Investigators trying to determine whether there was a broader pattern or strategy that could harm president’s electoral chances
Washington: Federal prosecutors investigating President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, are seeking records related to two women who received payments in 2016 after alleging affairs with Trump years ago — adult-film star Stormy Daniels and ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The interest in both Daniels and McDougal indicates that federal investigators are trying to determine whether there was a broader pattern or strategy among Trump associates to buy the silence of women whose accounts could harm the president’s electoral chances and whether any crimes were committed in doing so, one of those people said.
Investigators are also seeking all communications about Daniels and McDougal between Cohen, David Pecker — a personal friend of Trump and the chief executive of American Media Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer — and Dylan Howard, the chief content officer of American Media and a reporter there.
Daniels is cooperating with federal prosecutors, according to a source familiar with the investigation. Her cooperation was first reported by NBC News.
The high stakes of the case were underscored by the involvement of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who personally approved the move to seek a search warrant for Cohen’s records, which included raids Monday on his home and office, according to two people with knowledge of the investigation.
The raid infuriated Trump, who was left “stunned” and “livid” by the aggressive move by prosecutors Monday, according to an outside adviser in frequent touch with the White House.
Trump privately continued to gripe Tuesday about Rosenstein, who also oversees Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign, according to people familiar with the situation. Many in the president’s orbit think Rosenstein’s position is currently the most endangered if the president decides to take action to try to halt the probe, the people said.
Cohen, Trump’s longtime attorney, is under federal investigation for possible bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations, The Washington Post reported Monday.
The New York Times first reported prosecutors’ interest in McDougal. The former Playmate has said she had a 10-month relationship with Trump beginning in 2006 and then sold her story to American Media for $150,000 (Dh550,875) about three months before the 2016 election.
No story about McDougal ever appeared in the publication, a tabloid practice sometimes referred to as “catch and kill.”
American Media spokesman Jon Hammond did not respond to questions about whether the company had been contacted by federal investigators.
“American Media Inc. has, and will continue to, comply with any and all requests that do not jeopardise or violate its protected sources or materials pursuant to our First Amendment rights,” Hammond said.
McDougal’s attorney, Peter Stris, declined to comment on the Cohen investigation.
The search warrants served Monday on Cohen’s Rockefeller Center office and home sought his personal financial information and client communications, including records related to Daniels, who was paid $130,000 by the Trump lawyer just days before the 2016 election in what she described as an effort to buy her silence.
The raids, which also swept up communications between Cohen and Trump, left the White House scrambling to contain yet another crisis in an administration rife with them.
Some White House allies think that this one, like many of the administration’s pockets of turbulence, was brought on by Trump himself — specifically, by comments he made last week aboard Air Force One, when he claimed he had no knowledge of the payment Cohen made to Daniels, according to three people familiar with the discussions.
“He shot himself in the foot by saying he didn’t know anything about the payment,” one the people said.
Several lawyers noted that public statements from Cohen and Trump that the president was unaware of the payment may have significantly aided federal prosecutors’ legal arguments to justify searching the lawyer’s office, home and hotel room.
If both the lawyer and the client insisted that Trump had no idea that Cohen had made the payment, they cannot assert that those activities were protected by attorney-client privilege, legal experts said.
“At that point, anything to do with that entire incident is, I would argue, not attorney-client privilege,” said Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who practices law in Chicago. “If I were a prosecutor hearing both the lawyer and the client say the client had no awareness whatsoever of that, I would now feel very confident going to a judge to seek that material.”
On Monday, asked by reporters why he doesn’t just fire Mueller, Trump said, “We’ll see what happens,” and added, “Many people have said, ‘You should fire him.’” And on Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president believes he has the authority to fire Mueller.
Special counsel regulations say only the attorney general — or in this case, the acting attorney general on the Russia probe, Rosenstein — can dismiss the special counsel. But legal experts say the White House could achieve the same end result by rescinding the regulation that allows for a special counsel.
Within the president’s orbit, people described Trump as furious and “lit up” by the recent developments and floating a trial balloon to test the boundaries of trying to halt Mueller’s burgeoning probe.
“His anger is unabated,” said a Republican strategist in frequent touch with the White House, who added the mood there is “extremely grim.”
Someone else in contact with the White House said aides have likened the current atmosphere to two previous crises — when Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey and when the White House was embroiled in the saga of Rob Porter, a former staff secretary accused of domestic abuse by his two ex-wives.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans were divided over Trump’s implicit threats to possibly fire Mueller, while legislation to protect the prosecutor remained stalled.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said it would be “suicide” for the president to move to remove Mueller as special counsel.
“I have confidence in Mueller, the president ought to have confidence in Mueller, and I think, to answer your question, it would be suicide for the president to want to talk about firing Mueller,” Grassley said on Fox Business Network. “The less the president said on this whole thing, the better off he would be, the stronger his presidency would be.”
But House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., one of Trump’s leading allies on the Hill, privately urged Republican colleagues on Tuesday to consider holding Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray in contempt of Congress if the Justice Department does not provide him with documents he has sought about the Russia probe in coming days.
Nunes is readying proceedings and keeping several House Republicans briefed on his plans, including members of the Judiciary Committee and Oversight Committee, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
Nunes has also spoken in the past week with members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which has been supportive of Trump, about how a potential contempt effort could unfold. He has not yet spoken with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., about possibly moving forward, the two people said.
Nunes, who has been signalling that Congress could take action this month, declined to comment.
At the Justice Department, meanwhile, some officials made a point of watching Trump’s comments on television after the Cohen raid, looking for any hint that his rage this time would lead to consequences beyond a few angry tweets.
The mood at the department has been grim for months and those inside fear their pool of allies is shrinking. Republicans in Congress — once considered a reliable bulwark that might help keep an angry president at bay — have become increasingly incensed over the department’s slow production of documents on controversial cases, including the Hillary Clinton email case.
Trump was already complaining publicly about that controversy when the FBI raided his personal lawyer’s office.
On Tuesday, the president also cancelled a plan trip to the Summit of the Americas in Peru, sending Vice President Mike Pence instead. The White House cited a need to remain in the United States to monitor the US response to a suspected chemical attack in Syria.
The decision to remain stateside, however, further inflamed the anxiety of aides, who worry about the president stewing in Washington as the Cohen case further unfolds and as Comey gives his first interview to ABC News Sunday evening as part of a planned book tour launch.
“I think it’s going to get gnarly this weekend,” said a Republican strategist in frequent touch with the White House.