Reason Roundup

The Feds Are Going After Trump's Lawyer. It Looks Pretty Bad: Reason Roundup

Plus: Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg to testify before Congress, Backpage indictment unsealed, tensions rise after chemical attack in Syria.


Douliery Olivier/ABACA/Newscom

The feds raided the office and hotel of Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. Federal agents raided Cohen's office, home, and hotel rooms and seized "records related to several topics including payments to a pornographic-film actress," according to The New York Times. "The search does not appear to be directly related to Mr. Mueller's investigation, but likely resulted from information he had uncovered."

That information was at least in part related to Cohen's $130,000 payment to porn actress and director Stormy Daniels. According to The Washington Post, Cohen is under investigation for bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations. None of the documents on Cohen are public yet, but the Post cites four people "familiar with the investigation" and reports that:

Investigators took Cohen's computer, phone and personal financial records, including tax returns, as part of the search of his office at Rockefeller Center … In a dramatic and broad seizure, federal prosecutors collected communications between Cohen and his clients — including those between the lawyer and Trump, according to [two sources].

"Stormy Daniels and Donald Trump appear to be vying for the world record for the longest one-night stand in history," quipped Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney and deputy assistant attorney general, in The New York Times. I'll let him recap the Stormy settlement situation so far:

Mr. Cohen and Mr. Trump's troubles in the hush agreement case are of their own making. First, Mr. Cohen insisted, through his lawyer, that the president was never aware of the agreement and that Mr. Cohen acted wholly on his own. Then, speaking briefly to reporters on Air Force One last Thursday, Mr. Trump, echoing Mr. Cohen, said that he knew nothing about the arrangement. In saying so, he walked directly into the buzz saw of the legal position of Ms. Daniels and her attorney, Michael Avenatti.

The hush agreement identified Mr. Trump as a party and required him to do a number of things. But since he insists he didn't know about the agreement, there's no way he could have entered into it. Moreover, Mr. Trump's avowed cluelessness implies that Mr. Cohen induced Ms. Daniels to sign the agreement through fraud — a lie about Mr. Trump's performance of reciprocal obligations. Both of these circumstances invalidate the hush agreement's very formation under basic contract law principles.

Daniels' lawyer Avenatti went on MSNBC to say he predicted Cohen would "fold like a cheap deck of cards." But Avenatti added: "With that said, I don't, I'm not applauding or high-fiving anybody's offices being raided by the FBI. It's a very, very serious matter. And I think that this is the first significant domino to fall."

Writing here at Reason, attorney Ken White agrees that the raid is a very big deal. ("Be skeptical of the surge of misinformation and inaccurate legal takes that are certain to drop," he advises. "But watch. This is historic.")

Meanwhile, Trump told reporters Monday night that the situation was "disgraceful" and "a total witch hunt." He called the raids of Cohen's properties "an attack on our country, in a true sense," and "an attack on what we all stand for." Evidently, Trump thinks that's the right to have an affair with an adult actress while your spouse stays at home with your newborn and then later pay your lover to keep quiet about it as you run for president without anyone taking notice or minding.

There's good reason for Trump to be huffing and puffing. As Politico points out, "Cohen is among the loyal cohort that worked for Trump long before his campaign and remains close to the president. He told Vanity Fair last year that he's 'the guy who protects the president and the family. I'm the guy who would take a bullet for the president.'"

On Sunday, Daniels' lawyer filed a motion in California requesting a formal deposition of Trump and Cohen. "If Mr. Trump was completely unaware of Mr. Cohen's actions, the question naturally arises as to how it would be possible for a 'meeting of the minds' to have occurred between parties where one of the parties does not even know about the existence of the agreement," it says.

"Normally a request to depose the president would seem like a nuisance move, quickly rebuffed," writes Litman. "Here, though, it is hard to see how the court resolves the factual issue without hearing Mr. Trump's version of events." And "inconveniently for the president, Ms. Daniels's position turns on questions of fact."


