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Documents Show Mueller Was Looking Into Cohen Before FBI Raid

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Good morning. We know a little more about the timing of the investigation of Michael Cohen. President Trump's former lawyer has pleaded guilty and testified under oath about his former boss. All of that came after the FBI raided his office in 2018. That much we knew. Now documents show that special counsel Robert Mueller sought the first search warrants for Cohen's emails as early as July 2017 - very early in Mueller's investigation. Clint Watts is going to help us talk this through. He is a former FBI special agent and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Good morning.

CLINT WATTS: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And welcome back to the program. What do you learn from these documents?

WATTS: I think the most interesting point is that by July 2017, they were already applying for a warrant, which is really just two months after the start of the special counsel investigation, suggesting that even before Robert Mueller was appointed, they were already probably looking into Cohen and his dealings.

And what's always interesting in these investigations is that accountants and lawyers are the hub. They're the nodes for communications and financial transactions. And so you learn a lot about how this operation was working, his essential consultants firm that he had set up and the volume of money that was flowing into those accounts.

INSKEEP: Well, I suppose it would be automatic if you are a prosecutor - if you're looking into the dealings of President Trump - that you might become interested in the president's longtime personal attorney. But, of course, you have to have probable cause for a search warrant, right? Is there indication in these documents what it was that Mueller learned that gave him the grounds - the basis - to start reading Michael Cohen's emails?

WATTS: Yeah, you can't really tell that from the search warrants, and a lot of that is redacted, particularly when it comes to campaign finance. But what is interesting is they did an initial warrant, and then they did follow-up warrants. That suggests that whatever they discovered in those first warrants - when they started in July '17 - was more than sufficient enough to go after multiple other warrants. You see email addresses added over time, and that suggests the investigation was expanding.

It's also remarkable that there was almost - almost nine months or so before we saw the search warrant of his offices, which was sort of the spectacular event. This had been going for a very long time and included everything from a pen register for telephones to, you know, financial transactions to several different email accounts. So they had probably a good understanding not just of all of the communications and transactions going on but also Cohen's life and his real - really, his personal habits, down to, you know, how he operated as a business and as a person.

INSKEEP: Hasn't this turned out to be one of the most important strands of the investigation? I'm thinking that it is Cohen who - whose testimony has effectively implicated the president himself in a crime - a campaign finance violation, for example.

WATTS: Yes, this is a person who was in direct contact with the president before the election and after the election. That individual can piece together lots of different strands of the investigation, as you just said. And what you learn is the context of it. It sound - sounds as if Michael Cohen is now working with the special counsel's office, which is different from other people that have been brought up in this investigation. And so if that is the case, he can really put some context on every phone call that was seen, every email that was seen, every financial transaction that was done. And that really, really opens the eyes of investigators.

INSKEEP: Mr. Watts, thanks for the insights.

WATTS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Clint Watts is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.