Loyalty Tested as Closest Trump Confidants Become Witnesses
(Bloomberg) -- Revelations that two of Donald Trump’s closest longtime allies have struck cooperation deals shows that federal prosecutors are chipping away at one of the president’s most cherished values: loyalty.
Both Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, and David Pecker, the tabloid executive who helped squash damaging allegations of infidelity against Trump, are reported to have traded their access to some of his most private matters for some level of criminal immunity. It’s unknown what Weisselberg and Pecker have told prosecutors, or if they have information that can deepen Trump’s legal or political jeopardy.
The two men both featured in federal charges against Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty on Tuesday. Cohen told a court in New York that the president had directed him to violate campaign finance law and make hush-money payments to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump.
The three veterans of the president’s controversial political, personal, and business practices join a growing list of one-time Trump allies now believed to be working with prosecutors. Former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn and top campaign aide Rick Gates have also entered into plea agreements requiring their cooperation. And current and former White House officials -- including White House counsel Don McGahn and former chief strategist Steve Bannon -- have met extensively with representatives of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The president, who prizes loyalty and discretion among his associates, has made his frustration evident. He has criticized prosecutors’ tactic of turning low-level witnesses against higher-value criminal targets by promising lighter sentences or criminal immunity.
“For 30 or 40 years I’ve been watching flippers,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News. “Everything’s wonderful then they get 10 years in jail and they flip on whoever the next highest one is or as high as you can go.”
“It almost ought to be outlawed,” he added. “It’s not fair.”
In tweets this week, Trump celebrated the silence of his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who refused to cooperate with prosecutors and was convicted on eight felony counts on Tuesday.
“Unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to ‘break’ - make up stories in order to get a ‘deal,”’ Trump said on Wednesday. “Such respect for a brave man!”
Here’s a look at some of the president’s inner circle who are working with prosecutors or facing significant prison time, and the risk they may pose to the president:
The cooperation agreement between Weisselberg and investigators, if expansive, could pose the most significant threat to the president. Weisselberg’s ties to the Trump family date to the 1970s when he worked as an accountant for the president’s father, Fred Trump, according to news reports. Weisselberg, 71, has been chief financial officer at the Trump Organization for years, and has served as treasurer for the president’s personal foundation. He’s so trusted by Trump that he’s the only non-family member who serves as a trustee to the trust that owns the constellation of business interests that form the Trump Organization, and is thought to have a deep understanding of the president’s finances.
It’s unclear whether the immunity agreement he struck -- first reported by the Wall Street Journal -- only covers the hush payments Cohen arranged or allows a broader review of the Trump organization.
Few in Trump’s orbit are likely to know as much about the president’s colorful personal life as David Pecker, the chief executive of America Media Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer. Pecker has reportedly cultivated close relationships with celebrities for years by buying potentially damaging stories and holding them from publication in exchange for favors. Pecker likely detailed to prosecutors how he employed the practice -- known as “catch and kill” -- on Trump’s behalf to bury infidelity allegations by former Playboy model Karen McDougal. He’s likely aware of whether any other similar allegations have been leveled against or silenced by the president.
The president’s longtime fixer is also thought to have detailed knowledge of Trump’s personal and business dealings -- and he sounds ready to talk. Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, said this week that Cohen has knowledge of interest to Mueller or congressional committees investigating Russian interference, and lawmakers in both the House and Senate have said they hope to bring him to the Hill for testimony. Prosecutors in Cohen’s own fraud and campaign finance case indicated they may already have evidence to support his claim that the hush-money payments were undertaken at the direction of Trump.
The president’s former national security adviser pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with Russian officials before Trump’s inauguration. White House officials have said that Flynn -- a fixture on the campaign trail before joining Trump in office -- did nothing illegal beyond deceiving investigators. But Flynn, 59, said he would cooperate with prosecutors examining possible collusion with Russia by Trump’s campaign. Under the agreement, he agreed to take a polygraph and even participate in covert law enforcement activities.
Manafort, 69, may rethink his decision not to cooperate with prosecutors following his conviction, which could land him in prison for years. As chairman of Trump’s campaign, Manafort played a key role in spending and hiring decisions and took part in a 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer who had offered damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
In a shift, Trump admitted on Twitter this month that the meeting was to seek dirt on Clinton, an effort he brushed off as routine: “totally legal and done all the time in politics.” On Saturday, the president tweeted that “I did NOT know about the meeting.”
But there’s potentially another way out for Manafort. Trump has harshly criticized his prosecution, suggesting he is considering a pardon. Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, told the Washington Post that the president at one point discussed the idea of pardoning Manafort with White House lawyers, who advised against it.
Manafort’s longtime business partner also played a critical role during the Trump campaign. He served as a primary deputy to Manafort, and held a leading role on the president’s inaugural committee. Gates has already shown his willingness to cooperate, serving as the star witness in Manafort’s trial, which largely focused on impropriety surrounding the pair’s business dealings as political consultants in Ukraine. In exchange for that cooperation -- and a promise to help with future investigations -- Gates was only asked to plead guilty to one count of false statements and one count of conspiracy against the U.S., with 20 additional charges dismissed. He has not yet been sentenced.
In addition to the senior Trump staffers and longtime friends in direct legal jeopardy or already aiding prosecutors, the special counsel has struck an agreement with former low-level foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who admitted to lying to the FBI and said he would assist the investigation.
More than 20 administration officials have been interviewed by Mueller with the approval of the White House. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, has met at least twice with the special counsel’s office, in sessions totaling multiple hours each. And the New York Times reported that White House counsel McGahn has cooperated extensively out of concern Trump might try to pin blame on him for potential acts of obstruction of justice.
Trump denounced the report on Twitter saying, saying he wasn’t concerned that McGahn was "a John Dean type ‘RAT’" in a reference to Nixon’s White House counsel during the Watergate crisis.
"I allowed him and all others to testify -- I didn’t have to," Trump continued. "I have nothing to hide."
--With assistance from Shahien Nasiripour.
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