Documents unsealed in federal court Thursday lay out the beginning of a federal investigation into Michael Cohen that sent the Donald Trump fixer to federal prison, and further indicate that Trump was closely involved in hush money payments ahead of the 2016 election.
Cohen, the president’s former longtime attorney, began his three-year prison sentence in May. He pleaded guilty last November to lying to Congress about his discussions surrounding a Russian real estate deal during the 2016 presidential campaign, and previously pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations for hush money payments to women who alleged sexual relationships with the now-president. Cohen’s plea deal with the Southern District of New York labeled Trump as “Individual-1,” the person who directed Cohen to make illegal campaign payments.
A search warrant affidavit released Thursday says that Cohen, former Trump aide Hope Hicks and Trump were on a phone call on Oct. 8, 2016, that the feds believe “concerned the need to prevent” porn actress Stormy Daniels from going public with her allegations of a past affair with Trump. It suggests more evidence of Trump’s direct knowledge of the payoff.
An unnamed FBI special agent wrote in the affidavit that discussions about keeping Daniels from speaking out jump-started after the Oct. 7, 2016, publication of the infamous 2005 Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump bragged about his ability to “grab [women] by the pussy” and get away with it because he’s a star. The search warrant application indicates that Cohen “exchanged a series of calls, text messages, and emails” with Daniels’ then-attorney, as well as David Pecker and Dylan Howard of American Media Inc. (which publishes the National Enquirer), Trump and Hicks.
Cohen, according to the affidavit, spoke with Trump on Oct. 26, 2016, shortly before Cohen opened up an account for the entity he’d use to pay off Daniels.
The search warrant application also indicates that Cohen texted that someone, likely Trump, was “pissed” after The Wall Street Journal published a story about the National Enquirer shielding Trump from allegations of an affair with former Playboy model Karen McDougal. “I think it’ll be ok pal,” AMI’s Howard texted Cohen. “I think it’ll fade into the distance.” After Cohen responded, “He’s pissed,” Howard texted, “I’m pissed! You’re pissed. Pecker is pissed... Not much we can do.”
Cohen and Hicks then communicated about the fallout of the Wall Street Journal story. “So far I see only 6 stories. Getting little to no traction,” Cohen wrote. “Same. Keep praying!! It’s working!” Hicks wrote. “Even CNN not talking about it. No one believes it and if necessary, I have a statement by Storm denying everything and contradicting the other porn stars statement. I wouldn’t use it now or even discuss with him as no one is talking about this or care!”
As made clear in Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, the Justice Department has a long-standing view that the sitting president of the United States can’t be indicted. It’s unclear whether Trump is avoiding indictment for campaign finance violations solely because he’s commander-in-chief. But in a letter filed on the court docket, the government said it “has effectively concluded its investigations of (1) who, besides Michael Cohen, was involved in and may be criminally liable for the two campaign finance violations to which Cohen pled guilty [REDACTED]; and (2) whether certain individuals, [REDACTED], made false statements, gave false testimony or otherwise obstructed justice in connection with this investigation [REDACTED].”
Senior U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III ordered that search warrants and other documents associated with Cohen’s case be unsealed with minimal redactions. A number of media outlets pushed the court to unseal documents related to searches conducted on Cohen’s residence, hotel room, office and electronic devices on April 9, 2018. Pauley’s order indicated that federal prosecutors had concluded the investigation without additional charges, despite the fact that Cohen’s plea deal suggested the president was implicated in committing federal crimes.
“The campaign finance violations discussed in the Materials are a matter of national importance,” Pauley wrote. “Now that the Government’s investigation into those violations has concluded, it is time that every American has an opportunity to scrutinize the Materials.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said Thursday that the Cohen documents show Trump was “intimately involved” in the payoff scheme and lied about his actions to the public.
“The inescapable conclusion from all of the public materials available now is that there was ample evidence to charge Donald Trump with the same criminal election law violations for which Michael Cohen pled guilty and is now serving time in prison,” Schiff said. “Were Individual-1 not protected by the DOJ opinion prohibiting the indictment of a sitting president, he would be criminally charged as Cohen’s co-conspirator.”
Schiff said that the available evidence “strongly supports the conclusion that Trump committed an election law crime in order to influence the election,” and questioned what role Attorney General William Barr played in the decision to close the case.
“Barr testified that he believes it was within the President’s power to stop any investigation into his own potential criminality if he felt an investigation was unfair,” Schiff said. “Barr has demonstrated there are no lengths to which he will not go to protect the President, and I believe it is of paramount importance to determine if he had any involvement in the SDNY’s investigation or sought to bring it to a close.”
Republicans have cast Cohen ― who served as deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee ― as a dishonest, untrustworthy felon whose testimony about Trump’s actions can’t be trusted.
Read the Cohen search warrants below:
This story has been updated throughout.