After Cohen’s guilty plea earlier this week, some reporters took to chattering on Twitter that Cohen’s role in TrumpWorld, although significant, had been overhyped a bit. Yes, he was an insider. Yes, he handled messy business for the president, like mistress payoffs, that Trump wouldn’t want people to know about. But it’s not like he was running the Trump Organization. Cohen would have knowledge of certain aspects of Trump’s business but he wouldn’t have knowledge of all of Trump’s business.
To get that, you’d need to go after Allen Weisselberg. The innermost ring of Trump’s inner circle.
WSJ headline this morning: “Allen Weisselberg, Longtime Trump Organization CFO, Is Granted Immunity in Cohen Probe.”
Why would Weisselberg play ball with the feds? They’ve got nothing on him related to the Stormy or McDougal payoffs, right? Well, hold on. The charging documents in Cohen’s case allege that certain unnamed executives at the Trump Organization arranged for Cohen to be reimbursed — and then some — on the Stormy matter via sham invoices for “legal expenses.” The company paid Cohen $420,000, supposedly as part of a retainer for legal services. Except there was no retainer. Falsifying business records is a no-no, a felony under certain circumstances, and one that New York prosecutors are now interested in. Beyond that, Weisselberg’s name was mentioned by Cohen on the now-famous tape of him and Trump discussing the rights to Karen McDougal’s story that the National Enquirer had acquired. Taking all of that in, you might be forgiven for assuming that Allen Weisselberg had some idea of what was going on with unreported campaign contributions and sham legal payments.
You may not have to assume, in fact, if the Journal’s reporting is accurate:
Last year, Mr. Weisselberg arranged for the Trump Organization to reimburse Mr. Cohen, who had in October 2016 made a $130,000 payment to Stephanie Clifford, a former adult-film actress who claimed she had sex with Mr. Trump a decade earlier, in exchange for her silence about the alleged affair. A person familiar with Mr. Weisselberg’s thinking said he didn’t know that money was intended to pay Ms. Clifford, who goes professionally by Stormy Daniels, when he agreed in January 2017 to a $35,000 monthly retainer for Mr. Cohen…
Executives at the Trump Organization “‘grossed up’ for tax purposes” Mr. Cohen’s requested reimbursement, doubling it to $360,000, and added a $60,000 bonus, the document said. The next month, one executive at the company asked another executive to pay Mr. Cohen’s monthly retainer “from the trust” and to “post to legal expenses.”
Mr. Weisselberg isn’t named in the charging documents but was one of the executives, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Weisselberg was staring at potential legal trouble of his own, it seems, for paying phony “legal expenses” to Cohen. A man in that situation has two options: Clam up, prepare for a risky, expensive legal fight, and trust that the president will pardon you — or make a deal. Weisselberg chose door number two, which is interesting in itself. If a longtime deputy, a man who knows where all the proverbial bodies are buried, doesn’t feel confident that he’ll get out of jail free by the president’s hand, how confident should lesser acquaintances feel?
Or did Weisselberg make a deal with the feds because he suspects, seemingly correctly, that New York state prosecutors want a piece of him too and there might not be anything POTUS can do to help him if they come knocking? Make a deal with the feds and you might earn some goodwill from the New York AG or Manhattan DA. Why, they might even take it as a signal that you’re willing to tell them things too if they offer you state immunity.
Gabe Malor draws a lesson from the barrage of plea deals and immunity grants (which include Trump’s Enquirer buddy, David Pecker, of course):
So it wasn't just "Cohen's word against the president's," as several radio talkers have insisted.
It would have been Cohen plus Weisselberg plus Pecker plus the text messages, audio recordings, and encrypted apps versus the president's word.
— Gabriel Malor (@gabrielmalor) August 24, 2018
The feds must have had a ton of evidence about the Stormy and McDougal payouts by the end. What’s interesting to me is the fact that they flipped Weisselberg to go after Cohen even though by any measure Weisselberg is a far more significant figure in the Trump ecosystem. Typically a prosecutor on the trail of criminal activity uses the testimony of the lower-ranking guy to roll up the higher-ranking one. The optimistic view of that is that it proves the feds actually aren’t interested in Trump’s business dealings: This is about Cohen and the mistress payoffs, not about peeking behind the curtain at what the Trump Organization has been up to over the years. If it were, they would have been using Cohen to provide evidence on Weisselberg, not vice versa.
The pessimistic view of that is that they are interested in Trump’s financial dealings and know that Weisselberg is the key to unlocking the castle. Cohen’s prosecution was their “in”: Presumably they already had a decent case against Cohen based on what Pecker told them and what they seized from Cohen’s office but they knew they could use Cohen’s prosecution to pressure Weisselberg to play ball based on his alleged complicity in covering up the Stormy payment. The only reason to give a player like Weisselberg immunity if you don’t need him to get a conviction in Cohen’s case is because he might be willing to tell you things about the highest-ranking guy of all. I guess we’ll find out whether the optimistic or pessimistic view is the correct one.