By Brendan Pierson
NEW YORK (Reuters) – A federal judge is expected to consider on Thursday who should get the first look at documents that were seized by FBI agents from U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood has ordered the hearing in Manhattan to discuss the possible appointment of an independent official known as a special master to review the documents and determine whether they are shielded by attorney-client privilege before handing them over to prosecutors.
Lawyers for Cohen and Trump, who are seeking to limit prosecutors’ ability to review the documents, are expected to appear at the hearing. Attorney-client privilege shields communications between a lawyer and a client, with some exceptions.
In an action that infuriated the president, FBI agents raided Cohen’s office and home on April 9. Prosecutors said in a court filing several days later that they have been investigating the lawyer for months, largely over his business dealings rather than his legal work.
A lawyer for Cohen did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the investigation.
Trump distanced himself from the case on Thursday, saying in a Fox News interview that Cohen handled a “tiny, tiny little fraction” of his overall legal work.
“This doesn’t have to do with me,” Trump said. “They’re looking at something having to do with his business. I have nothing to do with his business.”
A lawyer for Cohen said at a court hearing last week that in addition to Trump, Cohen’s clients included Republican donor Elliott Broidy and conservative Fox News commentator and Trump supporter Sean Hannity.
Hannity has said he has had only “brief discussions” about legal matters with Cohen and never retained him.
Prosecutors have said the documents should be reviewed by a “taint team” of lawyers within their own office, who would be walled off from the main prosecution team. Cohen filed a legal action to block them from reviewing the documents, arguing that either his lawyers or a special master should get a first look.
Lawyers for Trump have also argued that they should be allowed the first look at documents related to the president. In a court filing on Wednesday, they said that Trump would personally “make himself available, as needed, to aid in our privilege review on his behalf.”
Wood said at a hearing last week that she believed a taint team could be fair, but that a special master might help ensure “the perception of fairness.”
Cohen has admitted paying $130,000 to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, before the 2016 election to secure her silence about a one-night stand she said she had with Trump in 2006. Daniels has sued to end her nondisclosure agreement.
Trump, who has denied having an affair with Daniels, said Cohen did nothing wrong in representing him in the “crazy” Stormy Daniels case. “There were no campaign funds going into this, which would have been a problem,” he told Fox.
Trump said on April 5 he knew nothing about the payment or where the money came from. Cohen has said the payment was lawful.
Daniels’ lawyer, Michael Avenatti, responded to the Trump interview saying on Twitter: “Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen previously represented to the American people that Mr. Cohen acted on his own and Mr. Trump knew nothing about the agreement with my client, the $130k payment, etc. As I predicted, that has now been shown to be completely false.”
On Wednesday, Cohen said in a filing in Los Angeles federal court that he would assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in connection with the civil lawsuit filed by Daniels.
Prosecutors are investigating Cohen for possible bank and tax fraud, possible campaign law violations in connection with the payment to Daniels, and perhaps other matters related to Trump’s campaign, a person familiar with the probe has said.
The investigation into Cohen stemmed in part from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible collusion between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia, something Trump has repeatedly denied.
(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Tom Brown and Frances Kerry)