UPDATE: 5:36 p.m. Eastern Time: NBC News issued a correction to its original report on Thursday evening, specifying that authorities had not “wiretapped” Cohen’s phone but had used a “pen register,” a device which captures all outgoing calls made from a specific phone, but does not record the content within those calls.
The original NBC report cited two sources with knowledge of the Cohen investigation. Those claims were later disputed in part by three senior U.S. officials. The original report has since been updated to reflect the correction.
EARLIER: Federal investigators have been monitoring the phone lines of longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and intercepted at least one phone call between a phone line belonging to Cohen and someone at the White House, NBC News reported on Thursday.
Cohen is currently under federal investigation for a $130,000 payment he made on behalf of Trump to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, weeks ahead of the 2016 presidential election, to keep Daniels quiet about an affair she claims to have had with Trump in 2006.
Sources with “knowledge of the legal proceedings” against Cohen told NBC News that the monitoring device was in place “in the weeks leading up to” a series of FBI raids on Cohen’s home, office, and the hotel room in which he had been staying at the time, on April 9. The sources claimed they did not know how long the phone lines had been under surveillance.
It’s unclear who was on either end of the call between Cohen’s phone and the White House, or what was discussed. Due to the nature of the device used, a pen register — not, as NBC News previously reported, a wiretap — only the recipients of Cohen’s phone calls were recorded, and not the conversations therein. However, it’s unlikely the call was made in recent weeks, as NBC noted the president’s legal team advised him not to communicate with Cohen, immediately following the raids.
ABC News previously reported that Trump and Cohen did speak once, following the FBI raids on April 9.
Sources told ABC News following the April 9 raids that agents seized “recordings” in addition to documents on the Daniels payment and related matters, although it’s not clear yet whether the newly revealed White House phone call was included in those recordings. According to The New York Times, prosecutors were searching specifically for recordings Cohen had made of phone calls between himself and other lawyers. Cohen claims he did not record any conversations with Trump.
A phone call between Trump and Cohen — who has acted as Trump’s personal attorney for several years — is in itself unsurprising, but the potential timing of the phone call and the requirements necessary to obtain a federal wiretap raise suspicions. If the president was indeed on the other end of the line during the recently revealed call, it would suggest that the two men were aware investigators may have been closing in on important information, prior to the raid, and felt the need to speak about it.
Pen registers, because of their inherent nature, are less difficult to obtain than a federal wiretap. In order to obtain a federal wiretap, NBC analyst Chuck Rosenberg notes, affidavits must be “highly detailed and carefully vetted by experienced lawyers.”
“In all cases the wiretap must be approved by a federal judge,” he said. Typically, wiretaps are only employed during investigations of ongoing crimes and not for past crimes, he added.
Cohen has previously carried out a variety of tasks for Trump, including acting as a surrogate for the president both during the election and afterward. In a 2011 CNN interview, he described himself as Trump’s guardian, claiming, “I protect Mr. Trump. If there’s an issue that relates to Mr. Trump, that is of concern to him it’s of course of concern to me and I will use my legal skills to protect Mr. Trump to the best of my ability.”
That loyalty became particularly useful to Trump in the months leading up to the 2016 election: in addition to his $130,000 payment to Daniels, Cohen was also tied to an alleged $150,000 hush payment from American Media Inc. — the National Enquirer’s parent company — to former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who also claims to have had an affair with Trump in 2006. While AMI claims the money was for a series of fitness columns and magazine covers, McDougal claims the money barred her from taking her story public, and that the outlet only purchased the rights to her account to shelve the story before it could be published.
Although Cohen claims he had no part in the negotiation process between McDougal and AMI, he was kept in the loop throughout by McDougal’s then-lawyer, Keith Davidson, who also previously represented Daniels.
Federal prosecutors are currently investigating Cohen’s ties to McDougal.
For his part, Cohen initially claimed that he tapped into his home equity line to make the $130,000 payment to Daniels, and that he did so to spare Trump from suffering a blow to his reputation prior to the election, despite the fact that any allegations of an affair are false. He claimed Trump did not repay him for the favor.
On Wednesday, however, former New York City Mayor and current Trump legal team member Rudy Giuliani stated that Trump had, in fact, repaid Cohen the $130,000 in hush money, and that the payment had been “perfectly legal,” despite being made during the 2016 election cycle.
“That money was not campaign money, sorry,” Giuliani told Fox News host Sean Hannity. “I’m giving you a fact now that you don’t know. It’s not campaign money. No campaign finance violation. [They] funneled it through the law firm, and the president repaid him.”
Giuliani’s comments contradicted Trump’s earlier statements to reporters, in which he claimed he had no knowledge of the $130,000 payment to Daniels and referred reporters to his lawyer, Cohen. The White House has also stated that Trump had “no knowledge of any payments.”
Trump’s own divorce lawyer has suggested that Cohen’s loyalty, while ironclad thus far, may only go so far. In a comment to CNN in mid-April, attorney Jay Goldberg claimed that Cohen would likely flip on the president and work with federal prosecutors to avoid jail time.
“He’s of a type that I have recognized in the past as one not suited to stand up to the rigors of jail life,” Goldberg said.
This article has been updated to reflect a correction by NBC News that clarified federal prosecutors were monitoring Cohen’s calls using a pen register and not a wiretap, as the outlet previously reported.