WASHINGTON — Long before FBI agents arrived at his door in April 2018, Michael Cohen was in deep trouble with the law.
Federal officials had been investigating Cohen for nearly a year — since July 2017 — over a laundry list of possible crimes. The feds knew about the $83,333 he’d been getting paid every month in consulting fees by a firm linked to a billionaire Russian oligarch widely seen as close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and they had reviewed a lengthy paper trail covering Cohen’s suspicious statements to banks.
Only later, according to the documents, while investigating those issues, did investigators find evidence Cohen had also arranged illegal hush-money payments, in the middle of the 2016 campaign, to women claiming they’d slept with Donald Trump.
New search-warrant records unsealed Tuesday reveal that special counsel Robert Mueller’s office began probing President Trump’s former attorney almost a year earlier than has been previously acknowledged, with an early emphasis on a series of sketchy foreign consulting payments and Cohen’s personal finances.
The new documents change the public timeline of Mueller’s Russia investigation by showing an intense, early focus on Cohen’s money, one that later blossomed into other charges of campaign finance violations.
The documents help explain why Cohen eventually split off from Trump — the boss he’d once vowed he’d take a bullet for — by underscoring just how much pressure Cohen was under from criminal prosecutors by the time he eventually pleaded guilty and began cooperating in August 2018.
“I think Mueller’s office would have looked at these payments and wondered whether they were part of the bigger picture of Russian involvement in the 2016 election,” said Charles A. Intriago, a former federal prosecutor and an expert on money laundering. “And my view is that they were indeed part of a broader Russian strategy to get closer to Cohen and to the administration.”
An impressive pile of evidence had already been stacked up against him, even before FBI agents raided his apartment, office, hotel room, and safe deposit box in April 2018, in the moment when the investigation into Cohen burst into public view.
Cohen's foreign money
The new documents reveal Mueller investigated Cohen over a host of potential crimes that were never actually charged — including operating as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, potential money laundering, and wire fraud.
FBI agents working with Mueller obtained their first warrant on a Gmail account used by Cohen in July 2017, just two months after Mueller was appointed to investigate Trump’s links to Russia that May.
They took out two more warrants on Cohen’s email and iCloud accounts in August and November.
While probing foreign payments and suspect loan applications, investigators “obtained evidence that Mr. Cohen had also committed a criminal violation of campaign finance laws,” the April 2018 documents say. Materials found in those inquiries were sent to prosecutors in Manhattan in February 2018.
Cohen ultimately pleaded guilty to eight counts of financial crimes brought by the Southern District of New York, including six related to his personal finances. He also pleaded guilty to two more counts relating to campaign finance violations stemming from the hush-money payments.
The documents don’t specify which foreign government Mueller first suspected Cohen might be working for.
But they do say investigators knew Cohen had received some $3 million in fishy-looking payments, including from foreign businesses, just days after then-boss entered the White House.
Other press reports have recounted how Cohen, who wasn’t given a job in the Trump administration, pitched himself as an advisor to outsiders attempting to understand the new president, and signed contracts for hefty consulting fees.
The new documents recount how Cohen began receiving payments from an investment company linked to Russian billionaire oligarch Viktor Vekselberg on roughly January 31, 2017, just 11 days after Trump was sworn into office. The Russia-linked investment company, Columbus Nova LLC, paid Cohen a total of $583,332 in monthly installments of $83,333, the documents say.
Investigators also noted that Cohen took $600,000 from Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd., a South Korean weapons-maker. At the time, the firm was trying to score a $16 billion jet fighter contract from the Trump administration.
Swiss drug-maker Novartis and U.S. telecom AT&T also paid Cohen hefty consulting fees.
Investigators saw that money flow as highly suspect, and noted that they didn’t look like simple real estate consulting payments that Cohen had told the bank his account would be used for.
The payments “do not reflect the stated profile for the residential and commercial real-estate consulting services,” an FBI special agent wrote in one of the documents in April 2018.
Columbus Nova would later insist in a statement that it had retained Cohen’s services “as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures.” AT&T would say the payments were aimed at tapping Cohen’s insights about Trump, and “understanding the new administration.”
The documents say Cohen ultimately used those payments for personal expenses, including paying his fees at the Core Club, one of New York’s swankiest private clubs, where admission alone reportedly costs $50,000, in addition so some $17,000 in annual fees.
The $100 million man
Unfortunately for Cohen, those foreign payments weren’t the only red flags spotted by investigators.
The hundreds of pages unsealed on Tuesday recount in detail Cohen’s dealings with his banks that raised suspicions.
At one point, Cohen listed his own personal assets as topping $100 million, according to the documents, while he was in the process of taking out a loan. Just a short time later, he seemed to be having trouble making his loan payments.
Ultimately, Cohen would plead guilty to one count of making false statements to a bank — after a bewildering cycle of loans and refinancings among three different banks, all made while his once-profitable investments in the taxi cab industry were imploding under the threat from ride-sharing apps.
In the course of investigating all those activities, investigators also found evidence that Cohen had violated campaign finance laws during the 2016 campaign.
Yet the details of how much prosecutors for the Southern District of New York knew about those hush-money payments at the moment of the raid on Cohen’s properties in April 2018 remains unclear.
In a sign that the investigation into those payments is still very much underway, several pages relating to campaign finance violations were fully redacted in the documents released on Tuesday.
Cover image: Michael Cohen, former personal attorney for U.S. President Donald Trump, exits the Loews Regency hotel and walks toward a taxi cab, July 27, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)