image image

United States

Trump’s lawyer cannot review files seized by FBI, judge says, in dramatic day complicated by Fox News revelations

Sean Hannity, the conservative TV host known for passionately advocating for the president and often receiving public praise from him in return, was revealed to be a Michael Cohen client

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 4:08am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 6:45am

An attempt by US President Donald Trump and his long-time personal lawyer Michael Cohen to stop prosecutors from reviewing files seized by the FBI from Cohen’s offices and hotel room last week failed after a dramatic court hearing on Monday.

Judge Kimba Wood ruled that Cohen and his team could not look through the documents before prosecutors in order to withhold those that they felt were protected by lawyer-client privilege, but suggested she might appoint a “special master” who would serve that purpose.

It capped a disappointing day for Cohen, who had earlier been compelled to reveal that one of his clients is Fox News host – and ardent Trump supporter – Sean Hannity.

Hannity is a conservative television host known for passionately advocating for Trump on his Fox News show, and often receiving public praise from Trump in return. Calls to a Fox News spokeswoman were not immediately returned. 

And during all of this Cohen also had to contend with efforts by Stormy Daniels – whose arrival outside the court that morning led to a chaotic scrum of photographers knocking over barricades – to keep attention on her story, relating to what she says is a past affair with Trump that Cohen has hushed up. 

Daniels is engaged in a separate civil legal fight over US$130,000 she received in a 2016 agreement arranged by Cohen to stop her from discussing a sexual encounter she says she had with Trump a decade earlier. 

Photographers knocked over barricades outside the courthouse as they scrambled to get pictures of Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, arriving dressed in a lavender suit. Inside, she quietly took a seat in the public gallery with her lawyer. 

Cohen has argued that some of the documents and data seized in last week’s raids are protected by lawyer-client privilege or otherwise unconnected to the investigation.

But Wood rejected his efforts to mask the identity of Hannity, a client Cohen had said wanted to avoid publicity. Cohen said his only other two clients in the past year were Trump and Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy. Cohen had negotiated a deal between Broidy and an unnamed  Playboy Playmate who said she had become pregnant after an affair with him.

10 takeaways from ex-FBI director’s interview on Trump

“It almost goes without saying, unfortunately, that none of Mr Cohen’s clients want to be associated with the government raid on his home and law office, or want to be affiliated in any way with the proceedings here and the attendant media coverage,” Cohen’s lawyers, Todd Harrison and Stephen Ryan, wrote to Wood.

“I understand if he doesn’t want his name out there, but that’s not enough under the law,” Wood said of Hannity, before ordering a lawyer for Cohen to disclose the name. 

Hannity’s name was read out in court just before the Fox host appeared on a radio show. He then said on air, “I never paid legal fees to Michael. Michael never represented me in any matter.”

He said, however, that he may have paid him “10 bucks” and had “brief discussions with him about legal questions” and that he had asked Cohen for lawyer-client privilege.

“I assumed those conversations were confidential, but to be absolutely clear, they never involved any matter between me and a third party,” Hannity said.

Cohen failed to persuade the court to allow his own lawyers to look through the seized materials before prosecutors, but may have succeeded in his fall-back plan.

That is getting the court to appoint an independent official known as a special master, a role typically filled by a lawyer, to go through the documents and electronic data seized under a warrant and decide what prosecutors can see. 

Prosecutors have asked that the documents be reviewed for lawyer-client privilege by a “filter team” of lawyers within their own office, who would be walled off from the main prosecution team. 

Was Trump Tower blaze a sign that US presidency is going up in flames?

A lawyer for Trump, Joanna Hendon, also asked in a filing on Sunday to be allowed to review documents that in any way relate to the president, which she described as being seized amid a “highly politicised, even fevered, atmosphere”. She also appeared in court on Monday. 

Last week’s raids came after a “months-long” investigation related largely to Cohen’s business dealings, rather than his work as a lawyer, prosecutors have said.

The raids were based partly on a referral by the Office of Special Counsel, led by Robert Mueller, who is investigating possible collusion between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia, according to court filings.

A person familiar with the raids said that the information the Federal Bureau of Information is seeking includes information about payments to Daniels.

At stake is an investigation that could get at the heart of Cohen’s work as a long-time fixer and image protector for Trump. People familiar with the inquiry told the Associated Press that agents were seeking bank records, records on Cohen’s dealing in the taxi industry and Cohen’s communications with the Trump campaign.

They are also looking for information on payments made in 2016 to two women who say they had affairs with Trump: Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

Todd Harrison, a lawyer for Cohen, said at Friday’s hearing that there were thousands of documents seized that were likely privileged, and that many related to clients other than Trump.

Trump has called Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt” and denied any collusion.

On Saturday, Trump tweeted: “lawyer Client privilege is now a thing of the past. I have many (too many!) lawyers and they are probably wondering when their offices, and even homes, are going to be raided with everything, including their phones and computers, taken. All lawyers are deflated and concerned!”

Additional reporting by Associated Press and Bloomberg.