When I heard this morning that he had had only three clients this past year and was unwilling to name the third, I thought immediately that it had to be someone famous. Not because of the dynamics of the situation; if anything, you’d be more reluctant to reveal a client’s name if he *isn’t* famous and used to public notoriety than if he is. I thought it had to be someone famous, and shocking, because our political reality is an increasingly ludicrous television show. Of course Cohen would have a mystery client and of course it’d be a character we’d met before.
Honestly, my guess was that it was the Clintons. Or James Comey. Either one contracting with Michael Cohen for legal services would make zero sense, I know, but that’s the beauty of television drama. It doesn’t need to make sense. It just needs to be juicy.
But no. Somehow, the mystery client revelation is even juicier than that:
Michael Cohen's previously unnamed third client is SEAN HANNITY.
— erica orden (@eorden) April 16, 2018
Hannity’s name came out because there’s a new hearing in federal court this afternoon on Cohen’s request to review his own seized files for privileged material before the feds do. (Or rather, before they do so any further.) Judge Kimba Wood wanted to know how many clients he has and who they are, as that would give her a sense of how much privileged material there might be. Just three clients, she was told. One, of course, is Trump. The other is Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy, whose dirty laundry was aired last week when it emerged that Cohen had done a hush-money deal with a former mistress for him too. We’d prefer not to name the third client, though, said Cohen’s lawyer. Too bad, said Wood. Let’s have it.
And that’s how we arrived at the greatest plot twist yet in season three of “The Apprentice: Oval Office.”
It’s true, says Hannity:
Hannity confirms pic.twitter.com/fGTmQhBpWI
— Joshua Green (@JoshuaGreen) April 16, 2018
Hannity’s going to take enormous heat here, partly for salacious reasons and partly for ethical ones. The salacious heat will come from the fact that Cohen’s legal work for Trump and Broidy appears to consist mostly (or entirely?) of arranging hush money for ex-girlfriends. There’s zero evidence right now that that’s what Hannity enlisted Cohen for, but that’s the conclusion that many will jump to, unfairly. There’s a more interesting mystery, though, than what Cohen did for Hannity: Namely, why did a guy with a mountain of money choose to hire a goon like Cohen for legal work? Hannity could have paid any lawyer in America whatever they asked to handle his business and they would have been discreet and competent. Instead he went to Cohen. Even if it was for something as pedestrian as drafting a will, why not call up a white-shoe Manhattan firm and pay to have the best of the best handle it instead?
There’s no turning down the ethical heat, though. How do you cover a major story like the feds seizing Michael Cohen’s files on a “news” channel without disclosing that you have a personal interest in the story?
You can predict how Hannity will play this. “I’m not a journalist!” he’ll say. “I’m a talk-show host!” Well, (a) that’s not what he’s been saying recently. Of late he’s taken to calling himself an “advocacy journalist” and likes to tout the scoops he gets from reporters like Sara Carter. But (b) even if you accept that he’s not a journalist, it doesn’t follow that he shouldn’t be held to very basic ethics like mentioning that his opinion on the legality of the FBI seizing files from a lawyer might be influenced by the fact that he’s, er, his personal lawyer. You can be partial and ethical. Hiding a conflict of interest from viewers is one but not the other. We’ll see if Fox does anything or if he gets another wrist slap like the time he cut a campaign commercial for Trump.
Exit question: Is the ethical problem diminished here by the fact that literally everyone realizes Hannity would be cheerleading for Cohen and Trump against the feds even if they had no business together? Can you be so deep in the tank for the president’s interests, in other words, that your own conflict of interest is negligible?
Update: From Hannity frenemy Shep Smith, who was live on the air when the news broke:
On Fox, Shep Smith addresses Hannity: "We just spoke with his publicist here at Fox News who says that he says they've been friends for a long time, he never denied that he he was his lawyer, that he did some legal work along the way, and that's the extent of that."
— Max Tani (@maxwelltani) April 16, 2018
You can start counting the minutes until a piece appears somewhere online, probably at CNN.com, about Fox News reporters having conniptions over the fact that Hannity didn’t disclose his business relationship with Cohen before reporting on it.
Update: A golden moment in Fox history:
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 16, 2018
Update: Assuming this is true, you can rule out anything salacious like a hush-money agreement on Hannity’s behalf:
Update: Hannity chimes in. Remember, it’s Cohen himself who’s claiming he’s a client, not the U.S. Attorney’s office:
Hannity would still be a “client” if he sought Cohen’s legal advice, whether or not he paid or Cohen represented him in any matter. That’s why Cohen disclosed their relationship to the court. One thing I’m wondering is how often he sought his advice, though, as it would be easy to overlook Hannity as a client if he was only occasionally asking him for casual legal input in the course of friendly get-togethers. Evidently it was enough to make think Cohen think he should mention it to Wood. Or, alternately, Hannity discussed something so sensitive with him that Cohen wanted to be extra sure to alert the court to the privileged nature of their communications so that they didn’t end up outside the feds’ “taint team” inadvertently.
Update: Another possibility:
Bear in mind that Cohen has every incentive to exaggerate his client communciations to try to derail the doc review, so he may be spinning Hannity into a client when he really isn't, or is only minimally for a few communications.
— IncitementToResurrectionHat (@Popehat) April 16, 2018
Imagine how pissed Hannity would be if that were true. What if he asked Cohen casually for legal advice a handful of times and Cohen, desperate to inflate the number of clients he has in hopes of exaggerating the amount of privileged material in the feds’ possession, just tossed Hannity’s name in there when the judge asked who his clients were? Now Hannity has this mess to deal with.
Update: Most of our chats were about real estate, says Hannity:
The fact that they’d be talking real estate seems plausible as Cohen did some of that work for Trump, of course. And it’s the sort of thing you might bring up idly in friendly conversation with a lawyer friend: “Oh, that reminds me, I’m looking at this property down south and…” yadda yadda yadda. And yet the fact remains: For whatever reason, Michael Cohen regards Sean Hannity as a client. It wasn’t Bob Mueller or the U.S. Attorney or Kimba Wood who claimed in court that attorney/client privilege applies to their conversations, it was Cohen himself. Is Cohen exaggerating their relationship?
Update: Yeah, here’s another problem:
This is dangerous. He wants to preserve attorney-client privilege while also minimizing the relationship. Minimize too much, and you lose the ability to claim privilege. https://t.co/pjjA8ugncd
— David French (@DavidAFrench) April 16, 2018
Cohen and Hannity are at cross-purposes in characterizing their relationship. Cohen wants the court to think the feds have an enormous amount of privileged material in their hands, risking exposure of all sorts of client confidences to federal prosecutors. Hannity wants the public to think there’s no attorney/client relationship in the first place, as he never formally retained Cohen and would be in hot water ethically for not disclosing their consultations for reasons described above. Prosecutors could cite his comments today to argue, though, that because Hannity never believed they were attorney and client, their communications can’t be privileged. Prosecutors can read them.