NEW YORK: A judge on Wednesday (Jul 17) ordered the release of documents relating to hush-money payments by Donald Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to two women who said they had sexual encounters with the president and disclosed that federal prosecutors had ended their investigation of the matter.
US District Judge William Pauley in Manhattan ordered that the documents, used by prosecutors to obtain a search warrant for Cohen's home and office last year, must be unsealed by 11am (1500 GMT) on Thursday, declaring the issue of "national importance."
Cohen, 52, pleaded guilty in 2018 to directing payments of US$130,000 to adult film star Stormy Daniels and US$150,000 to Playboy model Karen McDougal to avert a scandal shortly before the 2016 presidential election. Trump has denied having the encounters more than a decade ago with Daniels and McDougal.
Pauley said because prosecutors had informed him that their investigation of the payments was over, there was no reason to keep the documents secret. The development suggests that no one else is likely to face criminal charges in connection with the payments.
Cohen, Trump's self-described "fixer," in May began serving a three-year prison sentence for violating campaign finance law with the hush payments, making false statements to a bank, evading taxes and lying to the U.S. Congress.
"We are pleased that the investigation surrounding these ridiculous campaign finance allegations is now closed," Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for Trump, said in a statement. "We have maintained from the outset that the president never engaged in any campaign finance violation."
Under longstanding Justice Department policy, criminal charges cannot be brought against a sitting president.
"The campaign finance violations discussed in the materials are a matter of national importance," Pauley wrote. "Now that the government's investigation into those violations has concluded, it is time that every American has an opportunity to scrutinize the materials."
The office of the US Attorney in Manhattan, which prosecuted Cohen, declined to comment. A lawyer for Cohen could not immediately be reached.
Pauley ordered many of the search warrant materials about Cohen's personal business dealings unsealed earlier this year, but allowed documents on to the hush-money payments to remain secret because they were related to an ongoing investigation.
In November 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to separate charges brought by the office of former Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, who was investigating contacts between Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and Russia. Cohen admitted he lied to Congress about the extent of contacts between Trump and Russians during the campaign.