Initial reports about the FBI's early morning raid of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen's office, home and hotel room suggested that investigators were looking for evidence of bank fraud and violations of federal elections rules - though it was initially unclear if the raid pertained to Cohen's $130,000 payment to former adult film actress Stormy Daniels, or if it was related to Cohen's status as a subject in the Mueller probe.
But rather than let the confusion fester, the New York Times has dispelled the uncertainty with another anonymously sourced report offering more details about the FBI's goals. As it turns out, FBI agents were searching for records regarding payments made to two women who had claimed they had affairs with President Trump, as well as information pertaining to the publisher of the National Enquirer, and his role in paying off one of the women.
As we first learned during the campaign, National Enquirer owner David Pecker reportedly paid off former Playboy model Karen MacDougal, who had an affair with Trump around the time his youngest son, Baron, was born, offering her $150,000, purportedly to write a fitness column for his magazines.
The search warrant carried out by the public corruption unit of the Manhattan federal attorney’s office seeks information about Karen McDougal, an ex-Playboy model who claims she carried on a nearly yearlong affair with Mr. Trump shortly after the birth of his son in 2006. Ms. McDougal was paid $150,000 by American Media Inc., the Enquirer’s parent company, whose chief executive is a friend of Mr. Trump’s.
Agents were also searching Michael D. Cohen’s office for information related to Stephanie Clifford, better known as Stormy Daniels, who says she also had sex with Mr. Trump while he was married. Mr. Cohen has acknowledged that he paid Ms. Clifford $130,000 as part of a nondisclosure agreement to secure her silence just days before the 2016 presidential election.
Mr. Cohen’s lawyer, Stephen Ryan, on Monday called the raids "inappropriate and unnecessary." In an email on Tuesday, he referred back to that statement.
And while we learned yesterday that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had signed off on Special Counsel Robert Mueller's request to transfer evidence gleaned from the Trump Organization to Geoffrey Berman, the interim US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, today we learned that Rosenstein personally signed off on the FBI's raid of Cohen's offices.
As the Times explains, raiding a lawyers' office and searching their files is incredibly sensitive. Authorizing a search would require approval at the highest levels of the DOJ - particularly given the sensitivity of the subject at hand.
Rod J. Rosenstein, the veteran Republican prosecutor handpicked by Mr. Trump to serve as deputy attorney general, personally signed off on Monday’s F.B.I. decision to raid the office of Mr. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s personal attorney and longtime confidant, several government officials said.
The early-morning searches enraged Mr. Trump, associates said, setting off an angry public tirade Monday evening that continued in private at the White House as the president fumed about whether he should fire Mr. Rosenstein. The episode has deeply unsettled White House aides, Justice Department officials and lawmakers from both parties, who believe the president may use it as a pretext to purge the team leading the investigation into Russia meddling in the 2016 election.
Searching a lawyer’s files is among the most sensitive moves federal prosecutors can make as they pursue a criminal investigation. Mr. Rosenstein’s personal involvement in the decision signals that the evidence seen by law enforcement officials was significant enough to persuade the Justice Department’s second-in-command that such an aggressive move was necessary.
Furthermore, Rosenstein's involvement - as well as the involvement of top prosecutors and officials in Washington and New York - make it difficult for Trump to cry partisanship because all of the people involved with these decisions are Republicans.
The involvement of Mr. Rosenstein and top prosecutors in New York in the raid of Mr. Cohen’s office makes it harder for Mr. Trump to argue that his legal problems are the result of a witch hunt led by Mr. Mueller. In addition to Mr. Rosenstein, all of the top law enforcement officials involved in the raid are Republicans: Mr. Mueller, Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. Director, and Geoffrey Berman, the interim United States attorney in New York.
The raid has increased the likelihood that Trump will fire Mueller - despite the advice of his lawyers. He's also inching closer to firing Rosenstein, whom he nearly fired last summer. Both Democrats and some Republicans have warned Trump against taking such drastic action - including Chuck Grassley, the Republican head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who has said it'd be "suicide" for Trump to fire Mueller.
Of course, the Mueller probe could take a backseat once again if Trump decides to authorize a military intervention in Syria that would kill two birds with one stone: It would put to rest suspicions that Trump is being influenced by Russian President Vladimir Putin, while also creating a major spectacle to draw eyeballs away from Mueller.