The legal battle over federal investigators’ raids on President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen took an unexpected turn Monday as an attorney identified Fox News host Sean Hannity as one of Cohen’s legal clients.
Cohen’s attorneys had acknowledged publicly that he represented Trump and former Republican National Committee Deputy Finance Chair Elliott Broidy in legal matters, but they had sought to avoid naming a third client. Under direct orders from a judge, Cohen’s attorney Stephen Ryan named Hannity as the client in court on Monday.
The revelation came amid an extraordinary showdown between a sitting president and his own Justice Department over access to files seized in the raids on Cohen’s home and office last week and over whether the materials are protected by attorney-client privilege. Hannity’s connection to Cohen was revealed after the conservative commentator — one of Trump’s staunchest defenders — fiercely criticized federal officials for the raids, without disclosing his own connection.
Even before the surprise disclosure about Hannity, the afternoon hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Kimba Wood was a spectacle. Cohen came under scrutiny after he acknowledged paying $130,000 to porn actress Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election so she would keep quiet about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Cohen also negotiated a deal in 2017 to pay $1.6 million to a woman who said Broidy impregnated her.
The FBI raids targeting Cohen last week represented the clearest sign yet of legal trouble for Trump’s inner circle and prompted outbursts from the president on social media. Cohen’s and Trump’s attorneys have argued that the raids were inappropriate, with the president’s team saying in a filing this week that move was “disquieting to lawyers, clients, citizens, and commentators alike.”
Cohen’s attorneys were asked to name his clients as part of the fight over whether the records were subject to attorney-client privilege, but they initially sought to avoid naming his third legal client. Ryan called him “a public and prominent individual” and said he had asked not to be identified.
Wood wouldn’t accept that. “I understand that he doesn’t want his name out there. That’s not enough. I order you to disclose the client now,” the judge said.
Many in the the courtroom gasped audibly when Ryan revealed that Hannity was the client, and a half-dozen journalists rushed out to report the development.
It was not immediately clear what sort of legal work Cohen did for Hannity. The conservative media figure, who seemed taken aback by the disclosure as he addressed it on his syndicated radio program Monday afternoon, eventually said most of the advice related to real estate.
He denied being a formal client of Cohen’s but said the Trump lawyer provided some advice he considered confidential.
“Michael never represented me in any matter,” Hannity insisted, adding on Twitter: “I never retained him, received an invoice, or paid legal fees.”
Hannity seemed eager Monday to dismiss what he said was “wild speculation” that the legal matters he discussed with Cohen might be similar to the kinds of deals involving Trump and Broidy.
The TV and radio host said his dealings with Cohen “never involved a matter between me and another third party.”
Though the Hannity revelation drew most of the attention, the three-hour court hearing Monday ended without a resolution in the central fight over whether materials taken from Cohen are subject to attorney-client privilege.
The judge rejected Cohen’s and Trump’s request for a temporary restraining order because prosecutors agreed to hold off reviewing the records seized in last week’s raids. Wood said she was weighing appointing a special master, a neutral individual who would oversee potential attorney-client privilege claims.
The U.S. attorneys office proposed using its own special team to assess whether records — including 10 boxes of records seized from Cohen’s office, along with an unknown amount of electronic data — are subject to attorney-client privilege before the prosecutors investigating Cohen can see them. Attorneys for Trump and Cohen opposed that plan.
“I have faith in the Southern District U.S. attorney’s office that their integrity is unimpeachable,” the judge said, though she added that naming a special master could also work. She asked each party to come up with four names of individuals to be considered for such a role.
Wood said she would eventually order that copies of all the seized records be turned over to Cohen, but in the meantime instructed lawyers for all sides to come up with search terms that could be used to try to determine which records taken from Cohen pertain to Trump. The task could be complicated because, for the last year or so, Cohen has used an email signature identifying himself as “Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump.“
Cohen had three clients in the past year for legal services and seven for whom “the work appears to be providing strategic advice and business consulting,” Cohen’s lawyers wrote in a filing made public Monday. The seven were unnamed, and Cohen’s team appeared to abandon any attorney-client privilege claim over that work.
Cohen’s attorneys said it could be “embarrassing” for those involved to be named publicly.
“Following the raid of Mr. Cohen’s office and residences, there has been a deluge of press,” Cohen’s lawyers wrote. “It almost goes without saying, unfortunately, that none of Mr. Cohen’s clients want to be associated with the government raid on his home and law office, or want to be affiliated in any way with the proceedings here and the attendant media coverage.”
In addition to the 10 clients at his solo practice, the letter said Cohen referred five clients to a law firm with which he had a “strategic relationship” starting in March 2017. The law firm was not named, but Cohen teamed up last spring with Squire Patton Boggs. The firm said last week it had split with Cohen but that it had been in touch with federal investigators about a warrant related to him.
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, is not a party to the litigation brought by Cohen and Trump over the search warrants executed last week, but she and attorney Michael Avenatti attended the hearing Monday. They tried to enter the packed courtroom and were initially turned away due to the crowd, before space was found.
Daniels told reporters after the court session that she showed up to make sure that the seized records are not destroyed.
Avenatti used the large contingent of media assembled outside the courthouse to take a series of shots at Cohen, who he called “radioactive,” and Trump.
“Anyone who has had any contact with this man in the last 20 years should be very concerned,” Avenatti said. “I think that the chickens are about to come home to roost.”
Cristiano Lima contributed to this report.
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