FBI raid of Michael Cohen's offices suggests new phase in Russia investigation
Trump unleashes Twitter fury saying that 'attorney-client privilege is dead'
President Donald Trump’s fury showed no sign of abating on Tuesday when he declared that “attorney-client privilege is dead”.
The tweet came a day after the FBI took the extraordinary step of raiding the offices of his lawyer, confidant and fixer Michael Cohen.
Mr Cohen stands at the heart of the president’s business and personal world, suggesting that the long-running investigation into Russian election meddling has entered a new phase.
Officers seized documents related to a string of topics, including a payment to a pornographic film star, setting off a series of furious outbursts from a president who believes he is the target of a witch-hunt, persecuted by his own law enforcement officials.
It raises fresh speculation that he is preparing to sack Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate Russian interference.
Critics within his own party reacted with glee, suggesting the raid amounted to the most dangerous day in Mr Trump’s life as the investigation moved from the political to the personal.
Rick Wilson, a veteran Republican strategist, said the president’s rage reflected the danger he was feeling.
“What changes this is the psychological part for Trump,” he said.
“He recognises that yes Michael Cohen is one of his real estate lawyers. But Michael Cohen’s job for a long, long time has been to take care of Trump’s personal business and the women in Trump’s life and non-disclosure payments.”
On Monday that anger was on public display when he interrupted a meeting with senior military commanders about a potential missile strike on Syria, to denounce the raid as an “attack on our country in a true sense”.
He continued on Tuesday morning via Twitter, saying he was dismissing the investigation once again as a witch-hunt and declaring on Twitter that: “Attorney-client privilege is dead!”
Sources told American news organisations that documents seized in the raid included information related to Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who claims she had an affair with Mr Trump in 2006.
Mr Cohen has previously acknowledged paying Daniels $130,000 (Dh477,425) from his own pocket shortly before the 2016 election. He said neither the Trump Organisation nor the Trump campaign was involved in the transaction and that he was not reimbursed.
The White House denies any affair took place.
Monday’s raid targeted office space in Manhattan as well as Mr Cohen’s room at a nearby hotel.
Other materials seized included tax documents and business records.
The raid was led by the US Attorney's office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) and was based in part on a referral from Mr Mueller, said Mr Cohen's lawyer, Stephen Ryan.
Analysts said search warrants for attorney’s offices were used rarely – adding to the pressure on Mr Trump’s team.
Joshua Dressler, professor of law at Ohio State University, said: “This is very unusual.
“Because of concern for lawyer-client privileges, there are special rules set out by the Justice Department for searches of law offices, requiring a greater demonstration of need - along with, of course, probable cause to believe that the evidence in question will be found in the law office - than would be the case of an ‘ordinary’ search of a residence of other type of business.”
Referring the raid to an outside team of prosecutors would also insulate the investigation from interference.
Preet Bharara, who served as the US Attorney for the district which covers Manhattan, said: “If SDNY is truly in charge of this Michael Cohen investigation, that will continue whether or not Mueller is fired.”
The raid adds to the dilemma for Mr Trump as his legal team debates whether to agree to an interview with Mr Mueller’s team, which is examining whether the president obstructed justice, and increases scrutiny of the alleged affair with Daniels.
Michael Avenatti, the star’s lawyer, said the raid demonstrated that their legal action against the president was about more than making money.
“As we predicted and as the FBI raid shows, Mr Cohen and Mr Trump are in a lot of trouble,” he wrote on Twitter. “It has always been about the threats, cover-up and the lies that have been told to the American people.”
Mr Cohen’s part in the Daniels deal reflects the role he played since joining the Trump Organisation in 2006. Part personal lawyer, part spokesman, he was the point man to deny claims of affairs or inappropriate behaviour by the businessman-turned-president.
The result is a wounded president, facing his biggest crisis so far, according to critics.
Republican strategist Mr Wilson said the raid opened a fresh front, taking the investigation beyond ties to Russia into areas that threatened Mr Trump’s very self image.
“He knows that if the attorney-client privilege is pierced, which he knows it will be, then the gates are open,” he said.
“There are three things Trump doesn’t want the world to know about – his taxes, his money, and the stories of these women.”
Mr Cohen was at the centre of all three, he added, leading the president to use bluster and anger to distract his supporters from the danger.
On Monday, the president raised the prospect of firing Mr Mueller - "Why don't I just fire Mueller? Well, I think it's a disgrace what's going on. We'll see what happens," he said - and criticised his team as “the most biased group of people”.
His words have Democrats scrambling to shore up the investigation. Leading figures pushed back against any suggestion Mr Trump was being treated unfairly and that Mr Mueller should be sacked.
“The search warrant for Michael Cohen’s office was sought by a US attorney appointed by the president and approved by a judge,” said Adam Schiff, who heads the Democratic group on the House Intelligence Committee. That’s no witch-hunt. That’s the rule of law.”