- Yana Paskova/Getty; Shayanne Gal/Business Insider
- A former DOJ prosecutor said revelations that Michael Cohen secretly recorded a sensitive conversation with President Donald Trump talking about payments to a Playboy model isn’t the most interesting revelation to the story.
- The former federal prosecutor said the key is where the payments originated.
Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former longtime fixer and lawyer, threw the media and politics spheres into a frenzy late Tuesday night.
His lawyer released a secret recording Cohen made featuring himself and Trump discussing how to buy the rights to a former Playboy model’s story about an alleged affair with Trump.
The model, Karen McDougal, was eventually paid $150,000 by the publisher of The National Enquirer, a Trump-friendly tabloid whose owner is close friends with the president. The story was never published, a tactic known as “catch-and-kill.”
But Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who spent 12 years at the Department of Justice, said the existence of Cohen’s tape is not the most significant piece of the story.
“We knew, as best as anyone on the outside of an investigation can know, that Trump and Cohen were somehow involved in this payment,” Cramer said. “This tape proves that and it certainly gives Cohen credibility and gives us more proof that Trump used other people to do his dirty work. But as far as having a substantive impact, I don’t think the tapes themselves will change much.”
Cramer said the amounts of the payments are “chump change” and amount to “a rounding error” in the grand scheme of Trump’s spending.
The key question now, he said, is where the money came from.
‘We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia’
- Jeenah Moon/Reuters
Cohen’s links to Russia and Ukraine date back to his childhood.
Seth Hettena, a longtime investigative journalist formerly of The Associated Press, wrote in Rolling Stone this year that Cohen spent much of his youth around Russian organized crime.
Cohen first met Trump through his father-in-law, the Ukrainian-born businessman Fima Shusterman.
Shusterman and two partners owned a taxicab business, and all three men were convicted of crimes related to money laundering in 1993, Hettena wrote.
“Fima may have been a (possibly silent) business partner with Trump, perhaps even used as a conduit for Russian investors in Trump properties and other ventures,” a former federal investigator told Hettena. “Cohen, who married into the family, was given the job with the Trump Org as a favor to Shusterman.”
Cohen told Hettena the allegation was “untrue,” adding that his source was “creating fake news.”
In May, Michael Avenatti, the attorney for the adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, released an “executive summary” saying a Russian energy tycoon reimbursed Cohen for a $130,000 payment to Daniels prior to the 2016 election.
Cramer, who worked on public corruption, fraud, and organized crime cases at the DOJ, said finding out where the payments Cohen made came from could help answer some of the biggest questions about Trump’s ties to Russia.
“If you’re following the money, and everything always comes down to money … you have to figure out where Trump’s and Cohen’s loans are coming from,” Cramer said. “If they’re from [Russian or Ukrainian] oligarchs, through Cohen, there’s your connection.”
The Trump campaign is currently wrapped up in the investigation into whether any Trump associates colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. Trump also floored observers last week when he praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and appeared to refuse to hold Russia accountable for its election meddling. The performance prompted national security experts to suggest that Trump is acting more and more like a Russian asset – wittingly or not.
“If you’re wondering about Russian influence, money is the No. 1 major coercion or enticement,” Cramer said. “If these guys are getting their loans or payments from Russia, that would answer a lot of questions about how beholden Trump is to Russian interests.”
‘Picture a wheel and spokes. Kiev is in the middle’
- Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Trump has well-documented public financial connections to Russians.
His eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., said in 2008 that “in terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”
“Say, in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo, and anywhere in New York,” he added. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
Reuters reported last year that at least 63 people with Russian passports or addresses bought a combined $98.4 million worth of property in seven Trump-branded luxury towers in southern Florida.
The report said about one-third of the owners of units in the seven Trump buildings were LLCs, which are able to hide the identity of a property’s true owner.
Cramer pointed out that this would be where Trump’s tax returns, which he has not released, would come into play.
“Picture a wheel and spokes,” he said. “Kiev is in the middle. I’d be shocked if there weren’t loans on there originating from Ukraine or other parts of eastern Europe. And Cohen may very well know about that, given his family’s connections to the region.”
Glenn Simpson, the cofounder of opposition research firm Fusion GPS, also touched on Cohen’s link to Russia while testifying before the House Intelligence Committee last year.
He told lawmakers Cohen “had a lot of connections to the former Soviet Union, and that he seemed to have associations with organized crime figures in New York and Florida – Russian organized crime figures.”
Simpson also emphasized another observation.
During Trump’s presidential campaign, he said, “serious questions about Donald Trump’s activities in Russia and the former Soviet Union went to Michael Cohen. … He was the only person who had information on that subject or was in a position to answer those questions.”