Michael Cohen's secret Trump tape brings a new figure to the center of the saga
- 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, chief financial officer of the Trump Organization.
- 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 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 those two men discussing payments made to former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
That figure is Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization's chief financial officer. Cohen mentioned Weisselberg at a couple of key points during the recording, which he made without Trump's knowledge. That recording was seized by the FBI in 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 that were seized from Cohen. Cohen's attorney, Lanny Davis, provided the tape to CNN.
Former Playboy model Karen McDougal has alleged she had an affair with Trump in 2006. The National Enquirer purchased McDougal's story for $150,000 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., for about $150,000. David Pecker, the head of American Media Inc., is a longtime friend of both Trump and Cohen.
On the tape, Cohen says he needs to open up a company for "the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David," referencing Pecker. He said he spoke with Weisselberg "about how to set the whole thing up," later adding he also spoke with Weisselberg "about when it comes time for the financing."
Cohen's reference of Weisselberg represents an under-the-radar but critical comment in the tape. Weisselberg's involvement in such discussions and/or other payments involving women could drag the Trump Organization'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 possible payment, something investigators were already said to be probing.
Weisselberg could face his own liability too, depending on what was said in that conversation, Mariotti said.
But the only way Mariotti sees Weisselberg's involvement becoming more closely tied to the Trump Organization is if the company was directly involved in any financing, not if he was providing Cohen with his own advice on how to handle the matter.
Meanwhile, Alan Futerfas, an attorney representing the Trump Organization, disputed Cohen's comments from 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 previously served as an assistant US attorney for the District of New Jersey, told Business Insider that it seems likely the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York will want to speak with Weisselberg as a result of Cohen's comments, in addition to reviewing any records of such a conversation were created at that time regarding the potential payment for McDougal's story.
Pointing to Cohen's and Futerfas' comments, Epner said 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 is "significant" because "it demonstrates that more folks than Trump and Cohen knew about" the potential payment for the McDougal 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 Organization executive, pops up.
In May, The New York Times reported that Weisselberg had known of the 2016 reimbursement made to Cohen for his $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels since 2017, long before Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani told Fox News that Trump had reimbursed Cohen. But The Times reported that a person familiar with the situation said he did not know about the Daniels payment when it took place.
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, alleged a 2006 affair with the president and was paid by Cohen to stay quiet about those claims. Trump denied the affair.
Weisselberg is also a key figure in the New York Attorney General's lawsuit against the Trump Foundation. The lawsuit alleges that the campaign engaged in a "pattern of illegal conduct" that stretches for more than a decade. It included allegations of coordinating with the Trump campaign.
In one piece of evidence included by acting New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood, Trump signed a note addressed to "Allen W" calling for the foundation to provide $100,000 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
Bloomberg opinion editor Tim O'Brien, a Trump biographer, wrote that Weisselberg's appearance on the secret Cohen recording "should worry the president."
"Weisselberg has detailed information about the Trump Organization’s operations, business deals and finances," he 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 Organization to the 1970s when he began working under the president's father, Fred Trump, "knows more about the Trump Organization'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 individuals who would manage the Trump Organization in Trump's absence prior to his taking office in 2017. In 2016, The Wall Street Journal wrote that Trump Organization 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?"