FBI agents raided the New York offices of President Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen and other related locations Monday.
Attorney Stephen Ryan, who represents Cohen, confirmed the searches, indicating that agents acted in part on a referral by special counsel Robert Mueller to federal prosecutors in New York — related to issues separate from Mueller's investigation into Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 elections.
"Today, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York executed a series of search warrants and seized the privileged communications between my client, Michael Cohen, and his clients," Ryan said in a statement.
Ryan called the action "completely inappropriate and unnecessary."
"It resulted in the unnecessary seizure of protected attorney-client communications between a lawyer and his clients," Ryan said. "These government tactics are also wrong because Mr. Cohen has cooperated completely with all government entities, including providing thousands of non-privileged documents to the Congress and sitting for depositions under oath."
Trump called the action "a disgraceful situation."
"It's a total witch hunt," the president said at the White House. "It's an attack on our country in the true sense ... what we all stand for."
Trump continued his criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, reiterating that he never would have appointed the former Alabama senator had he known that Sessions would recuse himself from the Russia inquiry.
"The attorney general made a terrible mistake," he said.
Sessions' recusal led to Mueller's appointment.
"Many people have said you should fire him,” Trump said of Mueller. "We’ll see what happens."
Ryan did not detail what communications were sought.
Cohen has acknowledged using his own money to “facilitate” a $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels days before the 2016 election.
Cohen said he was not reimbursed by the Trump campaign or the Trump Organization. Last week, President Trump denied knowing about the payment or where the hush money came from.
If Cohen used his own money and acted without Trump’s knowledge, it could be considered an illegal contribution to Trump’s campaign and put him in legal jeopardy. Legal ethics rules bar attorneys from settling a claim without their clients’ knowledge or using their own money to fund settlements.
The watchdog group Common Cause filed complaints this year with the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission, asking the agencies to investigate the payment as a possible violation of campaign-finance laws.
Paul Ryan, the group’s vice president of policy and litigation, said he felt vindicated by the Justice Department's pursuit of Cohen.
“I’m happy to see the DOJ is doing its job,” Ryan told USA TODAY on Monday. “Donald Trump said he knew nothing about the payment to Stormy Daniels. The FBI will now quickly get to the bottom of whether Trump lied to the American people when he said he had no knowledge about Michael Cohen’s payment to Stormy Daniels.”
Michael Avenatti, a lawyer representing Daniels, said Cohen was "placed in the crosshairs by Mr. Trump."
“He has been set up to take the fall," Avenatti said in a statement after news of the raid emerged.
The raid was first reported by The New York Times.
"An enormous amount of misplaced faith has been placed on his shoulders, and I do not believe he has the mettle to withstand it," Avenatti said. "If I am correct, this could end very, very badly for Mr. Trump and others.”
Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, sued Trump and Cohen in an effort to invalidate the agreement she said she signed 11 days before the election. Daniels said she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006. In a 60 Minutes interview last month, Daniels said she accepted $130,000 to keep quiet because she had been physically threatened years earlier about going public about the alleged relationship and still feared for her safety.
She said Cohen and Trump defamed her by claiming she lied about the affair.
The Justice Department's move against Cohen required approval at the highest levels of the department where such raids involve separating privileged communication between attorneys and their clients from communication that may be relevant to criminal investigations.
Ron Hosko, a former assistant FBI director, said it could take days or weeks before investigators are able to review information seized Monday, because a separate team of prosecutors generally must determine what can be reviewed by investigators.
"Before the decision was made to go forward with this (Cohen search), you have to think that Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein were all in," Hosko said. "This will be another unhappy day for the president."
"They broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys," Trump said, describing the action as rising to "a whole new level of unfairness."
He singled out Rosenstein, whom he has derided for his support of Mueller.
In an interview last month with USA TODAY, Rosenstein dismissed the near-constant criticism, including from the ultra-conservative Tea Party Patriots group. The group ran an ad campaign describing Rosenstein as "a weak careerist" and suggesting that he tender his own resignation.
"I believe much of the criticism will fall by the wayside when people reflect on this era and the Department of Justice," Rosenstein said. "I'm very confident that when the history of this era is written, it will reflect that the department was operated with integrity.
"I feel very confident in my ability to do the job," he said. "In any political job, you recognize that your time is going to be limited. My goal is to get as much done for as long as I'm here in the job."