Michael Cohen arrives at his Park Avenue home after being released from federal prison on furlough due to medical concerns related to Covid-19 on May 21, 2020 in New York City.
David Dee Delgado | Getty Images
A federal judge on Thursday ordered the release from prison of President Donald Trump‘s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen by Friday afternoon.
Judge Alvin Hellerstein found that Cohen was sent back to prison on June 9 in retalation for balking at a condition of his home confinement that he not publish a book — about Trump or anyone else — while serving the remainder of his three-year prison term on home confinement.
“I’ve never seen such a clause, in 21 years in being a judge and sentencing people,” Hellerstein said at a Manhattan federal court hearing held after Cohen sued this week to win his re-release.
“How can I take any other inference but that it was retaliatory? Hellerstein asked about the condition, which also sought to bar Cohen from speaking to journalists or posting on social media.
Cohen, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to multiple felonies, was furloughed from the federal prison in Otisville, N.Y., in late May due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
Shortly before being taken into custody he had been posting on social media about his upcoming book, which is going to be critical of Trump.
During Thursday’s hearing, Hellerstein was highly skeptical to arguments by a federal prosecutor that Cohen was not locked up in retaliation for the book, or that the book-related condition was not sought by officials for a specific reason in his case.
At one point, when another prosecutor tried to come to the aid of the prosecutor who was answering the judge’s questions, Hellerstein angrily cut him off, reminding him of the rule that only one lawyer argued for each side in a case.
Cohen, who has been in quarantine in Otisville since his arrival back there, will be released by 2 p.m. after being tested for the coronavirus, and will be driven back to his home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side by his son, Hellerstein said.
After his release into home confinement, he will be subject to a number of restrictions on his movement and employment and contact with other people.
But the restriction sought by federal Probation officials that he not speak to reporters, post on social media, or publish a book, is likely to be largely gutted.
Cohen’s lawyer Danya Perry and a prosecutor will in coming days negotiate the issue of any restrictions on Cohen dealing with the media. Hellerstein suggested it would be inappropriate for Cohen to host a press conference in his apartment with a large number of reporters to discus his book while at the same time still serving his criminal sentence.
“This order is a victory for the First Amendment and we appreciate the Judge’s ruling confirming that the government cannot block Mr. Cohen from publishing a book critical of the president as a condition of his release to home confinement,” said Perry in a statement issued after the ruling.
“This principle transcends politics and we are gratified that the rule of law prevails,” Perry said.
Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, in defending Cohen being taken into custody earlier this month, on Wednesday said in court papers that he had been locked up after being combative and agumentative during the July 9 meeting with Probation officials about the conditions of his home confinement.
They also said that Cohen refused to sign the conditions, having objected to all of them. Prosecutors denied that he was sent back to prison in retaliation for not agreeing to the restriction on publishing a book or on talking to reporters and posting on social media.
But Hellerstein noted that court filings by both prosecutors and Cohen’s lawyers agree on a key point: that Cohen and his lawyer, after taking issue with at least one of the conditions, about the book, were left in a room along at some time by a Probation officer. They then were abruptly confronted by Bureau of Prison officials who arrived to take him into custody.
Hellerstein also repeatedly said that Probation officials had not given Cohen a warning that if he did not agree to all the conditions presented to him at a July 9 meeting with his lawyer that he would be sent back to prison.
The judge brushed aside arguments by the prosecutor that Cohen and his lawyer during the meeting, Jeffrey Levine, could not negotiate the terms of the home confinement confinement.
“Mr. Cohen was never given a chance to say, ‘If this is it, I will sign,’ ” Hellerstein said.
Cohen, 53, pleaded guilty in 2018 to multiple financial crimes, as well as to lying to Congess about an aborted bid to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
He also pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations related to faciliating hush money payments to two women, porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal, who say they had sex with Trump.
The president denies their claims, but he and his company reimbursed Cohen for the $130,000 payment that the lawyer made to Daniels to keep her quiet about her allegation shortly before the 2016 presidential election.