For weeks, the president had been distancing himself from Mr. Cohen, including by stopping paying his longtime attorney’s legal fees, making clear amid the pressure that he was on his own.
Under oath on Tuesday, before a packed courtroom, Mr. Cohen created a spectacular moment without parallel in American history when he confessed to two crimes that he said he committed at the behest of the man who would become president.
.. For the president, it opens up a perilous new legal front.
.. Mr. Trump denied he directed Mr. Cohen to buy the women’s silence. Contradicting earlier statements, the president said he became aware of the payments to the women “later on” and said Mr. Cohen was reimbursed from his personal funds, not his 2016 campaign coffers.
.. On April 5, days before the raids, Mr. Trump told reporters on Air Force One he didn’t know about the payment to Ms. Clifford, and referred questions about the matter to Mr. Cohen. “You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen,” Mr. Trump said. “Michael is my attorney.”
Mr. Cohen, who that night was staying aboard the yacht of Trump donor Franklin Haney, which was docked in Miami, grew irate on the ship soon after Mr. Trump made his remarks distancing himself from the Clifford payment, according to a person familiar with the episode. Mr. Cohen was swearing loudly as others on the boat were sipping their drinks, the person said.
.. Initially, Mr. Cohen seemed unlikely to turn on the president. Although their relationship was at times turbulent, Mr. Trump appreciated Mr. Cohen’s absolute loyalty. On the day of the raids, Mr. Trump called the move a “disgrace” and a “witch hunt.”
Soon after the April raids, Mr. Cohen’s relationship with Mr. Trump began to deteriorate.
The estrangement began over legal bills, said a person who has spoken with Mr. Cohen about the matter. The Trump family covered part of Mr. Cohen’s legal fees after the raids, but then stopped paying.
Mr. Cohen felt exposed. Public comments by Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s lawyer, put distance between the president and Mr. Cohen and further alienated the attorney, the person said.Mr. Cohen told associates and friends he felt Mr. Trump didn’t have his back and vented that the president hadn’t personally offered to pay his legal bills in the Manhattan investigation, which he said were “bankrupting” him... By then, prosecutors and the Internal Revenue Service had focused on Mr. Cohen’s personal income taxes. In conversations with a potential witness in June and July, investigators asked “very pointed” questions about various tax filings, according to a person familiar with the conversations.
“They knew what they wanted, they knew what they had, and they went after it,” the person said.
In late June, Mr. Cohen openly broke with Mr. Trump... Mr. Cohen’s father urged him not to protect the president, saying he didn’t survive the Holocaust to have his name sullied by Mr. Trump.. On June 20, Mr. Cohen stepped down from his position as the Republican National Committee’s deputy finance chairman and tweeted his first public criticism of his former boss: “As the son of a Polish holocaust survivor, the images and sounds of this family separation policy [are] heart wrenching.” The tweet no longer appears on Mr. Cohen’s Twitter account... In July, a recording became public that Mr. Cohen surreptitiously made of a conversation he had with Mr. Trump in September 2016 about buying the rights to Ms. McDougal’s story. The president has denied the affair.The president’s legal team had waived attorney-client privilege on the recording, which had been seized in the April 9 raids.
.. Given the Justice Department’s policy of not indicting sitting presidents, a guilty plea from Mr. Cohen and his public implication of Mr. Trump were among the strongest outcomes prosecutors could have hoped for.. For prosecutors, the guilty plea meant they could avoid a contentious trial and free up resources to pursue other investigations... one of Mr. Cohen’s lawyers, Lanny Davis, appeared on cable news shows to say Mr. Cohen wouldn’t accept a pardon from Mr. Trump and “is more than happy to tell the special counsel all that he knows.”
Most important is the claim that he maintained a “covert relationship with Russia,” and that in August 2016 Cohen made a secret visit to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, where he reportedly met with senior Kremlin officials. According to the dossier, whose allegations are so far unproven, the Prague meeting was facilitated by Konstantin Kosachev, who heads the Russian Duma’s foreign-relations committee and who may have attended the meeting in person.
Most explosively, the dossier alleges that Cohen’s meeting in Prague in that late summer of 2016 included “secret discussions with Kremlin representatives and associated operators/hackers,” and that “the agenda comprised questions on how deniable cash payments were to be made to hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the CLINTON campaign and various contingencies for covering up these operations and Moscow’s secret liaison with the TRUMP team more generally.”
.. Sourced to a “Kremlin adviser,” the dossier report said that the meeting was originally planned for Moscow but was “shifted to what was considered an operationally ‘soft’ EU country when it was judged too compromising for him to travel to the Russian capital.” And it adds that Cohen’s wife “is of Russian descent and her father [is] a leading property developer in Moscow.” (Michael Cohen’s wife, Laura, is a Ukrainian of Russian descent, according to the dossier; his brother, Bryan, is also married to a Ukrainian; and, like Manafort, the Cohen family has business ties to Ukraine.)
