Why the FBI's raid on Michael Cohen's office could spell trouble for Trump

  • News that the FBI seized work product between Michael Cohen and his clients could pose significant ramifications for President Donald Trump, who is one of Cohen's longtime clients.
  • If investigators find that certain communications aren't covered under attorney-client privilege, they could theoretically be used in a criminal investigation.
  • Cohen's mounting legal exposure also raises the possibility that he will "flip" against Trump.
  • Cohen is a central figure in several investigative threads as they relate to Trump, his personal dealings, and the Trump administration.
  • Trump refused to rule out firing the special counsel Robert Mueller on Monday, indicating that Mueller is inching closer to the "red line" Trump said Mueller would cross if the special counsel investigated his finances.

The revelation that the FBI seized work product between Michael Cohen and his clients, which could include President Donald Trump, one of Cohen's longtime clients, is monumental for two key reasons.

  1. If investigators found communications between Trump and Cohen that are not protected under attorney-client privilege, they can be used in a criminal investigation.
  2. Cohen's mounting criminal exposure raises the possibility that he will "flip" and become a cooperating witness against Trump, who is being investigated by the special counsel Robert Mueller.

Monday's raid does not appear to be part of the Russia probe. Instead, investigators were acting on a referral from Mueller, likely after he uncovered evidence of potential wrongdoing outside of his investigative focus while scrutinizing Cohen. FBI agents subsequently obtained a warrant to seize records and electronic devices from Cohen's offices, and potentially some communications between Cohen and Trump.

The president is Cohen's primary and most high-profile client. Cohen left the Trump Organization in early 2017 and has served as a personal attorney to Trump since then. However, his relationship with the president stretches back years, and Cohen has developed a reputation as one of Trump's closest allies.

The fact that Trump's and Cohen's communications were likely included within the scope of the warrant indicates they "related in some way to the federal crime for which Cohen is under investigation," former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti wrote on Twitter.

RELATED: A look at Michael Cohen

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Donald Trump's longtime lawyer Michael Cohen
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Donald Trump's longtime lawyer Michael Cohen
U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen exits a hotel in New York City, U.S., April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Michael Cohen, personal attorney for U.S. President Donald Trump, arrives to appear before Senate Intelligence Committee staff as the panel investigates alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen drives after leaving his hotel in New York City, U.S., April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Attorney Michael Cohen arrives at Trump Tower for meetings with President-elect Donald Trump on December 16, 2016 in New York.

(BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images)

Michael Cohen, personal attorney for U.S. President Donald Trump, talks to reporters as he departs after meeting with Senate Intelligence Committee staff as the panel investigates alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump's choice for National Security Advisor, Michael Cohen, executive vice president of the Trump Organization and special counsel to Donald Trump, and former Texas Governor Rick Perry talk with each other in the lobby at Trump Tower, December 12, 2016 in New York City. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and other high level positions for the new administration.

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 19: Michael Cohen, center, a personal attorney for President Trump, leaves Hart Building after his meeting with the Senate Intelligence Committee to discuss Russian interference in the 2016 election was postponed on September 19, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Attorney Michael Cohen arrives to Trump Tower for meetings with President-elect Donald Trump on December 16, 2016 in New York.

(BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images)

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's personal attorney arrives with his attorney, Stephen M. Ryan to speak with reporters after meeting with Senate Intelligence Committee staff on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, White House national security adviser-designate, from left, Michael Cohen, executive vice president of the Trump Organization and special counsel to Donald Trump, and Rick Perry, former governor of Texas, speak in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, U.S., on Monday, Dec. 12, 2016. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he had the 'highest confidence' in the intelligence community, in sharp contrast to President-elect Donald Trump's attack on the CIA after reports it found that the Russian government tried to help him win the presidency.

(Albin Lohr-Jones/Pool via Bloomberg)

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's personal attorney, looks on as his attorney (not pictured) delivers a statement to reporters after meeting with Senate Intelligence Committee staff on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

Attorney Michael Cohen arrives to Trump Tower for meetings with President-elect Donald Trump on December 16, 2016 in New York.

(BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images)

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 19: Michael Cohen, center, a personal attorney for President Trump, leaves Hart Building after his meeting with the Senate Intelligence Committee to discuss Russian interference in the 2016 election was postponed on September 19, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen exits a hotel in New York City, U.S., April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen is pictured leaving a restaurant in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Levy
Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's personal attorney, arrives with his attorney, Stephen M. Ryan, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen is pictured arriving at his hotel in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Levy
Michael Cohen, personal attorney for U.S. President Donald Trump, departs after meeting with Senate Intelligence Committee staff as the panel investigates alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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The Washington Post reported Monday that Cohen is apparently under investigation for bank fraud and violating election law.

Mariotti noted that a "taint team" will review the seized communications to determine which ones fall under attorney-client privilege, and which ones do not.

A taint team is an internal group, walled off from investigators, that the government sets up when it seizes electronically stored documents with a search warrant. The team's primary responsibility is to separate out materials that are protected in order to avoid later claims that the government improperly accessed the documents, according to The New York Law Journal.

Possible examples of communications that would not fall under attorney-client privilege are those that do not relate to legal advice, or which point toward furthering an ongoing crime, Mariotti said.

