WASHINGTON — Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation had been up and running for just two months when the special counsel set his sights on Michael Cohen, the self-described consigliere and (former) brash personal lawyer to President Trump.
According to newly released court documents, the special counsel’s office first got a search warrant to obtain emails from a Gmail account used by Cohen in July 2017 — much earlier than previously known and a mere six months into Trump’s presidency. The breadth of Mueller’s request was immense as well, seeking and receiving emails spanning January 1st, 2016 to July 18th, 2017, a period covering the 2016 presidential primaries, general election, inauguration and chaotic early months of the Trump administration.
Mueller’s July 2017 search warrant is just one of a handful of revelations contained in hundreds of pages of documents that were first filed as part of Mueller’s investigation, which was later handed off to prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.
The new search warrant documents culminated in the April 2018 raid on Cohen’s home, hotel room, office and bank safe deposit. Federal agents seized documents and other potential evidence of crimes that helped build the case against Cohen alleging tax and bank fraud and violating campaign finance law. Months later, Cohen flipped on Trump, his former boss, and agreed to cooperate with Mueller, eventually pleading guilty to lying to Congress about a potential Trump Tower Moscow real-estate deal.
Last August, Cohen plead guilty to eight counts of bank fraud, tax fraud and campaign finance violations. The campaign finance counts involved Cohen paying adult film star Stormy Daniels hush money to remain quiet about her years-old affair with Trump — payments Cohen later said he made at the direction of Trump himself, implicating the sitting president in the crime. (A judge sentenced Cohen, who has cooperated with law enforcement officials, to 36 months in prison.)
The new legal documents show that, after the July 2017 search warrant, the Special Counsel’s office got two more warrants in November of that year to search through more of Cohen’s Gmail messages, as well as the contents of a separate email account he used. Those warrants extended the period of time Mueller could access Cohen’s emails to November 13th, 2017.
There’s another eyebrow-raising detail in the decision by Mueller’s office to refer the case to SDNY. Specifically, the documents say that the special counsel’s office had suspected that Cohen had not only lied to banks about his financial dealings, but that he had also represented foreign individuals or entities without registering under the law that requires disclosure of foreign lobbying and influence work, known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
It’s not exactly clear what suspected foreign work the warrants refer to or what happened to that line of inquiry for Mueller or SDNY. The search warrant documents describe several of Cohen’s clients that he routed through a side company he’d created, Essential Consultants. One was Columbus Nova, an investment firm linked to Renova Group and Russian businessman Viktor Vekselberg. Another was a Kazakhstani bank that paid a $150,000 deposit to Cohen’s Essential Consultants, according to the search warrant documents. (Essential Consultants was the same company Cohen used to make hush-money payments to Daniels.)
FARA, the foreign lobbying law, has seen an uptick in enforcement in large part due to the Mueller investigation, with ex-Trump aides Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and Michael Cohen all facing charges of failing to register as agents for work they did on behalf of foreign governments. A former lawyer on Mueller’s team, Brandon Van Grack, will lead a ramped-up effort to better enforce FARA. (Cohen has not pleaded guilty to FARA-related charges.)
By the time he appeared before Congress last month, Cohen was ready to repudiate the president. “He is a racist. He is a con man. And he is a cheat,” Cohen testified. “I am not protecting Mr. Trump anymore.”
This story has been updated to clarify Columbus Nova’s relationship with businessman Viktor Vekselberg.