Fox News presenter Sean Hannity has been unmasked as the third mystery client of Donald Trump‘s lawyer in court.
A judge ordered the US president’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen to disclose the name of Hannity, one of Trump’s most vocal defenders.
Hannity, 56, said on Monday that he had never paid for Mr Cohen’s services or been represented by him, but had sought confidential legal advice from him.
The revelation came as prosecutors sought information about other matters, including a $130,000 (£90,000) payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels, as part of the Russia investigation.
The conservative host often uses his weeknight broadcast on Fox News to defend the president, and sometimes Trump praises Hannity in return.
Mr Cohen was in court to ask the judge to limit the ability of prosecutors to look at documents seized in FBI raids on his home and office earlier this month.
The Russia investigation has frustrated the White House as it has spread to involve some of the US president’s closest confidantes.
Judge Kimba Wood spent more than two and a half hours listening to arguments by Mr Cohen’s lawyers, prosecutors from the US attorney’s office in Manhattan and a lawyer representing the US president in the hearing. She is expected to rule later.
She ordered prosecutors to give Mr Cohen’s lawyers a copy of the seized materials before the next hearing.
The unexpected appearance of Mr Hannity’s name made him the latest prominent media personality to be drawn into the investigation’s cast of supporting characters.
Cohen has argued that some of the documents and data seized from him under a warrant are protected by attorney-client privilege or otherwise unconnected to the investigation.
But Judge Wood said she would still need the names of his clients, and rejected his efforts to mask the identity of Hannity, a client Cohen had said wanted to avoid publicity.
“I understand if he doesn’t want his name out there, but that’s not enough under the law,” Judge Wood said, before ordering the name disclosed.
Stephen Ryan, a lawyer for Cohen, drew gasps and laughter from the public gallery when he named Hannity as the client.
After his identity was revealed, Hannity said on his syndicated radio show, and again later on his Fox News programme, that he had “occasional, brief discussions” with Cohen in which he sought out Cohen’s “input and perspective.”
Hannity said he assumed those discussions were covered by attorney-client privilege, and insisted that none involved any matter between himself and a third party.
He also said his talks with Mr Cohen “almost exclusively focused on real estate.”
Legal advice can be considered privileged even if given by a lawyer for free.
Hannity, the top-rated personality on the most watched US cable news network, told his viewers on April 9 that the raid on Cohen was part an effort by federal investigators to wrongly impeach the president.
He never mentioned his association with Cohen during that broadcast.
Cohen has asked the court to give his own lawyers the first look at the seized materials so they can identify documents that are protected by attorney-client privilege.
Failing that, they want the court to appoint an independent official known as a special master, a role typically filled by a lawyer, to go through the records and decide what prosecutors can see.
But prosecutors want the documents to be reviewed for attorney-client privilege by a “taint team” of lawyers within their own office, who would be walled off from the main prosecution team.
“I have faith in the Southern District US Attorney’s Office that their integrity is unimpeachable,” making a taint team “a viable option,” Judge Wood said.
But she also said that to help ensure fairness and the perception of fairness, “a special master might have some role here.”
After the hearing, Mr Cohen left without comment.
Additional reporting by Reuters