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The ‘stunning’ details Cohen offered about Trump’s business

During a public hearing before the House Oversight Committee, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen discussed the president’s personal, political and financial affairs. William Brangham talks to The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold and Andrea Bernstein, co-host of the podcast "Trump, Inc.," about "startling" details of Trump's business and why Congress might want to talk to Allen Weisselberg.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The man who was central in a cover-up to silence potentially damaging information about the president laid out a litany of damning claims in public yesterday.

    William Brangham explores what Michael Cohen's testimony may reveal about the inner workings of the Trump business organization.

  • William Brangham:

    Yesterday was the first time the public heard directly from a key figure within the Trump Organization about how the family business operated.

    Cohen's testimony touched on a series of threads about how the president and his company operated before, during and after the campaign.

    Two people who have spent an extensive amount of time reporting on the Trump business join me now.

    Andrea Bernstein is co-host of the "Trump, Inc." podcast, and David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post.

    Welcome to you both.

    Andrea, to you first.

    Yesterday, one of the pieces of evidence that Michael Cohen showed was this big check for $35,000 signed by Donald Trump when he was president. What was that check allegedly for?

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    So this had a startling impact, this check.

    I was in the courtroom with Michael Cohen when he described this scheme where he says he was directed by the person we now know to be Donald Trump to make this payment to keep some women quiet who had made allegations about having had an affair with then candidate for president Donald Trump.

  • William Brangham:

    This was an earlier court event with Michael Cohen in New York.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Right. So this happened when he pleaded guilty.

    But what was so startling is we have not actually seen the check that we saw yesterday, when Michael Cohen turned it over to the House Oversight Committee, from Donald Trump, written while Donald Trump was president. And Cohen described in his opening statement how he had been on a tour of the Oval Office and was looking in awe at the White House.

    And the president said, oh, don't worry, your payments are coming. They're a little delayed because it takes a while for a FedEx from New York to get through the White House security.

    So all of that shows no lines between the presidency, the business, the White House, and the president signing a check for what U.S. attorneys have described as a criminal scheme to violate campaign finance laws.

  • William Brangham:

    David, just touching on this, there was a second reimbursement check also signed by one of the financial officers within the Trump Organization and Donald Trump Jr. as well, similarly, we believe, for these hush money payments.

    Again, it just reflected that this — as Andrea has been saying, this is a family business. What else struck you about what we learned about how that operation works?

  • David Fahrenthold:

    One thing I was struck by was — well, two things. One was the small size of that business. It's a really small operation, so small that one man, Allen Weisselberg, the financial officer you mentioned earlier, was kind of involved in everything.

    This one guy who was Trump's CFO, he touched on all these schemes. His name was mentioned 30 times yesterday. Everything that Cohen described as a potential violation of the law, Weisselberg happened to be — happened to be involved in. That was one thing.

    The other thing was we saw up close the way that Trump exaggerated his net worth, not just to journalists, but also to people he was doing business with, his lenders and insurers. Cohen brought out some documents that he said were inflated that Trump handed over to those folks to try to get a better deal by sort of misleading them about how much money he had.

  • William Brangham:

    Andrea, though, again, as David's pointing out, there's so many different interesting threads that came up yesterday.

    Another one that came up was this — the revelation about the attempts to build a Trump project in Moscow. The question always was, did Donald Trump tell Michael Cohen to lie to Congress and to mislead Congress about those negotiations in Russia?

    Let's listen to what Cohen had to say yesterday.

  • Michael Cohen:

    Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That's not how he operates.

    In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, he would look me in the eye and tell me there's no Russian business and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing.

    In his way, he was telling me to lie.

    There were at least a half-dozen times between the Iowa Caucus in January 2016 and the end of June when he would ask me, "How's it going in Russia?" — referring to the Moscow Tower project.

    Mr. Trump knew of and directed the Trump Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it.

  • William Brangham:

    Andrea, I'm just struck by the way in which he talks about this. I think he referred to it elsewhere yesterday as the code, the sort of understood way that members of the organization would talk about things that they knew might be skirting the law.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    This was one of the most startling things to me yesterday, to see it laid out in this way by a former insider, that the lingua franca of the Trump Organization was lying, and that everybody knew was a lie.

    And it's certainly consistent with the way other people have described to me the way things work. So what Michael Cohen said was, you didn't need to tell me to lie, because I saw it every day. I would be riding an elevator, and Mr. Trump would say, how's Moscow going? And then that night, he would say to a rally, no Russia, no collusion.

    So the disjunction between what was actually happening and what Trump was telling the American people was startling. Cohen also said that President Trump's lawyers helped with his testimony before he presented it to Congress.

    And he also said quite explicitly that he had briefed Donald Trump and briefed his family members, Donald Jr. and Ivanka Trump, about the Moscow project while it was going on. At one point, he said, Mr. Trump knew everything that was going on in the Trump Organization. If it was happening, he knew and his family knew.

  • William Brangham:

    David, I want to pick up on something that you touched on before. You mentioned Allen Weisselberg.

    Michael Cohen, 30 times, you said, mentioned this name. He's clearly laying flares out there, saying Allen Weisselberg is the guy who — to talk to.

    Remind us who Allen Weisselberg is and why he's so central in all this.

  • David Fahrenthold:

    He's probably, other than Donald Trump Sr., the most important person in the Trump Organization, much more important than any of the children.

    Weisselberg has been with the Trump Organization since the 1980s. He's risen through the ranks to become Trump's CFO. That sounds like an executive position, like a position of great power. But, really, Donald Trump Sr. was making all the decisions, and Weisselberg just sort of made it all work.

    He seems to have been involved in a number of fairly small transactions, both for Trump's business and for his charity, which is a really small-potatoes charity. Anything Donald Trump was spending money on or any way Donald Trump was bringing money in, Allen Weisselberg touched it, Allen Weisselberg was there.

    That's why Weisselberg is so important to a variety of congressional inquiries and maybe to some prosecutorial inquiries too. He knew everything that was happening behind the scenes.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, David Fahrenthold, Andrea Bernstein, thank you both very much.

  • David Fahrenthold:

    Thank you.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Thanks for having us.

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