The raids are a remarkable move against a longtime confidant of the president. Agents reportedly seized records related to Cohen’s $130,000 payment to porn actress/director Stormy Daniels, as well as other matters. Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, has said she had a sexual encounter with the president in 2006 and was threatened to keep quiet about it during the 2016 campaign.
Little information is known about the raid so far, but while Cohen has been under some scrutiny in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, there are some early signs that these raids are not Russia-related.
Cohen’s lawyer, Stephen Ryan, told the Times that Mueller had made a “referral” on the matter to the US attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. It was that US attorney’s team, not Mueller’s, that ordered these raids.
So one possibility is that Mueller discovered evidence of Cohen-related wrongdoing separate from the Russia scandal — for instance, campaign finance law violations in connection with the Daniels payment — but decided to hand that investigation off to others in the Justice Department rather than pursuing it himself.
Since the Wall Street Journal broke the story of Cohen’s hush money payment to Daniels in January, there have been questions about whether the payment violated campaign finance law. Made in the final weeks of a presidential campaign, the payment seems motivated to help out Trump’s election — but it’s far above the maximum that one individual can legally donate. If the money was in fact from Trump himself, that would raise questions of why it wasn’t appropriately disclosed.
Questions have also arisen about whether other women were paid hush money. “What did we have, a hundred women?” Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign CEO for the final months, later bragged to author Michael Wolff. He said another attorney for Trump, Marc Kasowitz, “took care of all of them.”
In any case, we don’t yet know exactly why Cohen is under such legal scrutiny (Apuzzo writes that “the payments to Ms. Clifford are only one of many topics being investigated,” per a source). Still, the fact that this is being handled by a US attorney’s office rather than Mueller does seem noteworthy. It suggests that if Trump would want to shut down this investigation, he can’t do so by firing Mueller — and that his efforts to co-opt the Justice Department have been unsuccessful for the time being.