.. So far, the report that Cohen met with Russians in Prague is unverified. Cohen has vigorously denied it, and he’s shown his passport, which lacks a Czech entry stamp, to reporters. However, according to a report by McClatchy, citing “two [unnamed] sources familiar with the matter,” Mueller “has evidence that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen, secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign.” The McClatchy report, by Peter Stone and Greg Gordon, two veteran investigative journalists, didn’t say whether Cohen met with Kosachev, but it did say that Mueller’s investigators unearthed the fact that Cohen traveled to Prague via Germany, meaning that his passport would not have needed a stamp from the Czech Republic.
.. Third, Cohen was involved in the still mostly unexplained “Ukraine peace plan” that reportedly ended up on the desk of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, in February 2017 just before Flynn was forced to resign over his own contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. The plan, organized outside regular diplomatic channels, was concocted by a Ukrainian politician, Andrii Artemenko, reportedly at the behest of top aides to President Putin. The plan, which would have resulted in eliminating or easing Western sanctions on Russia over its annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea, was cooked up in conjunction with Cohen and Sater. According to the New York Times report, Sater delivered the written plan to Cohen “in a sealed envelope,” and Cohen placed it in Flynn’s office.
.. Fourth, as The Wall Street Journal revealed in a stunning exposé, Cohen was the attorney who arranged a $1.6 million payoff to quiet a scandal involving an affair between Elliott Broidy, a top Republican Party fundraising official, and a Playboy Playmate. But Broidy has a part to play in the Russia scandal, too: Along with an operative named George Nader, who was picked up by federal agents at an airport and who’s now cooperating with Mueller’s office, Broidy was a principal in a scheme to boost US support for the United Arab Emirates over Qatar, in a tangled dispute among Arab nations of the Persian Gulf. Nader is an adviser to the UAE, and as the Times recently reported, Nader maintains business ties to Russia, including working on arms deals.
.. Meanwhile, the Times reported, Broidy “owns a private security company with hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts with the United Arab Emirates, and he extolled to Mr. Trump a paramilitary force that his company was developing for the country.” And it was Nader who arranged the secret meeting between Erik Prince, top UAE officials, and a Russian wheeler-dealer named Kirill Dmitriev, a meeting that Mueller is now investigating because it was apparently aimed at setting up some sort of back-channel links between Moscow and the incoming administration in Washington.
In a legal filing before the hearing on Monday, Mr. Cohen said that, since 2017, he had worked as a lawyer for 10 clients, seven of whom he served by providing “strategic advice and business consulting.” The other three comprised Mr. Trump, the Republican fund-raiser Elliott Broidy and a third person who went unnamed.
.. Before the name was revealed, Mr. Ryan argued that the mystery client was a “prominent person” who wanted to keep his identity a secret because he would be “embarrassed” to be identified as having sought Mr. Cohen’s counsel.
.. On Fox News, the anchor Shepard Smith reported that his colleague had been named as a client of Mr. Cohen’s, saying that it was time for him to address “the elephant in the room.”
.. Just before 4 p.m., he posted a message on Twitter: “Michael Cohen has never represented me in any matter. I never retained him, received an invoice, or paid legal fees. I have occasionally had brief discussions with him about legal questions about which I wanted his input and perspective.”
In a follow-up tweet, Mr. Hannity added, “I assumed those conversations were confidential, but to be absolutely clear they never involved any matter between me and a third-party.”
The reference to a third party seemed to be an allusion to one of Mr. Cohen’s specialties: drawing up confidential settlements.
.. Hannity seemed to suggest that he had not disclosed his link to Mr. Cohen to his network, saying, “My discussions with Michael Cohen never rose to any level that I needed to tell anyone that I was asking him questions.”
.. On April 9 — the night of the F.B.I. raids on Mr. Cohen — Mr. Hannity, in high dudgeon, opened his show by telling viewers to “keep in mind that Cohen was never part of the Trump administration or the Trump campaign.”
“This is now officially an all-hands-on-deck effort to totally malign and, if possible, impeach the president of the United States,” the host added.
.. There is on-air evidence that Mr. Hannity and Mr. Cohen go way back. In January 2017, shortly before the inaugural, Mr. Cohen was a guest on Mr. Hannity’s radio show. The host described him as Mr. Trump’s lawyer and then added, “Also, full disclosure: a personal friend of mine, long before this election ever started.”
.. The chummy conversation took place shortly after the so-called Steele dossier suggested that Mr. Cohen had visited Prague, a claim that Mr. Cohen has denied.
.. Mr. Hannity discussed Mr. Cohen’s alibi — that he had taken his 17-year-old-son to Los Angeles to meet with a baseball coach.
.. Before the chat was done, Mr. Cohen thanked Mr. Hannity, saying: “Sean, I got to be honest, in all fairness, you have been a beacon for Mr. Trump, for the campaign. It’s very rare that people thank you, because everybody is so busy, especially now with the transition. But on behalf of, obviously, Mr. Trump, the campaign, myself — you actually deserve a thank you.”