Facebook founder and head Mark Zuckerberg is scheduled to testify before Congress this afternoon about the social media giant's data-collection practices and relationship with the firm Cambridge Analytica.

In prepared remarks released Monday, the chairman and chief executive officer of Facebook tried to put a good spin on his company. It's "an idealistic and optimistic" place, Zuckerberg said. He portrayed public concerns about privacy and misuse of user data as an unfortunate consequence of bad actors who had taken advantage of their idealism. Despite all the good that Facebook has allegedly done, "we didn't do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm," said Zuckerberg.

That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy. We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I'm sorry.

These opening comments show the impossible position Facebook has been put in as more users start to lose faith in Facebook's lip service to having their best interests in mind. People are not wrong to be wary of the power and influence that Facebook wields, and the opportunities it provides for abuse of personal data. But in this fear, goverments around the world, including ours, are seeing an opportunity to enact the kind of regulations and control over the web that authorities have long desired.

For the most part, Zuckerberg's prepared speech rings hollow, with a lot of platitudes about reform and vague statements about steps going forward. "Over the past few weeks, we've been working to understand exactly what happened with Cambridge Analytica and taking steps to make sure this doesn't happen again," said Zuckerberg, referring to the analytics firm that received data on Facebook users from a British researcher who wasn't supposed to share it. Zuckerberg also told Congress that his company was "too slow to spot and respond to Russian interference" but was "working hard to get better," assuring them he doesn't "want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy."


Court unseals indictment against Backpage. On Monday evening, a federal court unsealed the Justice Department's 93-count indictment against Michael Lacey and James Larkin, founders of the now-defunct classified ads marketplace You can check out the charges here.

Notably, the indictment doesn't include any charges related to sex trafficking—the ostensible reason why Backpage has been the subject of such intense law-enforcement scrutiny for years from state prosecutors, a select Senate subcommittee, and now the Department of Justice (DOJ).

If any of these extensive investigations had turned up evidence that Backpage staff knowingly facilitated sex trafficking—defined under federal law as forced prostitution of adults or any prostitution by someone under age 18—than DOJ could have indicted them under the 2015 "SAVE Act," part of that year's massive new "anti-sex trafficking" law. They didn't. Instead the indictment contains charges similar to those we've seen lobbed against other sites, such as Rentboy and MyRedbook, by meddling federal authorities: money laundering, conspiracy, and violating the Travel Act, which prohibits using interstate commerce to facilitate activities, including prostitution.

I went on Laura Ingraham's show on Fox News last night to discuss Backpage and the indictment; check it out below starting around minute 28:

Asked by Buzzfeed on Monday whether prostitution should be criminalized, White House press secretary Lindsay Walters said "I refer you to the President's outside counsel."


  • Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort is currently trying to challenge the FBI's search of his Alexandria, Virginia, condo last July. "Once inside, the agents seized or imaged every electronic device and storage device in the home," says a motion filed by Manafort's lawyers Monday night. "The Fourth Amendment does not permit the warrant that was issued in this case, which was essentially a general warrant for 'any and all' financial documents and electronic device."
  • On Fox News' Happening Now last night, Syrian American Council adviser Bassam Rifai told the camera: "President Trump, I am speaking to you directly. Do not take the same mistakes that President Obama had made… What we need to do right now is to take out… Assad's air force."
  • Following the chemical attack in Syria over the weekend, Trump declared yesterday, "We cannot allow atrocities like that. Cannot allow it." He promised to announce a response in the next 48 hours.
  • Excessive occupational licensing in US states is harming displaced Puerto Ricans.
  • "Women who have their first child before 25 or after 35 eventually close the salary divide with their husbands," but women whose first child is born when they're 25- to 35-years-old do not, according to a large new study on gender, family, and pay gaps.
  • Yes, Westworld creator "Jonathan Nolan has Rickrolled everyone on the Westworld subreddit." (More on the upcoming season and "Sh?gun World" here.)