Newt Gingrich likened them to the Gestapo. President Trump blamed them for killing the attorney-client privilege. Michael Cohen’s lawyers went to court trying to keep documents, recordings and other materials seized during a no-knock raid against the Trump lawyer out of their hands. Despite the hubbub, the prosecutors of the Southern District of New York and the FBI agents who assisted them meticulously followed the facts, adhered to Department of Justices procedures, and complied with the law. They provided a lesson for the country in the proper operation of the legal system.
In a court filing on Friday, prosecutors described a months-long investigation and the “established rigorous protocols” (including consultation with the Justice Department’s Office of Enforcement Operations) that they followed leading up to the raid. The use of a “filter team” — law-enforcement officials cordoned off from the case — to sift through materials in order to exclude attorney-client-privileged information has been blessed by the courts, prosecutors explained. The authorization they obtained to conduct the raid came from a federal magistrate who reviewed detailed affidavits laying out the facts and the potential crimes involved. (Interestingly, the prosecutors assert that Cohen wasn’t acting as a lawyer much of the time; most of the possible charges relate to Cohen’s “own business dealings.”)
In short, this is an exquisite example of the apolitical, methodical operation of our criminal-justice system. Prosecutors followed the book (literally, the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual) and, according to Cohen, were “extremely professional, courteous and respectful.” The executive branch employees (i.e., federal prosecutors) had to satisfy the judicial branch (in the form of a magistrate) that they had probable cause to search Cohen’s home, office and hotel room. Cohen’s lawyers had an opportunity on Friday to go to court to try to restrict prosecutors’ access to the documents — yet another opportunity for the judicial branch to oversee the prosecutors’ work.
In observing Trump’s wildly dysfunctional legal team, Trump’s unhinged threats directed to Department of Justice officials, the circus surrounding former FBI director James B. Comey’s book, the bleating of the conspiracy-minded Trump cheerleaders on Fox News, as well as the baseless accusations of congressional Republicans bent on discrediting prosecutors and the FBI, we should not forget all that is a gross aberration from the proper operation of the criminal justice system.
What is normal in our system is the impartial, professional administration of justice that holds a president’s lawyer to the same standards and grants him the same protections as any American. It is the rule of law that has ensnared Trump, who cannot threaten, bully or fire the courts of the Southern District or its prosecutors. Every American can witness the strength of an independent judiciary, one of the best guarantees of our democracy. Every American can see that the FBI and those prosecutors are not rogue actors trying to subvert our system. If this is the “deep state,” we need more of it.
Amid the mind-numbing Trump presidency, when every democratic norm and institution seems to be bruised and battered, all Americans should take pride in our legal system and specifically in the work of the prosecutors and courts of the Southern District of New York, as well as the FBI. For reminding us of the respect owed to independent courts and to those representing the people of the United States in the criminal-justice system, we can say well done, ladies and gentlemen of the Southern District.