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3 takeaways from newly unsealed Michael Cohen search warrants

Mueller had a warrant for a Michael Cohen email account for more than a year before Cohen was charged.

Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen holding a cellphone up to his ear.
Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, has already been sentenced to up to three years in prison.
Yana Paskova/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The Justice Department released several search warrants related to their investigation of Michael Cohen Tuesday — and the documents made clear special counsel Robert Mueller had his sights trained on Cohen far earlier than previously known.

Indeed, it was all the way back on July 18, 2017 — just two months after Mueller was appointed special counsel — that his team obtained a warrant for the content of Michael Cohen’s Gmail account. That was nearly nine months before the dramatic FBI raids on Cohen’s residence and office made clear Trump’s then-attorney was in deep legal jeopardy.

This and other interesting tidbits came to light as a result of a request from media organizations that sought to unseal these warrants; the judge in Cohen’s case ordered them unsealed this week. (Cohen has pleaded guilty to financial crimes, campaign finance violations, and lying to Congress, and was sentenced to three years in prison.)

The warrant documents were released in eight installments: Exhibit 1, Exhibit 2, Exhibit 3, Exhibit 4, Exhibit 5, Exhibit 6, Exhibit 7, and Exhibit 8. Here are the most revealing takeaways.

1) Mueller had a warrant for a Cohen email account nine months before the FBI raided Cohen’s office

The origins of the federal investigations into Michael Cohen have long been murky. We’ve known he was not one of the four Trump advisers under scrutiny for Russia ties before the 2016 election (those were George Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Carter Page).

Then, the Steele dossier reports (which were provided to the FBI) claimed that Cohen was a key figure conspiring with the Russian government on Trump’s behalf, including by paying off hackers. However, none of Steele’s claims about Cohen have been corroborated or play any role in the charges against him.

Now, though, the unsealed search warrants reveal that on July 18, 2017 — about two months after Mueller’s appointment as special counsel — his team already had enough evidence that Cohen had committed crimes to ask for a warrant for his email account.

At this point, Mueller’s team had probable cause to believe Cohen had violated several laws: making false statements to a financial institution, money laundering, and two statutes acting as an unregistered foreign agent.

Specifically, the warrant mentions Essential Consultants LLC — the shell company Cohen set up to accept large payments from a company tied to a Russian oligarch, as well as AT&T, Novartis, and others. (Cohen claimed to be providing them consulting services.) The warrant also requests, more broadly, records of anything Cohen may have done for foreign persons, officials, or governments (which would have covered Russia-related matters).

The upshot is that Mueller’s team was secretly surveilling Cohen’s emails nearly nine months before the FBI raids on Cohen. That’s far earlier than we had previously known, and it raises the question of what else Mueller had access to that we don’t yet know about.

2) Mueller didn’t originate the Trump hush money investigation — that was SDNY

The warrants also provided more details about how it ended up being the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY), not Mueller’s team, that carried out those FBI raids.

It’s long been known that Mueller referred Cohen-related matters to SDNY. But the document clues us in to when that happened — around February 2018. It also makes clear that Mueller only referred “certain aspects” of the Cohen investigation to SDNY.

In retrospect, the fact that Mueller continued to investigate Cohen is obvious, since his team eventually struck a plea deal in which Cohen admitted lying to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow talks. But it’s interesting that Mueller and his then-boss Rod Rosenstein took a different approach here as compared to Paul Manafort: Instead of charging Cohen for his financial crimes themselves, Mueller handed off that probe elsewhere.

The documents also seem to reveal how prosecutors began investigating whether Michael Cohen violated campaign finance law by arranging hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal (two women who had alleged affairs with Trump).

On April 7, 2018, a special agent working with SDNY wrote that he or she had “learned of evidence of an additional Subject Offense committed by Cohen” — a violation of campaign finance laws. So the agent asked a judge to expand the search warrant to cover that offense as well.

This seems to reveal that it was not Mueller who started investigating the payoffs to women on Trump’s behalf — belying the picture of an out-of-control special prosecutor wildly exceeding his mandate. Rather, this investigation started, and has stayed with, SDNY.

3) The hush money investigation is still very much active

Speaking of SDNY’s hush money investigation, another telling feature is that pages and pages of material related to it in the new documents is totally redacted — suggesting, as has been reported, that this investigation is very much ongoing.

(This redaction goes on for many more pages.)

In August 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance law with the payoffs to Daniels and McDougal. Then, in December 2018, SDNY announced they’d reached a non-prosecution agreement with American Media, Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer that handled the payment to McDougal.

But the investigation remains active, which suggests that President Trump, the Trump Organization, and top-level Trump Organization executives all face legal risk.

Prosecutors have already stated that, in arranging the illegal payments, Cohen acted “in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1”: Donald Trump. What, exactly, they planned to do about the president’s apparent involvement in a criminal act has remained unclear since then. But the redactions in these newly unsealed documents should remind us that this investigation is not yet closed.

For more on the Mueller probe, follow Andrew Prokop on Twitter and check out Vox’s guide to the Trump-Russia investigation.

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