.. Many years before Mr. Trump was a candidate, Mr. Hannity was there for him. In 2011, when Mr. Trump was making the media rounds to promote an unfounded conspiracy theory — the so-called birther theory — that President Obama had not been born in the United States, Mr. Hannity gave him a forum on his radio and television shows.
.. Years later, his enthusiasm had not cooled. “I’m not hiding the fact that I want Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States,” Mr. Hannity told Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times during the summer of 2016. After all, the Fox News host added, “I never claimed to be a journalist.”
.. As Election Day drew near, other conservatives turned their backs on Mr. Trump after the posting of the so-called “Access Hollywood” tape, during which the candidate rudely boasted of “grabbing” women by the genitals. That’s when Mr. Hannity sealed his bond with Mr. Trump by committing even more fully to him. Although conceding that Mr. Trump’s “words” were wrong, he quickly changed the subject to Bill Clinton, adding that the former president’s “actions” with women were “far worse.”
.. Mr. Hannity did face an unexpected challenge from one of his guests, the lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who unexpectedly told the host that it would have been “much, much better” to disclose that he was a Cohen client.
The Stormy Daniels scandal could be more perilous for Trump than the Russia investigation has been.
.. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was caught hiding the sources of 1,300 large campaign donations, aggregating to nearly $2 million. The campaign also accepted more than $1.3 million in unlawful donations from contributors who had already given the legal maximum.
.. Under federal law, such campaign-finance violations, if they aggregate to just $25,000 in a calendar year, may be treated as felonies punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment — with offenses involving smaller dollar amounts punishable by incarceration for a year or more
.. Cohen’s law practice, which is the focus of the investigation involving the payment to Daniels (whose real name is Stephanie Clifford), is in the SDNY.
.. The SDNY is no longer run by Preet Bharara, whom Trump dismissed along with other Obama appointees after taking office. The acting U.S. attorney is Geoffrey Berman, a Trump appointee named by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to serve on an interim basis while awaiting confirmation.
.. ABC News reports that Berman is recused from the Cohen investigation
.. Cohen’s obvious relevance to Mueller’s investigation — he is accused in the Steele dossier of being a liaison between the Trump campaign and Russia (an apparently uncorroborated claim that Cohen convincingly denies); and he was on the receiving end of emails from Felix Sater, a Russian immigrant and Trump business associate, who boasted that his friend Vladimir Putin would help “get Donald elected.”
.. When one reads the guidelines, one suspects that there must be more to the SDNY’s investigation of Cohen than the Stormy Daniels transaction — a suspicion echoed in the aforementioned Times report, which describes the searches as “related to several topics, including a payment to a pornographic film actress” (emphasis added).
.. If the only matter under investigation were a potential campaign-finance violation that would normally not be grist for criminal prosecution, it would be outrageous to raid a lawyer’s office — especially the president’s lawyer.
Not only must high-level Justice Department approval be obtained before seeking a search warrant for an attorney’s premises; the prosecutors and their superiors must explore whether less intrusive investigative alternatives — such as seeking the desired materials by grand-jury subpoena — would be viable.
.. The issuance of search warrants necessarily means a federal judge found probable cause that evidence of at least one crime would be uncovered in Cohen’s premises. In addition to the potential campaign-finance offense, the feds are reportedly weighing bank-fraud charges — possibly on a theory that steps taken to hide the nature and purpose of the payment to Clifford entailed misrepresentations to a financial institution, although that is just speculation at this point.
.. The clean team determines what files are relevant to the matter under investigation, with any irrelevant files returned to the attorney.
.. the attorney and any affected clients are given an opportunity to claim that the files contain privileged communications and should be returned. Where the parties cannot agree, such privilege claims are decided by a judge.
.. the clean team ensures that the investigation team is not tainted by exposure to privileged communications.
.. As I explained last November, when we learned that Mueller had forced an attorney who had represented Manafort to testify against him, there is a so-called crime-fraud exception to the attorney–client privilege.
.. If a client’s communications with a lawyer are for the purpose of carrying out a fraudulent scheme, they lose any claim to confidentiality. Theoretically, then, Trump and Cohen have a legal as well as a factual problem. Legally, if they conspired to execute a payment in violation of campaign laws in order to silence Clifford, their communications in this regard would not be privileged.
Factually (if implausibly), both Cohen and Trump claim that the former did not tell the latter about the payment to Clifford; and that Cohen made the payment in his personal capacity, not as Trump’s lawyer. How, then, can they now claim attorney–client privilege in connection with the transaction?
.. the porn-star payment undeniably happened. I argued then, and I’m even more convinced now, that “the best argument in Trump’s favor is one that claims mitigation, not innocence.”
.. As for Trump’s fitness for the presidency, the scandal tells us exactly nothing that we didn’t already know about the flawed man that Americans chose to elect.