Trump Business Aides Under Microscope After Cohen Testimony
(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump probably isn’t the only one sweating over the testimony from his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen.
Three top executives of the Trump Organization were implicated by Cohen on Wednesday, suggesting they may face scrutiny by federal prosecutors.
The chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, was involved with Cohen in paying hush money to an adult film actress in the days before the election -- with Trump’s blessing, Cohen said. Weisselberg and two other executives, Matthew Calamari and Ron Lieberman, knew that Trump inflated the value of his assets to an unidentified insurance company, he added.
Cohen also took aim at a fellow personal lawyer for Trump. He said the attorney, Jay Sekulow, previewed Cohen’s testimony before his appearance on the Hill in 2017 regarding plans to build a Trump building in Moscow. Cohen later pleaded guilty to lying to Congress during that testimony.
Trump’s longtime fixer directed most of his fire at his old boss. Cohen testified that Trump was aware of the infamous 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer who had been billed as possessing dirt on his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Cohen has already met seven times with Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s prosecutors as part of the investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 election.
“Having a fake hearing like that and having it in the middle of a very important summit like this is sort of incredible,” Trump said in Hanoi after his talks with Kim ended without an agreement.
Still, the tantalizing clues offered by Cohen about ongoing investigations that appear to involve Trump and his associates loom ominously.
Cohen’s disclosure that he’s cooperating with federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York on matters he said he couldn’t discuss publicly spurred a grave tweet from Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor and U.S. prosecutor: “The words that he said today that would send a chill up my spine at the White House would be, ‘I am in constant contact with the Southern District.’”
On Thursday, Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat at the hearing, said the House Oversight and Reform Committee will “probably” seek testimony from the people mentioned by Cohen in his appearance.
Pressure on top figures in Trump’s business could force them and others to cooperate in hopes of gaining leniency, much as some pivotal figures from Trump’s campaign, including Michael Flynn and Rick Gates, ultimately agreed to assist investigators.
A representative for the Trump Organization didn’t respond to requests for comment from the company and its executives. Sekulow, counsel to the president, said in a statement, "Today’s testimony by Michael Cohen that attorneys for the president edited or changed his statement to Congress to alter the duration of the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations is completely false."
The White House and many Republicans have cast Cohen, 52, as an opportunistic liar. He was sentenced to three years in prison last year for lying to Congress and making false statements to banks, as well as tax evasion and campaign finance violations.
Cohen’s often-explosive allegations Wednesday before the House Oversight Committee suggest that Trump and some of his associates may have been involved in white-collar crimes. Such criminal cases are often difficult for prosecutors to build given their complexity, typically requiring documentation and testimony from insiders like Cohen.
His testimony shed new light on how he was reimbursed for paying $130,000 to Stormy Daniels, an adult film star who said she had sex with Trump. In pleading guilty, Cohen has admitted he violated campaign laws by making the payment, which he said he made at Trump’s direction.
On Wednesday, he said Weisselberg decided that reimbursement payments to Cohen should be spread over 12 months so they would look like a retainer agreement, rather than a one-time payment. When Cohen was asked if Trump knew about the reimbursement method, he testified: "He knew about everything. Yes."
There is potentially another Trump Organization associate, described as executive no. 2, who was forwarded the Cohen invoice, according to prosecutors who handled the Cohen case in New York. When asked about that person publicly, Cohen said he believed it was the president’s son. Others have cast doubt on that, suggesting it was a different executive at the company. It’s not clear how much Cohen would know about the paper trail at Trump’s business.
Pathways for Prosecutors
Cohen also traced out some of the pathways federal prosecutors could pursue toward potential bank fraud or insurance fraud by Trump’s business or its executives.
Trump low-balled the value of his assets for tax purposes while inflating them for other audiences, Cohen testified, brandishing three years worth of skeletal financial summaries from 2011, 2012 and 2013 that he said has been given to banks and journalists. Trump provided an inflated picture of his assets to Deutsche Bank when preparing to make a bid for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, Cohen said.
And on at least one occasion, Trump provided an inflated valuation of his assets to an insurer, Cohen said. That would make his business seem less risky and lead to lower premiums -- and, if true, could constitute insurance fraud.
Asked Wednesday who else knew about Trump providing inflated assets to an insurance company, Cohen said, "Allen Weisselberg, Ron Lieberman and Matthew Calamari." He didn’t elaborate.
At the start of his testimony, Cohen apologized to lying to Congress in 2017. He said he did it to protect Trump -- and suggested he wasn’t alone in that impulse.
In the 2017 testimony, Cohen had told lawmakers that a proposed Trump real estate project in Moscow was dead by January 2016, before the Republican primaries had begun. That matched Trump’s campaign-trail insistence that he had no pending business with or commercial ties to Russia. He said that before his testimony, his prepared comments were shared among lawyers who were part of a joint defense agreement, including Sekulow. There’s no indication that Sekulow was aware at the time that talks might have continued.
However, in his guilty plea, Cohen admitted that the project continued at least until June 2016 and possibly longer.
Pressed on Wednesday to explain why the misleading testimony wouldn’t raise a protest among those lawyers, Cohen said the edits were in keeping with a “party line.”
"The goal was to stay on message, which is limit the relationship, whatsoever, with Russia," Cohen testified. "It was short. There’s not Russian contact. There’s no Russian collusion, there’s no Russian deals. That’s -- that’s the message."
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.