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The Criminal Investigation Into Trump Lawyer Michael Cohen Is Wild. We’ll Break It Down For You.

Spoiler alert: Sean Hannity makes a big-time appearance.

Last updated on April 26, 2018, at 4:46 p.m. ET

Posted on April 17, 2018, at 6:19 p.m. ET

First off: Who is Michael Cohen?

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

* Think of the phrase “Donald Trump’s inner circle.” You are thinking of Michael Cohen.

* Cohen is 51, he’s from Long Island, and he’s a lawyer. He joined the Trump Organization in 2006. On Inauguration Day in 2017, he left to become the president’s personal attorney.

* Cohen has been at the forefront of Trump’s personal life and career for more than a decade. He is Trump’s personal fixer, attack dog, and chief intermediary. He is fiercely, fiercely loyal to Trump.

* Example 1: When the Daily Beast asked Cohen for comment about accusations that Trump’s ex-wife Ivana felt “violated” during sex, Cohen responded, “I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?”

* Example 2: He told Vanity Fair, “I’m the guy who stops the leaks. I’m the guy who protects the president and the family. I’m the guy who would take a bullet for the president.”

* Here’s how the New Yorker described his role: “Cohen was the key intermediary between the Trump family and its partners around the world; he was chief consigliere and dealmaker throughout its period of expansion into global partnerships.” This includes Trump’s attempted deal for a Moscow tower.

Cohen’s business dealings

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Prosecutors still haven’t said why, specifically, Cohen is under criminal investigation. Before the public knew about the investigation, Cohen was in the news — a lot. Here’s a brief recap:

* He says he paid adult film star Stormy Daniels — legal name Stephanie Clifford — $130,000 before the 2016 election to silence her from speaking about an affair she says she had with Trump. Daniels has since sued Cohen and Trump. Trump says he had no idea the payment was made.

* Cohen was reportedly aware of a deal that American Media Inc. — owned by Trump’s friend David Pecker — struck with former Playboy model Karen McDougal in order to conceal her alleged affair with Trump.

* Cohen facilitated a reported $1.6 million payment from Elliott Broidy, a Trump donor and former GOP official, to an unnamed former Playboy model to conceal her affair with Broidy and to terminate her pregnancy.

* In 2013 he reportedly killed an Us Weekly story about an alleged affair between Donald Trump Jr. and Celebrity Apprentice contestant Aubrey O’Day. The story was dropped when Cohen threatened legal action.

* Cohen said he was aware of a $30,000 payment that American Media Inc. made to a Trump Tower doorman to conceal a rumor that Trump had fathered a child with a housekeeper there.

* Cohen bought a lot of taxi medallions — essentially the right to own a taxi cab in New York City — over the years. These currently cost from about $325,000 to $750,000, and in the recent past have cost over $1 million. And now special counsel Robert Mueller is interested in that.

Now, into the legal stuff. We’ll roughly take this by what was revealed on what date, so you can follow along as this orchestra keeps playing:

Elizabeth Williams / AP

Monday, April 9

* Federal agents executed search warrants for Cohen’s home, his Rockefeller Center office, his Loews Regency hotel room (his apartment is being renovated), his safety deposit box, and his electronic devices.

* This is a pretty aggressive move. It means that prosecutors and judges didn’t trust Cohen to turn over information on his own. They wanted to go get it themselves. To do this, prosecutors have to convince a judge that they will find evidence of wrongdoing at the place they’re going to search. And under Justice Department rules, additional standards need to be met — with additional approvals — to even seek a search warrant against an attorney.

* These searches were not ordered by Mueller, who is investigating whether the Trump presidential campaign colluded with Russia and if the president obstructed justice by interfering with his investigation.

* Instead, Mueller found some information related to Cohen in his investigation, brought it to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (who oversees his work), and they decided to kick it over to federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, in Manhattan, leaving them in charge of what to do with it.

* The interim US attorney in the Southern District is Geoffrey Berman, appointed to the role by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He also has been under consideration to be Trump’s nominee to take the position permanently. Berman, likely because of that, has recused himself from the Cohen investigation — meaning the Cohen investigation is being run by his deputy, Robert Khuzami, who is not a political appointee and can’t just be fired by Trump. As a career appointment, “his termination would be subject to administrative procedures and protections,” a spokesperson for the Southern District US Attorney’s Office told BuzzFeed News.

* The New York Times reported that prosecutors were looking for records related to Cohen’s payments to women, information about American Media’s payment, and information about Cohen’s taxi medallions. Prosecutors haven’t confirmed this.

Why does all this matter?

Trump is no fan of Mueller or his boss, Rod Rosenstein, and he reportedly wants to fire them. But even if Trump does successfully ice Mueller’s investigation, there is now a whole separate, independent investigation into one of Trump’s closest confidants being run out of an office completely removed from the special counsel's investigation. Trump would need to find another way to shut down if he were to try to do so. It’s a big deal.

Friday, April 13

Yana Paskova / Getty Images

* The first court hearing in this case featured prosecutors, attorneys for Cohen, and an attorney for Trump who was hired only earlier that week. The judge is US District Judge Kimba Wood, who’s been hearing big-time cases since former President Reagan appointed her to the bench 30 years ago.

