- Legal experts reacted to the major New York Times report that President Donald Trump’s former longtime lawyer Michael Cohen may soon face charges.
- The Times reported Sunday that Cohen may be charged before the end of August.
- One former federal prosecutor said such a quick turnaround from the initial April raid of Cohen’s properties to him being formally charged could signal his cooperation with the government.
- Meanwhile, a prominent criminal defense attorney said the idea that such charges are “imminent” should be taken “with a grain of salt.”
Legal experts laid out to Business Insider what to make of the major New York Times report Sunday that President Donald Trump’s former longtime lawyer Michael Cohen may face charges by the end of the month.
One former federal prosecutor said such a quick turnaround from the initial April raid of Cohen’s properties to him being formally charged could signal his cooperation, while a prominent criminal defense attorney said the idea that such charges are “imminent” should be taken “with a grain of salt.”
Cohen is the focus of a criminal investigation in the Southern District of New York into whether he violated campaign-finance laws, committed bank fraud or wire fraud, engaged in illegal lobbying, or participated in other crimes. The FBI raided Cohen’s home, hotel room, and office in April, seizing more than four million documents from Trump’s longtime lawyer.
At the center of the investigation is the $130,000 hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels, which Cohen facilitated just before the 2016 presidential election to keep her quiet about her allegation of an affair with Trump in 2006 – an allegation Trump has denied. The FBI sought documents related to that payment and similar arrangements with other women.
Investigators have also taken interest in some of Cohen’s business dealings, particularly as they related to his once-sprawling taxi business. Cohen and his wife built up a large taxi business on the back on the 32 licenses they own. Those licenses are known as medallions.
The Times reported federal investigators are probing whether Cohen committed bank and tax fraud through his taxi business, writing that they have zeroed in on more than $20 million in loans obtained by those businesses. The Times reported that investigators are also examining whether any of the arrangements Cohen helped negotiate with women who claimed to have affairs with Trump violated campaign finance or other laws.
‘This may be a cooperation plea agreement’
The Cohen investigation has reached “the final stage,” as The Times reported, with prosecutors weighing whether to file charges before the end of August, two people familiar with the probe told the publication.
Ken White, a criminal defense attorney, told Business Insider in an email that while he accepts that Cohen is being investigated for what The Times laid out in its report, he “would take with a grain of salt the suggestion charges or resolution are imminent.”
“That sounds sketchy,” he said.
The Times wrote that it’s still possible for Cohen to plead guilty rather than face indictment, as the president’s former attorney has hinted for much of the past two months that he is willing to work with prosecutors and provide information related to the president. It’s not known yet whether Cohen’s attorneys have discussed such an agreement with prosecutors.
Roland Riopelle, a partner at Sercarz & Riopelle who was formerly a federal prosecutor with the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, told Business Insider in an email that the brief five-month delay between the FBI’s raids and potential charges signals to him that “this may be a cooperation plea agreement.”
“If the matter was contested, the delay could be longer before charges were returned,” he said, adding that the recent “silence from Cohen and his lawyers is also something that weighs in favor of a cooperation deal.”
“The SDNY would not want Cohen and his lawyers wading into the press the way they were, if a cooperation deal is in the works,” he said. “Ultimately, however, it’s really hard to predict these things or read tea leaves accurately. So any inferences must be taken with a grain of salt.”
The outstanding questions
Mitchell Epner, an attorney at Rottenberg Lipman Rich and a former federal prosecutor in the US Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey, laid out the important questions moving forward in an email to Business Insider.
First is whether Cohen is charged by indictment or by information, the latter which would signal that Cohen “is certainly pleading guilty on day one and may already have a cooperation deal,” Epner said. If he is charged by indictment, Cohen “may or may not eventually plead guilty and, if so, might eventually cooperate.”
Another important question is what prosecutors are involved in charging Cohen – specifically, whether anyone from special counsel Robert Mueller’s office joins the team in the Southern District of New York that has been handling the probe. Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, handed off the inquiry to the Southern District of New York at first.
“If there are any people from the Special Counsel’s office, that will strongly indicate that they are still trying to flip Michael Cohen,” Epner said.
Lastly, Epner said if Cohen is charged, whether any of the charges “factually overlap with” Trump will be key.
The Times reported it’s unclear whether any of the potential charges prosecutors may soon file are related to any work Cohen did for Trump or his presidential campaign.