Mary Altaffer / AP
President Donald Trump's longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, arrived at the federal court in Manhattan on Monday afternoon for a hearing relating to materials seized from his home, office, and hotel room.
By the time he left, Cohen's previously unnamed client was revealed as being Fox News host Sean Hannity and US District Judge Kimba Wood made clear that Cohen would soon get to see copies of the materials seized from his properties on April 9.
The hearing quickly veered into a dramatic courtroom showdown over the identity of the third of three legal clients Cohen claimed to have had over the past 15 months, in addition to Trump and a former top GOP official. Cohen's lawyers first fought to keep the identity secret, then asked only to tell the judge, claiming that the client wanted privacy.
But US District Judge Kimba Wood ordered them to release client's name “now.” When Hannity’s name was read out, the public gallery gasped and laughed at the news. Several journalists immediately ran out of the courtroom.
Hannity, one of Trump's most vocal defenders who also has private audiences with the president, shortly thereafter responded to the announcement.
“We have been friends a long time. I have sought legal advice from Michael,” Hannity told the Wall Street Journal. BuzzFeed News has reached out to Fox News for comment. On his radio show, which was in progress as the news came out, Hannity said that Cohen never represented him in any actual matter.
“I never used Michael in any case that involved me and a third party,” he said, but noting, “We definitely had attorney-client privilege because I asked him for that.”
Explaining the nature of their engagement, Hannity said, “I've never retained him in the traditional sense. I've never received an invoice from Michael — never paid legal fees. We occasionally had discussions about legal matters where I wanted his input and perspective. … I like to have people I can run questions by.”
Shortly thereafter, he tweeted similar points:
The identity of the client was important, the judge ruled, because Cohen's lawyers were arguing that some material in 10 boxes of records and electronics seized by the FBI should be protected under attorney-client privilege.
The commotion came in the second day of hearings in the dispute. On Friday, Wood demanded Cohen appear on Monday — creating a frenzy of reporters outside the courthouse in lower Manhattan. Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, who is suing Cohen in a separate case, also came to court. “It's a Stormy day,” he told reporters before going inside. Daniels is also in attendance.
Cohen is asking Wood for an order allowing his lawyers or a special master appointed by the court to first review the materials before anyone from the US Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York — which executed the warrant — does so.
The US Attorney's Office has proposed to use a so-called “taint team” to conduct the initial review — lawyers from the office who are not involved in the Cohen investigation — to determine what, if any material, should be shielded from the investigators because it is protected by attorney-client or another privilege.
Cohen's lawyers from McDermott Will and Emery, however, argue that appointing a special master would “avoid even a hint of impropriety here in the review of Mr. Cohen’s data and documents.”
Trump has also brought in his own lawyers from Spears and Imes to protect his interests as one of Cohen's clients. They, in a filing on Sunday night, made clear that they believe Cohen and Trump's lawyers should receive copies of the seized materials to make their own assessment of which documents are privileged.
During the Monday afternoon hearing, the US attorney’s office argued that the dispute was a “run of the mill case” and therefore appointing a taint team was standard protocol. “The only thing that marks this case as unusual, in any respect, is that one of Mr Cohen’s clients is the president,” said Thomas McKay, from the US Attorneys Office of the southern district of New York.
Cohen’s lawyer Todd Harrison disagreed. “That’s just not correct. We’re talking about an unprecedented raid on the office and home of the sitting president’s personal attorney.” He then added that while he wasn't accusing the government of doing anything wrong, the added scrutiny on the case made “the appearance of fairness” even more important.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Wood determined that she wouldn’t make the decision just yet — denying the motion for a temporary restraining order but leaving open the question of an injunction as the matter proceeds.
Wood laid out the next steps as follows: The government will put all its seized documents from Cohen in an electronic database, and Cohen will be given copies of the documents. Once everyone is aware of just how many documents there are and what information is being discussed (the US Attorneys Office lawyer said that cellphones, hard drives, the contents of computers and less than 10 boxes of physical documents were taken from Cohen’s home and office), then the judge could “make a more more intelligent choice whether a taint team handles it or a special master is part of it.”
Although the issue of who gets the initial review of the seized materials was the primary legal focus of the hearing, Wood at the first set of hearings on Cohen's request this past Friday made it clear that she wanted to a list of Cohen's claimed clients. That request came as a result of Cohen's lawyer at the hearing, Todd Harrison, claiming that “thousands” of documents involved would be protected by attorney-client privilege. Wood pushed back against the claim, asking for information about his clients.
In a Monday morning filing, Cohen claimed only three legal clients since leaving his job at the Trump Organization in January 2017 and operating as a solo practitioner: Trump; GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy; and a third, unnamed individual.
Although Cohen's lawyers fought in court to keep the name secret, Wood ruled against them, leading to the disclosure that Hannity was the third client.