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The porn star, the fixer, and the president: could Cohen spell doom for Trump?

Stormy Daniels appeared in court for a hearing in the case against Michael Cohen, Trump’s long-time attorney, whose home was raided last week by the FBI.

The windswept crowd of photographers, journalists and members of the public gathered outside the Manhattan district court on Monday afternoon had been promised stormy weather – and that’s what they got, as heavy rains caused flash-flooding across the city.

But there was a significant political storm on the horizon too.

Porn star Stormy Daniels, who says she was paid $130,000 by Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to keep quiet about her affair with the president, arrived at the court dressed in a lilac suit and vertiginous black heels and flanked by an entourage of broad, bald-headed men – among them her media-savvy lawyer, Michael Avenatti.

Her presence provided a theatrical flourish to the legal battle over the government’s access to documents obtained in an FBI raid on Cohen’s home, office, hotel room and safe deposit box.

Cohen, who has for many years worked as Trump’s trusted fixer, is subject to a criminal investigation that prosecutors say focuses on his private finances and business interests. The legal battle on Monday was over who should have first access to the material seized by the FBI on 9 April in order to screen any documents protected by attorney-client privilege.

More than at perhaps any other time during his tenure thus far, Trump appears to be in a state of near-total panic over the raid. Close confidants have described the president as being close to “meltdown”. Trump’s tweets spiralled out of control as he learned of the raid. “Attorney–client privilege is dead!” he tweeted, and then a few moments later added “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT!!!”

In court on Monday, the prosecution said the seized material amounted to around ten boxes of documents and around a dozen electronic devices, including computer hard drives and phones. The prosecution argued that they should follow the usual protocol and that the screening should be carried out by a “filter team” or “taint team”, a group of justice officials who are walled off from investigators.

The judge, Kimba Wood, rejected an attempt by lawyers for Cohen and Trump to issue a temporary restraining order to prevent prosecutors from reviewing the materials first. But she postponed her final decision on the matter, indicating that she might be willing to appoint a “Special Master”, a third party who could do the screening, and she did not immediately grant the prosecution access to the documents.

In a moment of high drama, the judge also forced Cohen’s lawyers to reveal that the Fox News host and ardent Trump supporter Sean Hannity was one of his clients. His lawyers had previously disclosed that Cohen had just three legal clients in the past year, but they had only named two of them: Trump and the Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy, on whose behalf Cohen allegedly reached a $1.6m settlement with a playboy model.

Cohen’s lawyer Stephen Ryan argued that it was “embarrassing” for the mystery client to be associated with the FBI raid, and that Cohen had a duty to respect his client’s privacy. Judge Wood, ruling that embarrassment was not a strong enough legal case for secrecy, ordered the name to be made public. A tense silence fell in the court before Ryan complied – and then journalists, who had been forced to leave the laptops and phones with security, rushed outside with the news of Hannity’s involvement.

In a series of tweets on Monday, Hannity pushed back: “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.” He added: “I assumed those conversations were confidential, but to be absolutely clear they never involved any matter between me and a third-party.”

Hannity aside, this case has enormous implications for the president. Cohen, a Long Island-born former personal injury lawyer and taxi fleet owner, was Trump’s deal guy, his fixer.

“Cohen was the key intermediary between the Trump family and its partners around the world; he was chief consigliere and dealmaker throughout its period of expansion into global partnerships with sketchy oligarchs. He wasn’t a slick politico who showed up for a few months. He knows everything, he recorded much of it, and now prosecutors will know it, too,” writes Adam Davidson in the New Yorker.

Trump has managed to retain some distance from those indicted under the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the election, but Cohen’s criminal investigation strikes much closer to home. He cannot distance himself from Cohen.

“The country is entering a dangerous moment – the moment of actual confrontation between the president of the United States and those who would investigate him,” writes Benjamin Wittes in Lawfare. One big question is how Trump could react to the heightened legal threat against him, and should he decide to take drastic action – by firing Mueller, or deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein – what the political reaction to such an unprecedented attack on the judiciary would be.

The search warrants for the FBI raids last week were obtained after a referral to federal prosecutors by Robert Mueller. The Washington Post reported that Cohen may be under investigation for possible bank fraud and wire fraud. Among the material the FBI has seized are believed to be documents relating to Cohen’s $130,000 payment to Daniels and to another woman who says she had an affair with Trump. One line of inquiry will be whether these payments broke campaign finance laws.

Stormy Daniels did not speak in court, but mobbed by reporters outside the building she struck a defiant note.

“For years, Mr. Cohen has acted like he is above the law,” she said. “He has never thought that the little man, or especially women or even more, women like me, matter. That ends now. My attorney and I are committed to making sure that everyone finds out the truth and facts of what happened and I give my word that we will not rest until that happens.”

Dozens of cameras flashed.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.