Trump Loyalist’s Subpoena Is Momentous Turn
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In early 2005, at the invitation of Donald Trump, I visited the future president’s corporate headquarters in Manhattan to meet with the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg.
We planned to discuss how wealthy Trump was, a subject that was very important to Trump and very confusing to me. During the prior several months, Trump had told me he was worth anywhere from $1.7 billion to $5 billion. A brochure left on my nightstand when I visited Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach club, advised that his net worth was $9.5 billion.
Yet sources of mine who were familiar with Trump’s finances thought the right amount might be closer to $150 million to $250 million, or perhaps $350 million if he could bail out his troubled casinos. Those figures — noticeably missing “billions” — upset Trump (and he would later unsuccessfully sue me for libel for publishing them in a biography I wrote, “TrumpNation”).
Shortly before that 2005 meeting Trump went all in, telling me he was worth $5 billion to $6 billion. And to put my confusion to rest he then told Weisselberg to tally the value of all of his assets, net of debt, and discuss them with me. Weisselberg, reading from a large notepad, told me that Trump’s holdings were worth about $6 billion. But after I added up Weisselberg’s valuations, the total only came to $5 billion.
Huh? What happened to the rest? “I’m going to go to my office and find that other billion,” Weisselberg assured me. I never heard back from him.
Weisselberg’s math and his memory will have to improve, quickly. On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that a grand jury subpoenaed him to testify in the federal investigation of Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen.
Cohen is reportedly being investigated by federal prosecutors in New York for possibly engaging in bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations. A recording of his conversation with Trump discussing how to buy the silence of a woman who said she had an affair with Trump was released on Tuesday. During the conversation, Cohen referred directly to Weisselberg by name and said that he could help Cohen and Trump structure a secure conduit to pay her. It’s not clear that any money was ever spent.
While Cohen and Weisselberg are now intertwined legally, and know each other from their years together at the Trump Organization, they couldn’t be more different. Cohen, blunt and talkative, joined the Trump Organization in 2006 and operated essentially as a fixer-for-hire until his relationship with Trump soured and then decayed. Weisselberg, more reserved and observant, has been a member of the Trump Organization since the 1970s and worked his way up from being an accountant to the CFO’s perch.
Cohen has never received the kind of respect and trust from Trump that he hoped for and his loyalty to the president is now in play — as is the possibility that he may cooperate with federal and state investigations of Trump. Weisselberg has been a Trump family loyalist for decades and his allegiance to the president may be harder for prosecutors to crack.
On the other hand, Weisselberg has extensive knowledge of the Trump Organization’s operations. Trump’s trust in him was deep enough that he regularly had Weisselberg prepare his personal tax returns and sign off on the financial details of the company’s deals. He also had a prominent position inside the president’s troubled charitable foundation. And he, along with the president’s two eldest sons, oversees the trust that Trump set up to manage his interests in the Trump Organization while he’s in the White House.
That kind of knowledge is likely to be of great interest to investigators, who long ago signaled that they might take a closer look at the president’s business dealings. They may be inclined to put the kind of pressure on Weisselberg that would strain his loyalties to Trump.
In a column I wrote about Cohen and Weisselberg in April I noted that Weisselberg was a possible candidate for a subpoena from special counsel Robert Mueller or the U.S. attorney’s office in New York, given the fact that Mueller had already subpoenaed the Trump Organization for business records.
On Wednesday, I speculated that Weisselberg’s appearance on the most recent Cohen-Trump tape made him an even more obvious potential target for investigators. And, I wrote, if “he winds up in investigators’ cross hairs for secreting payoffs, he could potentially provide much more damaging information to prosecutors than Cohen ever could about the president’s dealmaking.”
Now we know that Weisselberg is going to a grand jury. And it is one of the more momentous turns thus far in the various investigations of the president — because it potentially brings the probe right into Trump’s wallet.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
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