NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer was forced on Monday to reveal in a New York federal court that Fox News personality Sean Hannity, one of Trump’s most ardent defenders, was also on his client list.
Michael Cohen, Trump’s fiercely loyal and pugnacious lawyer, disclosed Hannity’s name through one of his own lawyers at the order of the judge. Stormy Daniels, an adult-film actress who says she had a sexual encounter with Trump, watched from the public gallery.
Daniels, in a separate civil case, is fighting a 2016 non-disclosure agreement arranged by Cohen in which she got $130,000 (£90,674) to stop her from discussing her claim she had sex with Trump a decade earlier, something Trump has denied.
Hannity, 56, said on Monday that he had never paid for Cohen’s services or been represented by him, but had sought confidential legal advice from him. The conservative host often uses his weeknight broadcast on Fox News to defend the president against what he sees as biased attacks by the media. Sometimes Trump praises Hannity in return.
Cohen was in court to ask the judge to limit the ability of federal prosecutors to review documents seized from his offices and home last week as part of a criminal investigation, which stems in part from a probe into possible collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia.
The Russia investigation has frustrated the White House as it has spread to enfold some of Trump’s closest confidantes.
Judge Kimba Wood spent more than 2-1/2 hours listening to arguments by Cohen’s lawyers, prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan and a lawyer representing Trump in the hearing. She is expected to rule later.
She ordered prosecutors to give Cohen’s lawyers a copy of the seized materials before the next hearing.
The unexpected naming of Hannity made him the latest prominent media personality to be drawn into the investigation’s cast of unlikely supporting characters.
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, was another. As she arrived at the courthouse dressed in a lavender suit, photographers knocked over barricades as they scrambled to get pictures.
Daniels sat with her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, who told reporters they were there to help ensure protection for the integrity of the seized documents, some of which they believe pertain to the Daniels agreement.
Cohen, dressed in a dark suit, at times looked tense, folding and clasping his hands in front of him.
Cohen has argued that some of the documents and data seized from him under a warrant are protected by attorney-client privilege or otherwise unconnected to the investigation. But Judge Wood said she would still need the names of those other clients, and rejected his efforts to mask the identity of Hannity, a client Cohen had said wanted to avoid publicity.
“I understand if he doesn’t want his name out there, but that’s not enough under the law,” Wood said, before ordering the name disclosed.
Stephen Ryan, a lawyer for Cohen, drew gasps and laughter from the public gallery when he named Hannity as the client.
After his identity was revealed, Hannity said on his syndicated radio show, and again later on his Fox News program, that he had “occasional, brief discussions” with Cohen in which he sought out Cohen’s “input and perspective.”
Hannity said he assumed those discussions were covered by attorney-client privilege, and insisted that none involved any matter between himself and a third party. He also said his talks with Cohen “almost exclusively focused on real estate.”
Legal advice can be considered privileged even if given by a lawyer for free.
Hannity, the top-rated personality on the most watched U.S. cable news network, told his viewers on April 9 that the raid on Cohen was part of an effort by federal investigators to wrongly impeach the president. He never mentioned his association with Cohen during that broadcast.
On Monday’s show, Hannity expressed amusement at the firestorm of media coverage unleashed by the disclosure that he and Trump shared a legal adviser in Cohen, playing a 45-second, rapid-fire montage of various TV commentators and anchors uttering his name on the air throughout the day.
Cohen has asked the court to give his own lawyers the first look at the seized materials so they can identify documents that are protected by attorney-client privilege.
Failing that, they want the court to appoint an independent official known as a special master, a role typically filled by a lawyer, to go through the records and decide what prosecutors can see.
But prosecutors want the documents to be reviewed for attorney-client privilege by a “taint team” of lawyers within their own office, who would be walled off from the main prosecution team.
“I have faith in the Southern District U.S. Attorney’s Office that their integrity is unimpeachable,” making a taint team “a viable option,” Judge Wood said.
But she also said that to help ensure fairness and the perception of fairness, “a special master might have some role here.”
After the hearing, Cohen left without comment.
Daniels, in contrast, stepped up to the bank of microphones set up on the sidewalk, telling reporters that Cohen had thought he was above the law.
“My attorney and I are committed that everyone finds out the truth and the facts of what happened, and I will not rest until that happens,” she said.
Reporting by Brendan Pierson, Karen Freifeld and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Susan Thomas and Rosalba O'Brien