President Trump is either very mad, or very scared, or both. And he has good reason to be.
On Monday, federal agents raided the home and business of Trump's "personal attorney" Michael Cohen, who in fact is much more than a lawyer. In response, Trump called the raid "an attack on our country" and "a disgrace." In private, The Washington Post reported, he "stewed all afternoon about the warrant to seize Cohen's records, at times raising his voice" (I'll bet). Then Tuesday morning, he blurted out "Attorney-client privilege is dead!" on Twitter, followed a minute later by "A TOTAL WITCH HUNT!!!"
As it happens, attorney-client privilege isn't dead. Prosecutors have always been able to overcome it and get access to privileged communications and materials, but the Justice Department has an extremely involved process for what's required by such a request, which is one of the reasons raids like this one are extremely rare. Special Counsel Robert Mueller had to inform Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees his probe; submit a detailed explanation of what he was seeking to the department's Criminal Division; and get the approval of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. It was that U.S. attorney's office which then prepared a warrant, which they had to get approved by a judge.
In short, a whole bunch of officials had to sign off on this request, and the fact that they did so suggests that Mueller was able to show clear evidence that Cohen had committed a crime. Which wouldn't exactly come as a surprise to those familiar with Cohen, a character up until now best known for allegedly threatening people and arranging Stormy Daniels' hush money.
But the fact that Cohen's home and office were raided is not just bad news for Trump, it's an outright disaster. Here are some of the reasons why.
1. It shows this investigation goes way beyond Russia. Trump's position on the Russia scandal, repeated endlessly, has been "no collusion, no collusion." The Cohen raid shows that Mueller's investigation has moved far beyond the question of to what extent the Trump campaign did or did not collude with Russia in 2016. This was always the greatest danger for Trump, who has spent a lifetime skirting around both the letter and spirit of the law. It's why he keeps his tax returns secret: If we knew what goes on in Trump's business, we'd be appalled. And a prosecutor with subpoena power could find out an awful lot.
2. Michael Cohen is much more than Trump's "personal attorney." Trump has plenty of lawyers who'll respond to lawsuits or file papers for him. Cohen is something much more: a fixer, a deal-maker, a wartime consigliere. "Michael Cohen is the most important non-Trump in the Trump business world. He oversaw nearly all the foreign deals as the Trump Org shifted its focus to sketchy third-tier overseas oligarchs," noted journalist Adam Davidson, who has reported on some of those foreign deals. Cohen is one of the key links between Trump and Russia. If Trump needed to, let's say, pay hush money to a porn star (to take a random example), Cohen would be the one he'd tell to take care of it.
In other words, with the possible exception of his children, no one knows more about whatever shady stuff Trump has been involved in than Michael Cohen. And now federal agents are combing through Cohen's files, computers, and phone records.
3. There's almost certainly a real crime here. Because it's considered such an extraordinary measure to get a warrant to search an attorney's office and seize his communications with his client, Mueller wouldn't have been able to say, "I'm not sure what's going on, but I think it's fishy." He would have had to have very specific evidence showing that Cohen had committed a crime or crimes, and he would have to present that evidence in detail to all concerned: to Rosenstein, to the Criminal Division, to the U.S. attorney's office, and to the judge who ultimately issued the warrant. That doesn't mean convictions are guaranteed, but it suggests that Michael Cohen at least, and probably his client as well, are in some extremely hot water.
4. Firing Mueller won't end it. Trump has obviously wanted to fire Robert Mueller from the beginning, but his aides and lawyers have convinced him that it would precipitate a constitutional crisis. But now it has reached a point where firing Mueller might not solve Trump's problem, even if he could get away with it.
The nature of this request to overcome attorney-client privilege and get a warrant for Cohen's communication with Trump has spread evidence far beyond Mueller and his team. In order to get this warrant, Mueller had to essentially turn the matter over to the U.S. attorney's office, which is now in possession of both the evidence Mueller used to justify getting the warrant in the first place, and whatever evidence the search of Cohen's home and office produced. They could potentially pursue a prosecution of Cohen and/or Trump if it was justified.
In addition, any privileged communication between Cohen and Trump that the search produces will be turned over to what is sometimes called a "taint team" or a "clean team," Justice Department officials who will determine if it should stay privileged or if it falls under the "crime-fraud exception," which would mean Trump and Cohen cooperated to commit some kind of crime. If they did, that evidence would be given to a judge who could then pass it on to any number of prosecutors: not just Mueller, but also the U.S. attorney, the attorney general of New York, even the district attorney of Manhattan. So for at least some potential crimes, it may be too late for Trump to fire Mueller.
5. Trump is not handling it well — and you know how he gets. Trump has seen the Mueller investigation as illegitimate from the beginning, and has frequently expressed his anger at Attorney General Jeff Sessions, at the FBI, at the Justice Department, and at pretty much anyone he thinks ought to protect him. He's always been his own worst enemy; you might recall the time he said on national TV that he fired FBI Director James Comey in order to quash the Russia investigation, which sounded a lot like an admission that he obstructed justice.
It's only getting worse the closer the investigation gets to him. "Angry and increasingly isolated, the president is more unpredictable than ever," reported Politico this week, in one of many behind-the-scenes accounts portraying Trump as being driven to distraction by this latest development.
And all this is happening before we even know what the investigators will find in Cohen's files. Of course, it's possible that Cohen is an honorable but misunderstood attorney who has done nothing wrong, nor has his client. But I wouldn't put money on it.