did not reflect the extent of communications with Russia and Trump about the Moscow project.
The Trump attorney told Cohen that it was not necessary to include other details in the statement, which he advised should be kept “tight.” Cohen told investigators he also recalled that the lawyer told him “his client” appreciated Cohen and he should stay on message and not contradict the president, according to the report.
Mueller’s team sought to speak to the Trump lawyer about the conversations with Cohen, “but counsel declined, citing potential privilege concerns,” according to the report.
Cohen’s claims led Schiff to demand information from Sekulow and three other lawyers who played a role reviewing Cohen’s 2017 testimony: Abbe Lowell, an attorney for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump; Alan Futerfas, an attorney for Donald Trump Jr.; and Alan Garten, an attorney for the Trump Organization.
The four lawyers have said they cannot answer Schiff’s requests because of attorney-client privilege, which bars them from discussing confidential conversations.
Schiff has promised to push ahead, threatening to issue a subpoena for the lawyers’ cooperation if necessary, noting that they had an incentive to encourage Cohen’s initial testimony.
“Cohen himself stood little to gain by lying to our committee,” Schiff told The Washington Post. “Donald Trump and others around him stood far more to gain from that being concealed from our investigation. So it obviously begs the question of whether this was something he did on his own . . . or were there others who participated in the falsehood before our committee.”
Schiff also warned that the privilege claim may not allow the attorneys to avoid testifying before his committee.
“The privilege doesn’t apply if it’s being used to conceal a crime or a fraud,” he said. “And if the attorneys were conferring amongst themselves and Mr. Cohen about a false statement they were going to make to our committee, there’s no privilege that protects that kind of conduct.”
In a letter to Schiff Friday, attorneys for the four Trump lawyers expressed dismay at Schiff’s effort to compel their testimony.
“We find the Committee’s outright, blanket refusal to recognize the attorney-client privilege — a bedrock principle of common law dating back centuries — to be stunning, unwise, and unwarranted,” they wrote.
They called the inquiry “an attempt to pursue a law-enforcement investigation which is outside the constitutional authority of the legislative branch.”
Schiff has also expressed interest in hearing from Felix Sater, a Trump business partner who was working the Russian side of the Trump Tower Moscow proposal in 2016.
Lawyers for Cohen said it appears that Sater and his attorney reviewed Cohen’s testimony before it was submitted to Congress in 2017, according to documents they reviewed. Sater’s involvement negates any privilege claim, Cohen’s attorneys said.
“Because it appears that the draft statement was shared with two non-privileged individuals — Mr. Sater and his lawyer — the joint defense privilege was in our professional opinion waived,” said Davis, one of two criminal defense attorneys representing Cohen.
Sater and Cohen had discussions about the Moscow project into June 2016, but Sater did not correct Cohen’s original assertion to Congress that the project ended that January.
Sater declined to comment on questions about Cohen’s testimony but he said he stands ready to cooperate with Schiff’s inquiries.
“I have always cooperated with the U.S. government and look forward to continued cooperation,” Sater said. “I will make myself available to Congressman Schiff’s committee or any other committee as they deem necessary.”
(Reporting by The Washington Post)
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