- Federal prosecutors are reportedly looking into whether President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee broke the law by misspending some of the record money it raised from donations last year.
- The investigation stems in part from a recording investigators obtained when they raided the property of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former longtime lawyer, in April.
- Cohen is proving to be a key asset to prosecutors, who are following the money.
- Cohen has pleaded guilty in two other ongoing criminal investigations into Trump’s business dealings and activities during the campaign and has quickly emerged as one of the most dangerous cooperators against the president.
On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that prosecutors at the Manhattan US attorney’s office are in the early stages of a criminal investigation into whether President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee misspent some of the $US107 million it raised from donations.
Prosecutors are also reportedly looking into whether the committee’s top donors gave money in exchange for access to the White House, favourable policy platforms, or influence over incoming administration positions.
According to The Journal, part of the investigation stems from what prosecutors found when they seized documents and materials from the property of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former longtime lawyer, in April.
The report said that among those materials was a recording of a conversation between Cohen and Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a former adviser to First Lady Melania Trump who worked on the inaugural events.
In the recording, The Journal reported, Wolkoff expressed concern about how the committee was spending the money it had raised. It’s unclear when the conversation took place.
Cohen is quickly emerging as one of the most dangerous cooperators against Trump as federal prosecutors close in on the White House.
He pleaded guilty this year to charges stemming from two separate investigations. In the first, conducted by the Southern District of New York, Cohen pleaded guilty in August to several counts of tax evasion, bank fraud, and campaign-finance violations, which he said he made at Trump’s direction.
Last month, Cohen also pleaded guilty to one count of lying to Congress as part of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Cohen has been cooperating with both offices since the summer.
This isn’t the first time questions have been raised about whether wealthy individuals funneled money to Trump’s inaugural committee to influence the incoming administration after the 2016 election.
Earlier this year, it was reported that eleven days before the inauguration, a prominent Russian oligarch met with Cohen to discuss improving US-Russia relations under Trump.
The Russian energy tycoon Viktor Vekselberg met with Cohen at Cohen’s office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, the American businessman Andrew Intrater told The New York Times in May.
Intrater, a relative of Vekselberg who donated $US250,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee, is the head of the US investment firm Columbus Nova. The company paid Cohen approximately $US500,000 in consulting fees between January and August 2017. It was formerly described in old press releases and securities filings as “the US-based affiliate of the Renova Group.” Renova Group is a Russian conglomerate founded by Vekselberg.
Intrater told The Times that Vekselberg and Cohen met three times. The second time was during Trump’s inauguration, which was attended by at least six Russians aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including Vekselberg.
Shortly after the inauguration, Columbus Nova signed a $US1 million consulting contract with Cohen, a deal that’s now reportedly under the scrutiny of federal investigators.
Cohen was sentenced to three years in federal prison on Wednesday after he pleaded guilty in the SDNY’s investigation.
The same day, federal prosecutors announced that they had reached a non-prosecution agreement (NPA) with American Media Inc. (AMI), the parent company of the National Enquirer, which spent $US150,000 to purchase the rights to the account of Karen McDougal, the model who said she had a 10-month affair with Trump.
Trump’s attorneys argue that Cohen’s payments to buy the silence of McDougal and of the porn star Stormy Daniels, who Cohen paid $US130,000 in October 2016 to keep her from discussing what she says was a 2006 affair with Trump, were a “simple private transaction” and did not constitute campaign-finance violations because they were made to protect Trump’s family and businesses. The National Enquirer did not publish McDougal’s story.
The NPA with AMI said the company “admitted that its principal purpose in making the payment was to suppress the woman’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election.”
Trump on Thursday denied directing Cohen to coordinate the payments to McDougal and Daniels. But later that day, NBC News reported that Trump was in the room when Cohen was discussing with AMI head David Pecker how to quash negative stories about Trump’s relationships with women.
“The timing and surrounding facts, which include a NPA with the Enquirer, show a pattern of purposeful concealment with the sole intent of hiding the truth from the electorate a month before the election,” Jeffrey Cramer, a former longtime federal prosecutor in Chicago, told INSIDER earlier this week.
“One by one, the career DOJ prosecutors are removing possible Trump defences,” wrote Neal Katyal, the former acting US solicitor general. “Now it isn’t just Cohen, but also AMI, saying these hush money payments were made to influence the 2016 Presidential election, and knock out the so-called ‘[John] Edwards defence.'”
Cohen’s cooperation is also likely opening new doors for Mueller’s office as his team follows the money while investigating the Trump campaign’s financial ties to Russian interests.
Cohen admitted last month to misleading congressional investigators about his and Trump’s involvement in the Trump Organisation’s push to build a Trump Tower in Moscow at the height of the election.
Prosecutors wrote in their criminal information against Cohen that he “discussed the status and progress of the Moscow Project” with Trump “on more than the three occasions Cohen claimed” to the Senate Intelligence Committee and that “he briefed family members” of Trump within the Trump Organisation about it.
Cohen’s lawyers later said he was “in close and regular contact” with Trump’s lawyers and White House staffers while he was drafting false testimony to give to Congress. His former lawyer, Lanny Davis, also told Bloomberg this week that Trump knew Cohen was planning to lie to Congress and did not advise him against it.
Grace Panetta contributed to this report.
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