* Prosecutors revealed that Cohen has been under criminal investigation for months, and that they have already searched the contents of several of his email addresses. They said they “seek evidence of crimes, many of which have nothing to do with his work as an attorney, but rather relate to Cohen’s own business dealings.”

* Cohen’s lawyers wanted the judge to stop the government from looking at the evidence from the searches. They argued that Cohen is a lawyer and the government could be violating the attorney-client privilege of confidentiality.

* Now usually, when the government gets evidence in an investigation that could fall under attorney-client privilege, someone has to look at that and say, “OK, the government can’t have this because it’s privileged, but the government can have this,” and so on. Usually the government sets up an independent group of prosecutors — called, we kid you not, a “taint team” — that makes these decisions.

* But Cohen’s lawyers didn’t want the prosecutors making those decisions — essentially, they don’t trust them. They wanted a temporary restraining order, or TRO, to stop the search. They also proposed that Cohen’s and Trump’s lawyers should be able to decide what records the government gets — and if not a fully independent person appointed by the court, called, we kid you not, a “special master,” should make that call.

* In response to this, the government pretty much unloaded on Cohen. They made two core arguments: a) We’re looking into Cohen’s business dealings, not his clients, and b) anyway, Cohen performs “little to no legal work,” and “zero emails were exchanged with President Trump,” and it was unclear who any of his other clients were.

Why does all this matter?

In court, the judge gave Cohen’s lawyers several hours to go find out who Cohen’s other clients are — he wasn’t at the hearing — and report back. This is important because, as you read above, Cohen’s lawyers said the government may have evidence that could violate the attorney-client privilege of his clients. But Cohen’s lawyers said they couldn’t immediately say who those clients are.

So the judge set up another hearing, on Monday, April 16, to find out who Cohen is representing. And she said Cohen needed to show up to court.

Also, while the court hearing was happening, Cohen was sitting outside his hotel with his pals.

Yana Paskova / Getty Images

Monday, April 16

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

* The second court hearing. This time, Cohen was there — along with Daniels and her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, sitting in the public area.

* Prosecutors revealed they got 10 boxes of records and electronics.

* The judge said she is still considering having the independent third party — the “special master” — review the documents the prosecutors have. But she said she won’t grant the TRO — because prosecutors agreed that the taint team won't start reviewing the evidence until this is all resolved. And the taint team prosecutors will organize the documents electronically so Cohen’s lawyers can say what they think the government shouldn't have.

* Cohen's lawyers then will give Trump and the Trump Organization copies of the documents so they can suggest what the government shouldn't have. But the judge won't decide how to resolve those issues — and whether to bring in the "special master" — until she gets a better idea of how many documents are involved.

* Here was the surprise news of the day: Remember how the judge wanted to know who Cohen’s clients are? Cohen revealed he has three. Trump, Broidy — that former top GOP official we discussed above — and a third who Cohen’s team would not name because the client “directed Mr. Cohen to not to reveal the identity publicly.” Cohen’s lawyers offered to tell the judge and only the judge, and not make the name public.

* Then! In a dramatic courtroom showdown, the judge ordered Cohen’s lawyers to reveal the name, in public, right then and there.

And — to gasps in the courtroom — they said it was Fox News host Sean Hannity.

Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images

Why does all this matter?

Hannity is literally Trump’s number-one defender, using his massive platform on Fox News and on his radio show to bring the president’s message to millions of people. He is a close confidant of Trump’s — he has seen him at the White House — and in turn, Trump sometimes tells his 50 million Twitter followers to tune in to Hannity.

Last week, Hannity called the seizure of Cohen’s records and electronics an “all-hands-on-deck effort to totally malign and, if possible, impeach the president of the United States.” He’s repeatedly slammed the Mueller probe.

And all this time, Hannity never disclosed that he and Trump shared the same lawyer.

Hannity quickly distanced himself from Cohen.

The @MichaelCohen212, executive VP to @realDonaldTrump joined me in studio today to discuss the #TrumpPhenomenon

Cohen’s lawyer said Cohen provided services to his client that amount to “direct legal advice or dispute resolution — more traditional legal tasks.” Hannity suggested a very narrow legal relationship existed.

In a tweet, Hannity said, “Michael Cohen has never represented me in any matter. I never retained him, received an invoice, or paid legal fees. I have occasionally had brief discussions with him about legal questions about which I wanted his input and perspective.”

“I assumed those conversations were confidential, but to be absolutely clear they never involved any matter between me and a third-party,” he tweeted, adding their discussions “dealt almost exclusively about real estate.”

“I might have handed him 10 bucks,” Hannity said on his radio show.

Thursday, April 26

Jane Rosenberg

* We started the day with Trump going on Fox and Friends to say Cohen only does "a tiny, tiny little fraction" of the president's legal work.

* Right after, prosecutors used that as evidence in a legal filing, saying Trump's Fox comments make it unlikely that prosecutors seized a lot of privileged information from Cohen.

* Soon after, Cohen was in court for a scheduled hearing. Judge Wood decided to appoint the special master, after all. Barbara Jones, a former federal judge in Manhattan who moved into private practice five years ago, will do the first review of the documents to determine what the government can get.

* Jones wasn't on the list of people Cohen lawyers and the government's lawyers put forward recommending special masters. Here's more information about the hearing.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.