A central figure in at least 4 investigative threads involving Trump

Cohen has been under increased scrutiny ever since he revealed he personally executed a $130,000 payment to the adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who says she had a sexual encounter with Trump. Cohen made that payment 11 days before the 2016 US election.

Cohen has said that he paid the money out of his own pocket, and that Trump had nothing to do with the agreement. Trump echoed the same last week, in his first public comments about the arrangement.

The payment raised red flags on multiple fronts: Cohen's bank marked the wire transfer as suspicious and notified the US Treasury, and the payment itself could have violated campaign finance rules.

Cohen is also a key figure in at least three additional threads in the Russia probe as it relates to the Trump administration and Trump's personal business:

The first relates to the Trump Organization's effort in late 2015 and early 2016 to secure a Trump Tower deal in Moscow and Cohen's subsequent contact with a top Kremlin official at the height of the 2016 US election. Felix Sater, a Russian-born businessman who acted as an intermediary between the Trump Organization and Russia on the failed deal, revealed last month that Trump's businessman was actively negotiating with a sanctioned Russian bank to secure financing for the project during the election.

The second thread relates to what The New York Times has described as a "peace plan for Ukraine and Russia" which appeared to favor Moscow. Cohen was reportedly instrumental in developing and hand-delivering the plan to Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser, before Flynn was forced to resign last year. Cohen has offered shifting explanations for his role in the matter.

Sater and the Ukrainian politician Andrey Artemenko were also involved in the effort. The proposal advocated for the Trump administration to lift sanctions on Russia in exchange for Moscow's withdrawing its support for pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine. It would also allow Russia to maintain control over the territory of Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.

The third line of inquiry relates to a controversial Ukrainian oligarch's $150,000 donation to the Trump Foundation in September 2015, in exchange for a 20-minute talk Trump gave at a European conference that sought to promote closer ties between Ukraine and the West.

The oligarch, Victor Pinchuk, drew significant criticism from Ukrainian leaders when he published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in December 2016, suggesting Ukraine make compromises with Russia to resolve their conflict. Pinchuk is also the son-in-law of former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, whose government was accused of corruption and ordering the murder of dissenting journalists.

According to The Times, Pinchuk's charitable organization, the Victor Pinchuk Foundation, courted Trump to speak at the conference in late August 2015. Trump reportedly did not broach the subject of a payment, but Cohen called a consultant working for Pinchuk the next day to ask for a $150,000 fee in exchange for Trump's talk.

If the taint team finds communications between Trump and Cohen related to any of those four threads — or others that are not publicly known — and determines they do not fall under attorney-client privilege, it could open the door to increased legal exposure for the president.

RELATED: Members past and present of President Trump's inner circle

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Members past and present of President Trump's inner circle
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Members past and present of President Trump's inner circle
Hope Hicks: Former White House Director of Strategic Communications
Melania Trump: Wife to President Trump and first lady of the United States
Gary Cohn: Former Director of the U.S. National Economic Council
Michael Flynn: Former National Security Advisor, no longer with the Trump administration
Ivanka Trump: First daughter and presidential adviser
Gen. John Kelly: Former Secretary of Homeland Security, current White House chief of staff
Steve Bannon: Former White House chief strategist, no longer with the Trump administration
Jared Kushner: Son-in-law and senior adviser
Kellyanne Conway: Former Trump campaign manager, current counselor to the president
Reince Priebus: Former White House chief of staff, no longer with the Trump administration
Anthony Scaramucci: Former White House communications director, no longer with the Trump administration
Sarah Huckabee Sanders: White House press secretary
Donald Trump Jr.: First son to President Trump
Sean Spicer: Former White House press secretary, soon to be no longer with the Trump administration
Jeff Sessions: U.S. attorney general
Steve Mnuchin: Secretary of Treasury
Paul Manafort: Former Trump campaign chairman
Carter Page: Former foreign policy adviser to Trump's presidential campaign
Omarosa Manigault: Former Director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison
Jason Miller: Former White House communications director, no longer with the Trump administration
Mike Dubke: Former White House communications director, no longer with the Trump administration
Stephen Miller: Trump senior policy adviser
Corey Lewandowski: Former Trump campaign manager
Eric Trump: Son to President Trump
Rex Tillerson: Former Secretary of State
Sebastian Gorka: Former deputy assistant to the president in the Trump administration, no longer in his White House role
Roger Stone: Former Trump campaign adviser, current host of Stone Cold Truth
Betsy DeVos: U.S. Education Secretary
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The facts of the case prosecutors appear to be building around Cohen's work could also, in theory, prompt investigators to call Cohen to testify against his own clients, including Trump.

Trump warned last year that Mueller would be crossing a "red line" if he investigated any of his personal finances. On Monday, he indicated that Mueller may have breached that boundary.

"I have this witch hunt constantly going on," Trump said during a military leadership meeting, according to a press pool report. "It's an attack on our country ... what we all stand for."

He also did not discount the possibility of firing Mueller.

"We'll see what happens," Trump said.

Bryan Logan contributed to this report.

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SEE ALSO: TRUMP FUMES AT MUELLER AFTER COHEN RAID: 'It's an attack on our country'

DON'T MISS: Mueller is investigating a $150,000 payment a pro-Russian oligarch made to the Trump Foundation during the campaign

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