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Examining The Case Against Trump Attorney Michael Cohen

Apr 18, 2018
Originally published on April 18, 2018 7:18 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So all of that material that was seized from Michael Cohen's office - he's President Trump's personal attorney - what happens to it now? Well, that is largely in the hands of federal judge Kimba Wood, who's a veteran of the bench. And let's talk about her and this case involving the president with NPR Justice correspondent Ryan Lucas, who's here in the studio. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So what can you tell us about this judge?

LUCAS: Well, Judge Kimba Wood, she got her law degree from Harvard back in 1969, worked in private practice in New York City for almost two decades. And then she was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to the bench for the Southern District of New York in 1987. Several years later, she was under consideration to be President Clinton's attorney general. She ultimately withdrew. And that was kind of at the last minute after the White House found out that she had had an illegal immigrant working as a babysitter. Wasn't illegal at the time, but the White House reportedly told her to withdraw anyway because of fears of a public backlash.

But she's been in the spotlight several times over the course of her career, handled a number of big cases. The most recent one before this Cohen matter would have been in 2010 when she presided over the case against 10 Russian sleeper agents, Russian spies, that the FBI had arrested in a counterintelligence investigation.

GREENE: I think that's why I remember her name being in the news for that story. So in the Cohen case, though, can we talk about what exactly she is deciding? I mean, it revolves around how to handle potential attorney-client privilege and the material that was seized by the FBI from Cohen's office. Is that right?

LUCAS: Exactly. So at Monday's hearing, she knocked down a request from the president to let him review the materials that were taken in the raid for privileged information first. But she said that she's weighing two options. One is something called a filter team. This is made up of federal prosecutors who aren't involved in the investigation. They would go through and review the documents and decide whether they have privileged material or not. This is pretty standard practice. It's what the government wants.

The other option that she is considering is appointing something called a special master, who would go through the seized materials and make that decision. And that's what Cohen is proposing.

GREENE: Besides sounding like a really cool title, special (laughter) master...

LUCAS: (Laughter).

GREENE: ...What exactly is that job? What would it entail?

LUCAS: So a special master is an outside attorney - sometimes they're a former judge - who's brought in to basically assist the court with something that's very complex or time-consuming. I spoke with a special master based in Cleveland, a guy by the name of David Cohen - no relation to the president's personal lawyer. And here's how he summed up the job.

DAVID COHEN: So a federal special master is really just kind of a fancy name for judge's helper.

LUCAS: And here's the sort of stuff he said that a special master helps a judge with. So say that there's a very technical issue, a patent dispute, for instance. A special master who understands technical things can be called in to help the judge make a decision and understand the matters. The idea basically is to conserve judicial resources. Judges have limited time. So if a judge thinks it makes sense to get help, they can appoint a special master.

GREENE: And does that really - does this job fit perfectly with this case, or is that something that she has to decide here?

LUCAS: Well, another thing that special masters do - in a case like the president's personal lawyer, the role is a little bit different. And they are brought in to review the materials that are seized by the FBI. So a special master would go through them one by one, make a determination on whether each item is or is not covered by attorney-client privilege. Here's how Cohen, the one who's the special master, explains why a special master might be called in in a case like this instead of leaving it to a filter team or a taint team, as the government wants.

COHEN: Both the litigators and the taint team are government attorneys. So it often gives folks some comfort to have a special master involved who is entirely neutral.

LUCAS: Basically, a case like Cohen's is very politically charged. So appointing a special master would be a way to avoid any appearance of bias.

GREENE: OK. We'll have to watch what this judge decides. That's NPR's Ryan Lucas joining us this morning. Ryan, thanks a lot.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.