President Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer and hard-edged fixer, Michael Cohen, lost an early round in federal court in Manhattan on Monday as a judge ordered him to disclose the name of a celebrity client he had tried to keep secret: Fox News personality Sean Hannity.
The disclosure was the latest surprise in an extraordinary court case in which the president is fighting his own Justice Department — and losing so far.
The disclosure also is having a ripple effect in the worlds of politics and the media, with Hannity denying he was Cohen’s client and much speculation about what comes next.
U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood rejected a request from Trump’s lawyer to issue a restraining order in the case. But she delayed her ruling on the bigger question on whether lawyers for Cohen and Trump could quash at least some of the evidence that FBI agents seized from Cohen last week despite what Trump’s attorney called “the highly politicized, even fevered, atmosphere that envelops this matter.”
Cohen’s lawyer, Stephen Ryan, told the court that Cohen had only three clients — Trump, Elliott Broidy, a prominent Los Angeles-based Republican fundraiser, and a third whom he declined to name.
Ryan said the mystery client had asked to keep his name out of the case, and to file a legal appeal if necessary to keep his identity secret. The lawyer at one point offered to reveal the name in a sealed envelope or secret filing to the court, but Wood ordered the disclosure made in open court.
“I rule it must be disclosed now,” she said.
“The client’s name is Sean Hannity,” Ryan said.
That prompted a loud gasp in the crowded courtroom given Hannity’s close ties to Trump — and because he had not disclosed his association with Cohen in multiple on-air commentaries about the case, even when Cohen appeared as his guest. The lawyers did not say what legal work Cohen had performed for Hannity.
Hannity later released a statement saying Cohen had “never represented me in any matter,” although they “occasionally had brief discussions” on legal questions.
“I assumed those conversations were confidential, but to be absolutely clear they never involved any matter between me and a third party,” he said. Hannity said Cohen never sent him a bill for legal services and he never paid Cohen for his advice.
That left unclear why Cohen’s lawyers had said in a written submission to the court that he was Cohen’s client and that their communications should be considered covered by attorney-client privilege.
Hannity, one of Trump’s fiercest defenders, has harshly criticized the Justice Department on his Fox News show for sending FBI agents to seize evidence from Cohen’s New York apartment, hotel room, office and safety deposit box on April 9.
A federal magistrate had approved the search warrants as part of a monthslong criminal investigation into whether Cohen violated banking and campaign finance laws. The case stemmed from a referral from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, but is under the public integrity section of the office of the United States attorney for Southern District of New York.
Cohen has arranged two hush-money payments to women who claimed they had sexual affairs with Trump. He gave $130,000 to Stormy Daniels, the porn actress, and she attended the court hearing Monday, listening to the arguments without expression.
“Depending on what is contained within those documents, I think there is significant danger to the president,” her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, told reporters after the hearing. “The president trusted Mr. Cohen as his fixer for years … and I think the chickens are about to come home to roost.”
For Broidy, Cohen helped broker a $1.6 million payment to a former Playboy model with whom he had a sexual relationship. The woman became pregnant and subsequently had an abortion, Broidy said in a statement last week after The Wall Street Journal first reported Cohen’s role.
The bulk of the hearing focused on efforts by lawyers for Trump and Cohen to stop federal prosecutors from sifting through a trove of tax records, business documents, emails and other material that FBI agents seized in the raids last week. They argued that the evidence should be protected by attorney-client privilege.
“We have a situation unprecedented in the history of the U.S.,” Ryan said.
But prosecutors said Trump had no more rights under the law than anyone else if his lawyer committed a crime.
“No one has given any reason why President Trump’s assertion of privilege is different from that of any other citizen of the U.S.,” said Thomas McKay, an assistant U.S. attorney.
In court filings, the government has argued that the evidence taken from Cohen can be reviewed by a walled-off “taint team” of prosecutors who can judge which documents are relevant to the criminal investigation and which are not and should be kept confidential.
Trump’s lawyers responded that it was “unreasonable” to expect federal prosecutors to protect the president’s rights — thus disputing the Justice Department’s position.
“In the highly politicized, even fevered, atmosphere that envelops this matter, it is simply unreasonable to expect that a team of prosecutors, even if not directly involved in the investigation of Mr. Cohen, could perform a privilege review in the manner necessary to safeguard the important interests of the president, as the holder of the privilege,” Trump’s attorney, Joanna C. Hendon, wrote in a filing.
Hendon argued that Trump’s team should have the right to first review the seized material to delete anything they believe is privileged material involving the president.
McKay told the judge that such a process would lead to long skirmishes over individual documents and lengthy delays.
“They’re going to take that inch and take a mile and slow down this ongoing criminal investigation, because it’s in Mr. Cohen’s interest to do so,” he said.
Wood seemed sympathetic to the prosecution view, saying she had faith in the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan.
“Their integrity is unimpeachable,” she said, rejecting a request from the president’s lawyer to issue a restraining order blocking prosecutors from reviewing the material.
The government will first compile all the records and give an inventory to Trump and Cohen, Wood ruled, to see what kind of volume of documents were seized. She said she would hold another hearing in several weeks to determine how to proceed.
McKay said agents took 10 boxes of records, but that most of Cohen’s files were on computer drives that they also seized.
Trump has complained bitterly about the FBI raids on Cohen, saying via Twitter on Sunday that “Attorney Client privilege is now a thing of the past. I have many (too many!) lawyers and they are probably wondering when their offices, and even homes, are going to be raided with everything, including their phones and computers, taken. All lawyers are deflated and concerned!”
Trump may have undermined his own argument for protecting the records when he told reporters on Air Force One two weeks ago that he wasn’t aware that Cohen had paid $130,000 to the porn actress, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. Prosecutors are expected to argue that Cohen wasn’t acting as Trump’s lawyer when he paid the money.
Cohen has said he paid the money to Daniels himself, was not reimbursed by Trump, and never told Trump what he’d done.