Judge rules Cohen target of retaliation for Trump book, orders release from prison

New York (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen was ordered released from prison and will go into home confinement on Friday after a federal judge found he was subjected to retaliation for planning to publish a book about the president ahead of November’s election.

Cohen, who had been released in May, was sent back to prison on July 9 after questioning a provision in a new series of conditions U.S. probation officers asked him to sign. The provision barred him from publishing the book, engaging with news organizations and posting on social media.

U.S District Judge Alvin Hellerstein ordered Cohen released from the federal prison in Otisville, New York, about 70 miles (110 km) northwest of New York City to his son by 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) on Friday.

“I make the finding that the purpose of transferring Mr. Cohen from furlough and home confinement to jail is retaliatory and it’s retaliatory because of his desire to exercise his First Amendment rights to publish a book,” Hellerstein said at Thursday’s hearing.

Hellerstein said he had never seen such a gag order in his 21 years on the bench.

During the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Allison Rovner said that Cohen and his attorney had also questioned or objected to other provisions in the agreement, including pre-employment approval and electronic monitoring. She also said probation officer Adam Pakula found Cohen “combative.”

The judge disagreed.

“It seems to me what Mr. Pakula saying is combative is an attorney’s effort to negotiate an agreement,” Hellerstein said.

Cohen’s lawyer, Danya Perry, called the order a “victory” for the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech, and said she appreciated the judge’s ruling that the government can’t block Cohen from publishing a book that is critical of the president as a condition of his release.

FILE PHOTO: 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. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

“This principle transcends politics, and we are gratified that the rule of law prevails,” she said.

In a statement after the ruling, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said it was “patently false” that the decision to remand Cohen was retaliatory.

The statement said it was not uncommon for the Bureau of Prisons to place certain restrictions on inmates’ contact with the media, but that Cohen’s “refusal to agree to those conditions here played no role” in the decision to return him to prison nor did his plan to publish a book.

Hellerstein asked the two sides to negotiate the media provision over the next week so that “it is consistent with the First Amendment but yet serves the purposes of confinement.”

For the time being, Cohen’s lawyer said he would agree to the media gag order so he does not have to wait.

Cohen, who once said he would “take a bullet” for Trump, was sentenced in 2018 for directing hush payments to pornographic film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who claimed they had affairs with Trump

The president has denied having the encounters and has called Cohen a “rat.”

On July 2, Cohen tweeted he was close to completing a book and he anticipated publishing it in September. At the time of his release in May, he tweeted that “there is so much I want to say and intend to say. But now is not the right time. Soon.”

Even as he turned on Cohen, Trump has repeatedly voiced his support for loyal former allies.

A day after Cohen was sent back to prison, Trump commuted longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone’s prison sentence for lying under oath to lawmakers investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Cohen served a year of his three-year sentence before being released due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in federal prisons.

Reporting by Karen Freifeld; Writing by Tom Hals; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman