- A new figure finds himself at the center of the ongoing saga involving President Donald Trump and his former longtime lawyer Michael Cohen.
- The person is Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organisation.
- Cohen mentioned him twice on a September 2016 audio recording of the attorney and Trump discussing the idea of purchasing the rights to the story of a former Playboy model who says she had an affair with Trump years ago.
- Experts say this could put Weisselberg in hot water.
A new figure finds himself at the center of the ongoing saga involving President Donald Trump and his former longtime lawyer Michael Cohen after CNN aired a September 2016 audio recording of the two men discussing buying the rights to the story of a former Playboy model who says she had an affair with Trump years ago.
That figure is Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organisation’s chief financial officer. Cohen mentioned Weisselberg at a couple of key points during the recording, which he made without Trump’s knowledge and which was seized by the FBI in its April raids of Cohen’s home, office, and hotel room as part of a criminal investigation into the attorney.
The existence of the tape was first revealed on Friday. Trump’s attorneys waived privilege claims over that tape and 11 others seized from Cohen. Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis provided the tape to CNN, which aired it Tuesday.
The former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, has said she had an affair with Trump in 2006. The National Enquirer purchased McDougal’s story for $US150,000 in August 2016 but never published anything on it. That practice is known as “catch and kill,” and it effectively silenced McDougal’s allegations.
The tape contains a conversation between Cohen and Trump in which they discuss a plan to purchase the rights to McDougal’s story from the outlet’s publisher, American Media Inc. – whose head, David Pecker, is a friend of Trump’s and Cohen’s – for about $US150,000.
On the tape, Cohen can be heard saying he needs to open up a company for “the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David,” presumably referring to Pecker. Cohen said he spoke with Weisselberg “about how to set the whole thing up,” later adding he also spoke with him about it “when it comes time for the financing.”
Cohen’s reference to Weisselberg represents an under-the-radar but critical comment on the tape. Weisselberg’s involvement in such discussions or other payments involving women could drag the Trump Organisation’s top financial officer into the Cohen investigation, possibly opening the door to Trump’s books.
‘It may be that the Southern District will reach out to Weisselberg and pressure him to testify against Trump’
Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor who’s now a partner at Thompson Coburn, told Business Insider that “at the very least” Weisselberg is likely now an important witness in the Southern District of New York’s investigation into Cohen “because he can recount what Cohen said” to him about the potential payment, something investigators were already said to be probing.
Weisselberg could face liability too, depending on what was said in that conversation, Mariotti said.
But the only way Mariotti said he sees Weisselberg’s involvement becoming more closely tied to the Trump Organisation is if the company was directly involved in any financing, not if he was providing Cohen his advice on how to handle the matter.
Meanwhile, Alan Futerfas, an attorney representing the Trump Organisation, disputed Cohen’s comments on the tape in an interview with The Washington Post.
“The notion that Mr. Cohen would have spoken to Mr. Weisselberg about a proposition he had yet to even make to the president does not ring true,” he said. “Mr. Weisselberg is a bookkeeper who simply carries out directions from others about monetary payments and transfers. There would be no reason for Mr. Cohen to have any conversation with Mr. Weisselberg prior to him recommending and obtaining approval for the purchase he was suggesting.”
Mitchell Epner, an attorney at Rottenberg Lipman Rich who was previously an assistant US attorney for the District of New Jersey, told Business Insider that it seemed likely the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York would want to speak with Weisselberg as a result of Cohen’s comments and review any records of such a conversation created at that time regarding payment for McDougal’s story.
Pointing to Cohen’s and Futerfas’ comments, Epner said that one of two things must be true: “Either Michael Cohen lied to Donald Trump when he said that he had already discussed the issue with Mr. Weisselberg, or Mr. Futerfas’ statement is false.”
Roland Riopelle, a partner at Sercarz & Riopelle who was formerly a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, told Business Insider the mention of Weisselberg was “significant” because “it demonstrates that more folks than Trump and Cohen knew about” the potential payment for McDougal’s story.
“So it may be that the Southern District will reach out to Weisselberg and pressure him to testify against Trump,” he said. “Or it may even be the SDNY will charge Weisselberg in a conspiracy case.”
A longtime Trump fixture
The Cohen tape is the latest episode where Weisselberg, a longtime Trump Organisation executive, pops up.
In May, The New York Times reported that Weisselberg had known of the 2016 reimbursement to Cohen for his $US130,000 payment to the adult-film star Stormy Daniels since 2017, long before Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani told Fox News that Trump had reimbursed Cohen.
But The Times reported that a person familiar with the situation said Weisselberg did not know about the Daniels payment when it took place, shortly before the 2016 election.
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, said she had an affair with Trump in 2006, and she was paid by Cohen to stay quiet about those claims. Trump has denied that an affair took place.
Weisselberg is also a key figure in the New York attorney general’s lawsuit against the Trump Foundation alleging that it engaged in a “pattern of illegal conduct” stretching for more than a decade, including coordinating with the Trump campaign.
In one piece of evidence included by the acting New York attorney general, Barbara Underwood, Trump signed a note addressed to “Allen W” calling for the foundation to provide $US100,000 to Fisher House as part of a legal settlement involving Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.
Weisselberg was the foundation’s treasurer.
Weisselberg’s appearance on the Cohen recording should worry Trump
Timothy O’Brien, the Bloomberg opinion editor and Trump biographer, wrote on Wednesday that Weisselberg’s appearance on the secret Cohen recording “should worry the president.”
“Weisselberg has detailed information about the Trump Organisation’s operations, business deals and finances,” O’Brien wrote. “If he winds up in investigators’ crosshairs for secreting payoffs, he could potentially provide much more damaging information to prosecutors than Cohen ever could about the president’s dealmaking.”
Weisselberg, who traces his origins at the Trump Organisation to the 1970s when he began working under the president’s father, Fred Trump, “knows more about the Trump Organisation’s history and finances than nearly anyone,” O’Brien wrote.
Weisselberg was named along with Trump’s two adult sons, Eric and Donald Jr., as the people who would manage the Trump Organisation in Trump’s absence prior to his taking office last year. In 2016,The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump Organisation insiders said the low-key Weisselberg was crucial to the business.
Jed Shugerman, a Fordham University law professor, told Business Insider that the tape “potentially implicates Weisselberg in a felony” involving campaign-finance violations.
“Furthermore, Cohen might offer more information about Weisselberg’s criminal liability in this case or others,” Shugerman said. “If Weisselberg is facing a criminal indictment, the question is: What else does he know that he could offer prosecutors?”
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