Michael Cohen, US President Donald Trump's former personal attorney, testifies before the House oversight and reform committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 27 2019. Picture: AFP/MANDEL NGAN
Michael Cohen, US President Donald Trump's former personal attorney, testifies before the House oversight and reform committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 27 2019. Picture: AFP/MANDEL NGAN

New York — The US-Russia collusion probe was targeting the e-mails of President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen over his foreign contacts in July 2017 — long before his offices were raided last year, according to court documents unsealed on Tuesday.

Special counsel Robert Mueller began seeking warrants to get into Cohen’s e-mails — and eventually his phones — just two months after he was named to lead the investigation.

The paperwork suggests an initially narrow probe into the New York attorney’s work on behalf of foreign clients, which snowballed into a much broader corruption investigation.

Cohen was eventually sentenced to three years in jail for election finance fraud, bank fraud, tax avoidance and lying to US Congress, after implicating Trump in some of those crimes.

Some 900 pages of applications indicate that Mueller initially used the rarely enforced Foreign Agents Registration Act, and suspicions of money-laundering and financial fraud, to ask a court to let him review Cohen’s e-mails dating from 2016.

That apparently revealed more financial fraud and that Cohen was earning millions of dollars in unreported consulting fees from major businesses including Novartis and a US company linked to Russian tycoon Viktor Vekselberg.

The payments from the Vekselberg firm, who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, began just days after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 and eventually totaled nearly $600,000.

The documents revealed details about Cohen’s anonymously owned company, Essential Consultants, that he used to arrange a hush payment to Stormy Daniels, the porn star who claimed an affair with Trump.

Eventually, Mueller’s team, which was focusing on whether Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with Russia, referred much of the information on Cohen to prosecutors in the US justice department’s Manhattan office, leading to the dramatic raids on Cohen's residence and offices in April 2018.

Secret until now, the search warrant applications provided no new information on Trump, for whom Cohen worked for a decade as executive vice president and “fixer” at the Trump Organisation.

Cohen has told prosecutors Trump ordered him to make the payoff to Daniels just before the 2016 election, which was later ruled to be in violation of campaign finance laws.

Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis said Tuesday’s release “only furthers his interest in continuing to co-operate and providing information and the truth about Donald Trump and the Trump Organisation to law enforcement and Congress.”

AFP