Records show special counsel zeroed in on Cohen early on
NEW YORK — Hundreds of pages of court records made public Tuesday revealed that special counsel Robert Mueller quickly zeroed in on Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former personal attorney and fixer, in the early stages of his Russia probe.
The heavily blacked-out records, released by a judge at the request of news organizations, show that Mueller was investigating Cohen by July 2017 — much earlier than previously known.
That was two months after Mueller was appointed to investigate Moscow's election interference and practically a year before an FBI raid on Cohen's home and office.
The full scope of Mueller's interest in Cohen is not clear from the documents, which include search warrant applications and other records. More extensive files from the special counsel investigation remain under seal in Washington.
But the documents made public Tuesday show that Mueller's investigators early on began looking into possible misrepresentations Cohen made to banks to shore up his financially troubled taxi business.
They were also initially interested in money that was flowing into Cohen's bank accounts from consulting contracts he signed after Trump got elected. Prosecutors were looking into whether Cohen failed to register as a foreign agent.
Some of the payments he received were from companies with strong foreign ties, including a Korean aerospace company, a bank in Kazakhstan and an investment firm affiliated with a Russian billionaire.
By February 2018, though, the records show Mueller had handed off portions of his investigation to federal prosecutors in Manhattan. And by the spring of 2018, those prosecutors had expanded their investigation to include payments Cohen made to buy the silence of porn star Stormy Daniels and a Playboy centerfold, both of whom claimed to have had affairs with Trump.
The newly released documents indicate authorities continue to probe campaign violations connected to those hush money payments. Nearly 20 pages related to the matter were blacked out at the direction of a judge who said he wanted to protect an ongoing investigation by New York prosecutors.
Where that investigation is headed is unclear. But prosecutors have said Trump himself directed Cohen to arrange the hush money. The president has denied any wrongdoing.
Cohen ultimately pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations over those payments. He also pleaded guilty to tax evasion, making false statements to banks and lying to Congress about Trump's plans to build a skyscraper in Moscow. He was not charged with failing to register as a foreign agent.
He is scheduled to begin serving a three-year prison sentence in May.
Lanny Davis, an attorney for Cohen, said Tuesday that the release of the search warrants "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 — the first public sign of a criminal investigation that has proved an embarrassment for Trump.
The newly released records show that several months earlier, in July 2017, Mueller's office got a judge to grant him authority to read 18 months' worth of Cohen's emails.
In their investigation, Mueller's prosecutors also obtained Cohen's telephone records and went so far as to use a high-tech tool known as a Stingray or Triggerfish to pinpoint the location of his cellphones.
FBI agents also scoured Cohen's hotel room and safe deposit box and seized more than 4 million electronic and paper files, more than a dozen mobile devices and iPads, 20 external hard drives, flash drives and laptops.
Both Cohen and Trump cried foul at the time over the raids, with Cohen's attorney 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 documents 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 because of the high public interest in the case.
But he ordered certain material withheld, acknowledging prosecutors' concerns that a wholesale release of the documents "would jeopardize an ongoing investigation and prejudice the privacy rights of uncharged third parties."
"The unsealed records provide significant insight into the investigations of Michael Cohen and serve as an important safeguard for public accountability," AP's director of media relations, Lauren Easton, said Tuesday.
David E. McCraw, vice president and deputy general counsel for The New York Times, which initiated the request for the documents, said he is hopeful Pauley will approve the release of additional materials in May after the government updates the judge on its investigation.