Trump's ex-lawyer Michael Cohen back in prison after he balked at media gag order

Key Points
  • President Trump's former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, has been sent back to the prison from which he was furloughed in May.
  • Cohen was taken into custody after balking at a requirement that he refrain from speaking to the media or publishing a book while under home confinement.
  • Trump tried but failed to stop publication of a book by his former national security advisor John Bolton. His brother Robert Trump tried to halt publication of a tell-all book by their estranged niece Mary Trump.
Michael Cohen, the former lawyer for U.S. President Donald Trump, arrives back at home after being released from prison during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City, New York, U.S., May 21, 2020.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former lawyer and fixer, has been sent back to prison from which he was released in May, a day after balking at a requirement that he refrain from speaking to the media or publishing a book while under home confinement.

Cohen's lawyer Jeffrey Levine said in an interview that he is trying to speak with Bureau of Prisons officials to discuss what can be done to get him out of the federal prison in Otisville, New York.

The attorney said Cohen is at risk of catching the coronavirus there because of preexisting health issues. Cohen was released from Otisville in late May because of concerns he would become infected with the virus.

Records show eight inmates and one staff member at Otisville have Covid-19. 

Levine accused the Bureau of Prisons of issuing a "false narrative" in justifying that Cohen be abruptly taken into custody Thursday. Cohen's lawyer also said he will ask a federal judge to get involved in the situation if he cannot resolve it with the agency.

As of Friday morning, Levine said, he has been unable to get a response from the bureau in his efforts to contact officials there.

The bureau has said Cohen, 53, was taken into custody after the Manhattan resident refused to sign an agreement that included multiple restrictions, including the media gag, which would bar him from speaking to journalists, posting on social media and publishing a book.

Such a gag would prevent Cohen from speaking out publicly against his former client Trump, as he has done repeatedly in the past, until his criminal sentence expires next year.

A copy of the order said the purpose of the gag, which also would require Cohen to tell family and friends not to post on social media on his behalf, "is to avoid glamorizing or bringing publicity to your status as a sentenced inmate serving a custodial term in the community."

Levine said Cohen, who planned to release a book in coming months about his work for Trump, never refused to sign the deal.

"That is absolutely not true," Levine said.

Michael Cohen just testified before Congress. Here are the key moments
Michael Cohen just testified before Congress. Here are the key moments

He said he and Cohen raised concerns that the gag would infringe on Cohen's First Amendment rights, and asked probation officials to negotiate on that point.

The lawyer said Cohen is now willing to agree to all of those conditions for home confinement that were presented to him Thursday by federal probation officials.

"It's a no-brainer," Levine said of Cohen's offer to sign that deal.

Levine said the restriction that probation officials sought on Cohen related to the media is more restrictive than one placed on federal prison inmates, who can communicate with reporters and can write a book.

Cohen in fact had worked on his forthcoming book in Otisville, Levine noted.

Lanny Davis, a legal advisor to Cohen, said in an interview it "raises a question of whether it is a coincidence" that Cohen's furlough was summarily revoked on the heels of Trump trying and failing to stop two other books about him from being published.

In the first case, the Trump administration failed to prevent publication of a revealing memoir by former national security advisor John Bolton.

In the second case, Trump's brother Robert Trump, who is being represented by a lawyer for the president, unsuccessfully sought to block the publication of a tell-all book about the Trump family by their estranged niece Mary Trump.

This spring, the lawyer who is representing Robert Trump, Charles Harder, sent Cohen a letter on behalf of the president's business, the Trump Organization, warning him that he would be at legal risk if he wrote a book about his time working for Trump.

The Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to multiple financial crimes, lying to Congress and to campaign finance violations connected to hush money payments in the months before the 2016 presidential election to two women who claim to have had affairs with Trump. The president denies having sex with either woman.

Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison and began serving that term last year in Otisville.

Cohen, who suffers from pulmonary and hypertension issues, was furloughed from the prison under a program that has released nearly 6,800 federal prison inmates into home confinement since the coronavirus pandemic began because of their risk of developing Covid-19.

On Thursday, Cohen and Levine went to the probation office at the U.S. District Court in Manhattan for Cohen to be fitted for an ankle bracelet that would monitor his compliance with home confinement, as well as to go over the conditions of that confinement.

When they expressed concerns about the gag order, probation officials said, "Let's put this aside for the moment," Levine recalled.

"We worked everything else out," the lawyer said, adding that he expected that they would continue discussing the media-related requirement.

Probation officials then asked Cohen and Levine to wait in a room in the offices, which they ended up doing for about 90 minutes, the lawyer said.

Officials at one point told the men "they were waiting to hear back from BOP," Levine said.

But later, U.S. marshals came into the room and put Cohen into shackles, citing an order that said he had refused to comply with the terms of a monitoring agreement, Levine said. 

Levine said when he and Cohen said Cohen would sign the deal to prevent him from being taken into custody, they were rebuffed and told it was too late.

Cohen then was transported to a federal jail in Brooklyn. Prison records show he was in the prison at Otisville as of Friday morning.

Levine said Cohen's detention was not connected to the publication by the New York Post of a photo of Cohen dining at a French restaurant on the Upper East Side last week.

The lawyer said Cohen's visit to that restaurant did not violate terms of his prison furlough because it was in an area he was allowed to visit before transitioning into home confinement, which was supposed to happen Thursday.

According to Bureau of Prison data, more than 2,500 inmates and over 230 BOP staff have tested positive for Covid-19 nationwide.

"Currently, 5,137 inmates and 603 staff have recovered," the agency's website says. "There have been 94 federal inmate deaths and 1 BOP staff member death attributed to COVID-19 disease."