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Aug 24, 2018
Originally published on August 24, 2018 8:26 pm
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Michael Cohen's plea agreement may have opened a Pandora's box of legal troubles for President Trump's business. The Trump Organization could be entangled in two possible criminal investigations in New York. And word comes today that the company's longtime chief financial officer has been granted immunity by prosecutors. That could mean the business secrets of the Trump Organization may soon be in the hands of prosecutors. Joining us to discuss all of this is member station WNYC's Andrea Bernstein, co-host of the Trump, Inc. podcast. Thanks for joining us.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Thank you.

CORNISH: Take us through where all of this legal activity stems from.

BERNSTEIN: So on Tuesday, as we all know, Michael Cohen pleaded guilty in federal court. And in the documents that were found in connection with this, there was the outline of a legal scheme. So this was about Michael Cohen paying hush money to a porn star to keep her from discussing her relationship with President Trump. So he transfers this money via a shell company. Then he gives the bank statement to the Trump Organization, and they add on some extra fees for a total of $420,000. This is what's outlined in the documents. Then an individual named Executive-1, who we now know is Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization chief financial officer, authorized the Trump Organization to pay this as legal expenses even though it was all a sham.

CORNISH: What are the possible criminal implications of this?

BERNSTEIN: So there are now two possible criminal investigations that I know of. After Cohen's guilty plea, he went - his lawyer went on TV and said he would talk to prosecutors. So the next day, he got a subpoena from the New York State Tax Department, and this is the first step in a criminal inquiry by the state attorney general - because if the Trump Organization took these so-called legal fees that weren't legal fees and deducted them as a business expense, that would be tax fraud. As we learned this week, tax fraud is a very serious offense. Separately, the Manhattan DA is looking at whether these were false business filings. If there were business records that reflected these sham payments and they were to cover up a crime, that could also be a felony.

CORNISH: Tell us more about Allen Weisselberg and why his immunity deal is so significant.

BERNSTEIN: So we all heard his name, although it might have gone by most people rather quickly. A few weeks ago, when Michael Cohen released that tape of him talking to Donald Trump about the hush money payment, Cohen said he ran the payment past Allen Weisselberg. Here's the tape. Though Trump is hard to understand, Michael Cohen you can hear clearly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL COHEN: I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David, you know, so that...

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Yeah.

COHEN: I'm going to do that right away. I've actually come up, and I spoke...

TRUMP: Give it to me (unintelligible).

COHEN: ...And I've spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up.

BERNSTEIN: So that's Allen Weisselberg. He's the longtime chief financial officer of the Trump Organization. Significantly, he knows the details of almost every deal. And what he knows could be even more important than what Michael Cohen knows because he was in the heart of the business organization. He could have potentially valuable information in all of the swirl of legal investigations.

CORNISH: So how do the ongoing investigations in New York fit together with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of the Russian interference into the 2016 election?

BERNSTEIN: Well, we're kind of in unchartered territory here because Mueller's investigation, though wide-ranging, is prescribed. It all stems from the possibility of a conspiracy with Russia to win the 2016 election. These new investigations go looking into the Trump Organization, which as we know is a very secretive organization. It's closely held. It's private. The president has not released his tax returns, breaking with all presidents in modern history. And he has this wide-ranging international business - hotels, golf courses, condos, real estate around the world. So an investigation into the business practices strikes very close to home to the president's whole business model. Today's news means that there is now a camel's nose under the tent of the Trump Organization, and we don't know where it could lead.

CORNISH: Andrea, we mentioned that you're co-host of the Trump, Inc. podcast. How much of a surprise was this week, considering all the legal activity you've been following?

BERNSTEIN: Well, Michael Cohen is somebody that we've been tracking for a long time, as we have Paul Manafort. And we had known that Michael Cohen had a long history of criminal associates, but it had never caught up to him until now. Now President Trump is being put in the situation of, his former two top aides were convicted this week of felony counts. So it puts the spotlight is - on who is Donald Trump, why is he associating with these people who have been defrauding taxpayers and banks in these kinds of ways?

CORNISH: That's Andrea Bernstein of WNYC. Thank you so much.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.