WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s advisers have concluded that a wide-ranging corruption investigation into his personal lawyer poses a greater and more imminent threat to the president than even the special counsel’s investigation, according to several people close to Trump.
As his lawyers went to court in New York on Friday to try to block prosecutors from reading files that were seized from the personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, this week, Trump found himself increasingly isolated in mounting a response. He continued to struggle to hire a new criminal lawyer, and some of his own aides were reluctant to advise him about a response for fear of being dragged into a criminal investigation themselves.
The raids on Cohen came as part of a monthslong federal investigation based in New York, court records show, and were sweeping in their breadth. In addition to searching his home, office and hotel room, FBI agents seized material from Cohen’s cellphones, tablet, laptop and safe deposit box, according to people briefed on the warrants. Prosecutors revealed in court documents that they had already secretly obtained many of Cohen’s e-mails.
Trump called Cohen on Friday to “check in,” according to two people briefed on the call. Depending on what else was discussed, the call could be problematic, as lawyers typically advise their clients against discussing investigations.
Cohen has publicly declared that he would defend the president to the end, but court documents show that prosecutors are building a significant case that could put pressure on him to cooperate and tell investigators what he knows.
The documents seized by prosecutors could shed light on the president’s relationship with a lawyer who has helped navigate some of Trump’s thorniest personal and business dilemmas. Cohen served for more than a decade as a trusted fixer and, during the campaign, helped tamp down brewing scandals about women who claimed to have carried on affairs with Trump.
Trump, Cohen and their teams were still scrambling Friday to assess the damage from the raid early Monday morning. They remained unsure what had been taken, an uncertainty that has heightened the unease around Trump.
Although his lawyers had projected confidence in their dealings with the special counsel, Robert Mueller, they were caught flat-footed by the New York raids. The lawyers fear that Cohen will not be forthcoming with them about what was in his files, leaving them girding for the unknown.
Cohen and Trump, through their lawyers, argued in federal court Friday that many of the seized records were protected by attorney-client privilege. They asked for an order temporarily prohibiting prosecutors from reading the documents until the matter could be litigated. Cohen argued that he or an independent lawyer should be allowed to review the documents first.
“Those searches have been executed, and the evidence is locked down,” Joanna Hendon, a lawyer for Trump, said in court. “I’m not trying to delay. I’m just trying to ensure that it’s done scrupulously.”
Cohen’s lawyer, Stephen Ryan, wrote in a court filing that the search “creates constitutional concerns regarding officers of the executive branch rummaging through the private and privileged papers of the president.”
Prosecutors argued that the previously seized e-mails revealed that Cohen was “performing little to no legal work, and that zero e-mails were exchanged with President Trump.” They said their investigation was focused on Cohen’s business dealings, not his work as a lawyer.
But it is difficult to extract Cohen from his work for Trump. For more than a decade, Trump has unleashed Cohen on his foes — investigative journalists, business rivals and potential litigants. And the New York search warrant makes clear that the authorities are interested in his unofficial role in the campaign.
Prosecutors demanded all communication with the campaign — and in particular two advisers, Corey Lewandowski and Hope Hicks, according to two people briefed on the warrants.
Prosecutors also seized recordings of conversations that Cohen had secretly made, but he told people in recent days that he did not tape his conversations with Trump. Cohen frequently taped conversations with adversaries and opposing lawyers, according to the two people briefed.
The raids on Cohen surprised and angered the president, who has been frustrated with the special counsel investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference, the Kremlin’s possible coordination with Trump associates and whether the president has tried to obstruct those inquiries.
In response to the raids, Trump has considered firing Mueller, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. On Friday, Trump’s spirits were frayed in the morning as his lawyer battled in the Manhattan courtroom. But he grew cheerier as the day went on, an adviser said, buoyed by a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general that was damning about a former FBI official, Andrew McCabe, who he believed had tried to undermine him.
Cohen’s lawyers have called the raids of his offices and hotel room an overreach of the law. Prosecutors said Friday that they had used a search warrant, rather than a subpoena, because they had evidence that Cohen’s files might be permanently deleted — by whom, the documents did not say. Many details in the documents were redacted, but prosecutors said they had found evidence of fraud and a “lack of truthfulness” on his part.
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 scheduled a follow-up hearing for Monday and ordered Cohen to attend. The judge, Kimba Wood, was upset that he was not in court Friday.
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.
Communications between lawyers and their clients are normally off-limits to prosecutors, but there are exceptions, including when the materials are considered part of a continuing crime.
Trump has viewed any investigation of his business and private life to be off-limits to prosecutors, but the search warrants make clear that investigators consider those topics part of their case.