Confirmed: Rod Rosenstein signed off on the Michael Cohen raid

Of course he did. Every lawyer who’s ever worked in a U.S. Attorney’s office has been on TV over the past 20+ hours explaining how extraordinary it is to seek a search warrant for a lawyer’s office — not the president’s lawyer’s office, any lawyer’s office. It’s extraordinary because it risks trampling on attorney-client privilege, a serious matter. The U.S. Attorney’s Manual requires multiple approvals up the DOJ chain of command to authorize it. And odds are those approvals won’t be given unless the evidence of probable cause to believe the attorney is engaged in criminal activity is very strong.

That is to say, higher-ups at the DOJ would have been involved in approving the raid even if Michael Cohen wasn’t the president’s lawyer, just any ol’ lawyer. But because he’s the president’s lawyer, the approval in this case went (almost) to the very highest higher-up. Rod Rosenstein himself gave the okay, no doubt knowing that doing so would place his job in dire jeopardy. Whatever they think they have on Cohen, and maybe Trump, must be damning.

Rod J. Rosenstein, the veteran Republican prosecutor handpicked by President Trump to serve as deputy attorney general, personally signed off on Monday’s F.B.I. decision to raid the office of Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s personal attorney and longtime confidant, three government officials said…

While Mr. Rosenstein must sign off on all moves that Mr. Mueller makes, that is not necessarily the case for searches — like this one — that are carried out by other federal law enforcement offices. Justice Department regulations require prosecutors to consult with senior criminal prosecutors in Washington — but not necessarily the deputy attorney general — before conducting a search of a lawyer’s files…

In addition to Mr. Rosenstein, all of the top law enforcement officials involved in the raid are Republicans: Mr. Mueller, Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. Director, and Geoffrey Berman, the interim United States attorney in New York.

That last part’s not quite true, as it turns out:

Berman recusing himself is unusual, but that’s because Trump’s job application process was unusual. POTUS himself interviewed Berman before he was appointed as acting U.S. Attorney by Jeff Sessions, something presidents typically don’t do with U.S. Attorney candidates. Berman must have assumed, correctly, that if he had declined to seek a search warrant of Cohen’s properties and that fact leaked to the media, he’d be seen as running interference for his political patron, Trump. So he stepped back.

Who requested the search warrant in the U.S. Attorney’s office if not Berman? Presumably it was the deputy U.S. Attorney, Robert Khuzami. Khuzami led the SEC’s enforcement division under Obama but he spoke at the 2004 Republican convention in support of George W. Bush. His Obama pedigree was yet another reason to get Rosenstein’s sign-off on this, though: Without support from a top Republican official, Trump would have been on Twitter ranting that the “Democrat” deputy in the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office was conducting the witch hunt now.

Or is there a more prosaic explanation for Rosenstein’s involvement?

In other words, whereas normally a U.S. Attorney would seek approval to search a lawyer’s office from the Criminal Division, they went straight to Rosenstein because the Criminal Division doesn’t have a Senate-confirmed head yet. If you’re going to seize papers from the president’s attorney, approval from someone at the DOJ who’d been vetted and approved by the Senate is the least you could ask for. Although I think Rosenstein would have been consulted even if the Criminal Division had signed off on the raid. His job is on the line here, after all, and the political implications of the raid are momentous. Imagine the FBI raiding Michael Cohen’s home, office, and hotel room and Rosenstein and Jeff Sessions not finding out until after the fact.

But what about the central question — namely, what exactly was the FBI looking for in Cohen’s papers? Material on the Stormy Daniels deal, right, but is that all? Nope, says CNN. They were looking for information on … his New York City taxi medallions. Um, what?

The search warrant behind Monday’s raids on the office and hotel room of President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, included a request for documents related to Cohen’s ownership of taxi medallions, two sources familiar with the matter tell CNN.

Cohen has held numerous New York City medallions in his portfolio, according to records, though the value has been diminished since the onset of Uber and Lyft.

It’s unfathomable that Rosenstein and the U.S. Attorney would have set off a political atomic bomb like this to pinch Cohen for shady business related to taxi operations. The taxi stuff must be something they’re eyeing for leverage. They may have smoking-gun evidence that he’s done something criminal with the medallions and figure they can use that to pressure him to tell what he knows about the Daniels payoff and the Trump Organization’s business dealings with foreign governments.

As I’m writing this, the NYT is reporting that Stormy Daniels wasn’t the only payoff the U.S. Attorney is interested in, either. They’re also looking for evidence of the National Enquirer’s deal with Karen McDougal, in which the Enquirer bought the rights to the story of her affair with Trump and then put it in a drawer rather than publish it. (“Catch and kill,” as it’s called.) Presumably the feds are looking for proof that Cohen or Trump or both orchestrated that payment, or maybe even reimbursed the Enquirer, in order to keep McDougal quiet before the election. If so, that’s another unreported campaign contribution, a violation of federal law. It’s mind-boggling that the Playmate and the porn star momentarily are a bigger threat to Trump than Russiagate is, but here we are.

Trump naturally blames Mueller for all of this, despite the fact that it was the U.S. Attorney’s office that sought the warrant. It was Mueller who referred the matter to them, of course. And it’s Mueller’s investigation that may benefit. Ken White explains why:

But consider this: The Stormy Daniels payout may be outside the scope of the Russia investigation, but it’s possible that Mr. Cohen’s records are full of materials that are squarely within that scope. And the law is clear: If investigators executing a lawful warrant seize evidence of additional crimes, they may use that evidence. Thus Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen, with their catastrophically clumsy handling of the Daniels affair, may have handed Mr. Mueller devastating evidence.

Stormygate gets the feds through the door of Cohen’s office. What they find there may end up being crucial to Russiagate.

Exit question: Why didn’t the U.S. Attorney seek approval from Jeff Sessions himself for the search warrant of Cohen’s properties? Sessions is recused from Russiagate but the Cohen raid, although potentially enormously important to Russiagate, wasn’t about Russiagate itself. That’s why Mueller handed it off to the U.S. Attorney, because it was outside the purview of his own investigation. Sessions therefore could have been consulted on it. Did Rosenstein decide to take the heat instead, fearing that Sessions would be fired if he signed off on the warrant? How does it benefit Mueller or the investigation if Rosenstein ends up being canned instead?