Done with Cohen, federal prosecutors shift focus to Trump family business

Done with Cohen, federal prosecutors shift focus to Trump family business

Cohen, Trump’s self-described fixer, has provided assistance in that inquiry, which is separate from the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Done With Cohen, Federal Prosecutors Shift Focus to Trump Family Business
US President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen exits Federal Court after entering a guilty plea in Manhattan. (Reuters)

Written by Ben Protess, William K. Rashbaum and Maggie Haberman

When federal prosecutors recommended a substantial prison term for President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, they linked Trump to the crimes Cohen had committed in connection with the 2016 presidential campaign.

What the prosecutors did not say in Cohen’s sentencing memorandum filed Friday, however, is that they have continued to scrutinize what other executives in the president’s family business may have known about those crimes, which involved hush-money payments to two women who had said they had affairs with Trump.

After Cohen pleaded guilty in August to breaking campaign finance laws and other crimes — he will be sentenced Wednesday — the federal prosecutors in Manhattan shifted their attention to what role, if any, Trump Organization executives played in the campaign finance violations, according to people briefed on the matter.


Cohen, Trump’s self-described fixer, has provided assistance in that inquiry, which is separate from the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.

In addition to implicating Trump in the payments to the two women, Cohen has told prosecutors that the company’s chief financial officer was involved in discussions about them, a claim that is now a focus of the inquiry, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Cohen has told prosecutors that he believes Trump personally approved the company’s decision to reimburse him for one of the payments, one of the people said.

Neither the chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, nor any other executives at the Trump Organization have been accused of wrongdoing and there is no indication that anyone at the company will face charges in connection with the inquiry.

But in recent weeks, the prosecutors contacted the company to renew a request they had made this year for documents and other materials, according to the people. The precise nature of the materials sought was unclear, but the renewed request is further indication that prosecutors continue to focus on the president’s company even as the case against Cohen comes to a close, the people said.

At the time of the payments to the two women, Trump was the head of the company, and although he turned over its management to his elder sons, he still owns it through a trust. While the prevailing view at the Justice Department is that a sitting president cannot be indicted, the prosecutors in Manhattan could consider charging him after leaving office. It is also possible the prosecutors could seek his testimony before he leaves office if they continue the investigation into anyone else who might have had a role in the crimes, a person briefed on the matter said.

A spokeswoman for the Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokesman for the federal prosecutors in Manhattan, the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, declined to comment. A lawyer for Weisselberg, Mary E. Mulligan, also declined to comment, as did Guy Petrillo, a lawyer for Cohen.

In early September, before Cohen had completed his discussions with prosecutors and before the Southern District renewed its record request, Bloomberg reported that the Southern District was investigating Trump Organization executives other than Cohen.

Last month, Cohen unexpectedly struck a plea deal with Mueller over a new charge that he lied to Congress about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 presidential campaign. In a court filing the following day, Cohen’s lawyers highlighted how he had spoken on numerous occasions to each of the prosecutorial agencies investigating Trump or his company.

Cohen has told the Southern District prosecutors that he arranged the hush money to the two women at the direction of Trump. In the filing Friday, the Southern District prosecutors put the weight of their office behind Cohen’s admission, saying that “with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump.

The Southern District’s filing also said Cohen had provided potentially “useful information about matters relating to ongoing investigations being carried out by this office.” It added that prosecutors “assessed Cohen to be forthright and credible, and the information he provided was largely consistent with other evidence gathered,” a potentially problematic sign for the Trump Organization.

Though Trump’s lawyers declined to comment, people close to Trump argue that Cohen would not be sentenced now if he had substantially more to offer to investigators — and they note that the Southern District memo cited Cohen’s “pattern of deception that permeated his professional life.” What’s more, people who have worked for the Southern District have said that prosecutors might say things in a sentencing memo that they would not try to pursue as a separate case.

Trump lashed out at Cohen on Twitter in recent days, saying, “He lied for this outcome and should, in my opinion, serve a full and complete sentence.”

One of the campaign finance charges Cohen pleaded guilty to centered on Cohen paying $130,000 to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who said she had an affair with Trump. The payment amounted to an excessive contribution to Trump’s campaign, prosecutors said, arguing that her silence helped his election chances and that campaign finance law prohibits individuals from donating more than $2,700 to a presidential candidate in the general election.

Cohen also pleaded guilty to “causing” an illegal corporate donation to Trump when he urged American Media Inc., which publishes The National Enquirer, to buy the rights to a former Playboy model’s story of an affair with Trump. The deal effectively silenced the model, Karen McDougal, for the remainder of the campaign.

Cohen has also told the Southern District that Weisselberg, who is one of Trump’s longtime loyalists, was involved in discussions about how to pay Daniels, according to a person briefed on the matter. Cohen linked him to the deal with American Media as well.

During the campaign, Cohen recorded a conversation he had with Trump about buying the rights to negative information American Media had collected on Trump. Cohen told Trump, who did not know he was being recorded, that “I’ve spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up.” The deal was signed by American Media and Cohen, according to court papers. But a person familiar with the arrangement said that Trump balked at reimbursing America Media, as had been agreed to, and the media company was never reimbursed in relation to McDougal.

But after the campaign, Weisselberg handled reimbursing Cohen for the payment to Daniels, according to people briefed on the matter. In early 2017, Cohen sought to recoup the $130,000 he paid out of his own pocket to Daniels as well as $50,000 he spent on a technology company in connection with the campaign, prosecutors have said.

Not only did the Trump Organization repay those expenses, but it agreed to pay taxes Cohen might have incurred on the reimbursements. This decision to “gross up” Cohen went against the Trump Organization’s typical reimbursement practices, people briefed on the matter said.


The company also agreed to pay Cohen a $60,000 bonus. (Cohen left the company once Trump became president). In total, the company paid Cohen $420,000, doled out in monthly installments of $35,000. In internal documents, the company “falsely accounted” for the payments as “legal expenses,” when, in fact, they were campaign expenditures, prosecutors say.