LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The president's legal problems are invading his inner circle. The FBI conducted raids on Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump's personal lawyer and longtime aide, as part of a corruption probe that's been going on for months. The investigation was prompted by a referral from special counsel Robert Mueller to federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. Nick Ackerman is a former assistant U.S. attorney in that district, and he served as assistant special Watergate prosecutor, as well. He's on the line with us this morning. Good morning.
NICK ACKERMAN: Good morning. How do you do?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How big do you think Mr. Trump's legal problem is? Or are they legal problems - plural?
ACKERMAN: Well I think it's legal problems - plural. It all comes down to one issue - that is whether there was a conspiracy between the Trump campaign during the presidential election and the Russian government. You've got three aspects of that that we know about right now that are under investigation. One is this whole microtargeting of voters using Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, Twitter, which the Russians were involved in. And the question is whether or not the Trump campaign contributed to that by providing information on voters and districts.
The second is the hack into the emails at the Democratic National Committee that we know the Russians were involved in. A number have already been indicted, and the question is whether or not the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians. And the third is whether or not there were foreign campaign contributions to the Trump campaign. There's allegations out there about Russian money going through the NRA. It's just out there. We don't really know what's been found or where that's going, but those are the three big areas that the president has to worry about.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. But Michael Cohen, of course, has now become center of all of this. And there's a lot of wrangling about what material of Cohen's falls under attorney-client privilege and what doesn't. And just briefly, I'd like you to tell us, how do you go about figuring that out? What are they trying to do?
ACKERMAN: Well it's pretty standard. What the U.S. attorney's office is going to do is they have what's known as a taint team. In fact, everybody there is going to be part of that taint team because they're totally separate from Mueller's group. What they're basically doing is acting on behalf of Mueller's group. And they will go through all of those documents, all of those tapes. They will determine what is attorney-client privilege and what isn't. Keep in mind, just because an attorney is involved doesn't make the material privileged. The only time that you have attorney-client privilege is when a lawyer is providing a client with legal advice. If the lawyer's simply acting as a business person or is doing things in furtherance of a criminal scheme, none of that is covered by the attorney-client privilege.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Where could this all lead? Do we know what they were looking for in the case of Michael Cohen?
ACKERMAN: I don't think we really do, I think as a general matter, it probably has to do with the Russian investigation. I know there's a lot of press reporting about Stormy Daniels and about the Playboy Bunny, but it's a pretty serious matter to go in and get a search warrant on the president's attorney. And the standard is just going to be that much higher in terms of probable cause. One, you have to have probable cause that a crime was committed and, two, probable cause that evidence of that crime exists in the places that they wanted to search, the office, the apartment, the hotel. And I just have to believe that the focus here is on the Russian investigation. I mean, the latest reporting from McClatchy is now reporting that Michael Cohen did have this meeting in Prague with the Russians during the campaign. And that would open up a whole area of inquiry relating to, you know, what kind of conspiracy existed with respect to the emails, campaign contributions and the microtargeting of voters in the U.S.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michael Cohen appears to be in significant legal jeopardy. What repercussions do you think that will have ultimately on the president?
ACKERMAN: Oh, I think huge. First of all, you've got all of his documents. And so if there is evidence linking Michael Cohen to any of these crimes, or the president any of these crimes, you're going to find that there's going to be memos. There's apparently tape recordings. You know, there's all kinds of stuff that could be extremely significant.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And just briefly, do you think that Congress should pass legislation to protect the special counsel? You worked on the Watergate prosecution. This seems like it's getting very close to the president now.
ACKERMAN: Yeah, I think it is. And you can see how he's reacting as it gets closer. I think absolutely there should be legislation. It would be proper, the U.S. Supreme Court has held under the Morrison case that it can be done. So I think it's - there shouldn't be this drama going on now about whether or not Trump is going to fire Mueller, that has to be a nonissue. And I think the only way you can take it out of the equation is to have Congress act.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nick Ackerman, former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York. Thank you so very much.
ACKERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.