WASHINGTON - Special counsel Robert Mueller obtained court-approved warrants to search the emails of President Donald Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen in July 2017 as his office investigated whether Cohen had illegally worked for foreign entities, according to newly unsealed documents illustrating how the investigation moved quickly and quietly to scour the digital trails of the president's associates.
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The search warrants unsealed Tuesday in Cohen's case offer new insight into how Mueller and his team handed off a key part of the Cohen investigation to federal prosecutors in New York in early 2018, and how much evidence prosecutors already had against Cohen even before they searched his office, home, and hotel room in April of that year. They also serve as a detailed reminder of the broad array of wrongdoing of which Cohen was accused and to which he eventually pleaded.
The first warrant obtained by the special counsel's office was dated July 18, 2017. Investigators were especially interested in how Cohen had apparently lied to banks - claiming he couldn't pay back loans as quickly as they would have liked - while pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars from companies like AT&T, Novartis and even an investment-management firm linked to a Russian national. Prosecutors in New York have since alleged Cohen was charging enormous sums while performing minimal work.
The warrants describe Cohen's false statements to financial institutions about the purpose of Essential Consultants - Cohen's firm that took payments from AT&T, Novartis and the Russian national - as well as "activities undertaken by Cohen on behalf of certain foreign persons or foreign entities without having registered as a foreign agent," one of the documents says. Another document says the payments, including from international clients, were for consulting on "issues pending before the Trump administration."
The documents show that the special counsel's office was investigating Cohen for allegedly making false statements to a financial institution, and suspected bank and wire fraud - as well as possible money laundering and violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Cohen was not a registered lobbyist, nor had he registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, authorities alleged.
Among other things, the special counsel sought records of any "funds of benefits received by or offered to Michael Dean Cohen by, or on behalf of, any foreign government." It also sought evidence that might reveal Cohen's efforts "to conduct activities on behalf of, for the benefit of, or at the direction of any foreign government."
In early 2018 the special counsel's office referred a part of its Cohen investigation to federal prosecutors in New York. As part of that referral, on Feb. 8, 2018, the special counsel's office turned over relevant emails from its warrants to the New York prosecutors, according to one of the newly unsealed affidavits.
Michael Cohen's home, office, and hotel room were searched nearly a year ago as the FBI ratcheted up its investigation of the lawyer's finances, and his work on behalf of Trump. That same day agents also executed a search warrant for a safe-deposit box used by Cohen.
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The searches set off a protracted legal battle over how the files belonging to Cohen, an attorney, would be reviewed by agents and prosecutors. A federal judge appointed an outside lawyer to review the material before Cohen's prosecutors to exclude any material that was covered by lawyer-client privilege or otherwise should not be shared with investigators.
The warrants show that federal agents sought information from Cohen's Gmail account, as well as an account he set up for his legal and consulting work. An agent noted that Cohen also used a Trump Organization email account but indicated that as of the filing of the warrant request on April 8, 2018, the FBI had "not been able to obtain the contents of that account." The agent did not indicate why the FBI did not have access to Cohen's Trump Organization records.
The documents show that FBI agents gathered data about Cohen's email and cellphones before the raid. For instance, one warrant sought historical location data for two AT&T cellphones that agents alleged were used in the course of a campaign-finance scheme. They sought permission to gather data for the period beginning Oct. 1, 2016, and ending Nov. 8, 2016 - the day of the presidential election - and then again for the period starting Jan. 1, 2018, and ending with the warrant's issuance.
The documents are redacted in significant measure. For example, after the heading "The Illegal Campaign Contribution Scheme" - a reference to Cohen's arranging for hush-money payments to women who had alleged affairs with Trump - 18 and 1/2 pages are covered in a gray box.
Lanny Davis, a lawyer for Cohen, said in a statement in advance of the documents' release: "Tomorrow's Court-ordered release of the affidavits that led to the search warrants of Mr. Cohen's home, office, hotel and safety deposit box, only 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."
Months after the FBI's high-profile search of Cohen's properties, Cohen pleaded guilty to tax violations, lying to a bank, and, during the 2016 campaign, arranging hush-money payments for women who claimed that they once had affairs with the future president.
Cohen also pleaded guilty to lying to Congress in statements that concealed the true time frame in which he had sought a real estate development deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow - conversations that continued, contrary to initial claims, well into the Republican presidential primary campaign.
At Cohen's December sentencing, U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III said Cohen should serve three years in prison for "a veritable smorgasbord of criminal conduct."
Cohen cooperated - partially - with federal prosecutors in New York, as well as with Mueller, in hopes of reducing the amount of prison time he would have to serve.
Cohen has provided information to investigators about Trump and the Trump campaign, but prosecutors said he refused to tell them everything he knew.
Since pleading guilty, he has publicly blamed Trump for his downfall, calling his former boss a con man, a racist, and a cheat. Trump and his supporters have repeatedly attacked Cohen as a convicted liar trying to save himself by speaking against his former boss.
In dramatic public testimony to a congressional committee last month, Cohen declared, "I am no longer your fixer, Mr. Trump."
Cohen is due to report to prison in May, and he is likely to serve his sentence at a federal lockup in Otisville, New York.
This article was written by Matt Zapotosky, Rosalind Helderman and Devlin Barrett, reporters for The Washington Post.