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Trump Org. CFO’s immunity deal is new problem for Trump
Prosecutors are edging closer and closer to President Trump's business empire, a fact underlined by the news Friday of an immunity deal reportedly given to the Trump Organization's longtime chief financial officer (CFO).
While it is unclear that Allen Weisselberg's reported deal - first reported by the Wall Street Journal on Friday - puts Trump in any specific legal danger, it does mean that prosecutors investigating former Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen will be talking closely to a man with deep knowledge of Trump's businesses.
"[Weisselberg] knew where every nickel went to, he knew where every nickel came from," said Travis Snell, a former assistant attorney general for New York state who worked on the Trump University case.
"And anybody who would want to know more about any of Trump's finances, Weisselberg is going to have knowledge about all of that."
Trump handed over control of the Trump Organization to his sons and Weisselberg when he took office. Since then, he has fiercely guarded his business interests, threatening to fire special counsel Robert Mueller over a report that he was examining Trump's finances.
While Weisselberg is being questioned as part of the case against Cohen, former federal prosecutors say that whatever he tells New York prosecutors runs the risk of being passed on to Mueller's investigation, which is examining ties between the Trump campaign and Russia during the election.
In a week that featured a guilty verdict against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the guilty plea by Cohen, who admitted to paying two women hush money with the intention of affecting the 2016 election, former federal prosecutor Seth Waxman said the Weisselberg news might still be the biggest.
In a "week of incredible events, this may be right up there and could be the most incredible [win] for the prosecution," he said. "In a white-collar criminal investigation, the CFO or accountant often times holds the keys to the castle."
Waxman says he does not believe Weisselberg's testimony will be limited to providing an inside look into the payments Cohen arranged to help Trump cover up the alleged affairs.
"This is the tightening of a noose - several, several links of that noose," Waxman said. "You have potentially his attorney and now his CFO on the government's side in a white collar financial crime type of situation. There are no more important people that the government could have on their side."
George Washington University law professor and legal expert Jonathan Turley cautioned against reading too far into the reported deal, saying that just because Weisselberg has been granted immunity doesn't mean he's a cooperating witness in the case.
Still, he said Weisselberg's extensive knowledge of the details of the Trump Organization and the president's finances could make him a dangerous witness for Trump.
"Weisselberg is the type of witness that keeps you up at night," said Turley, who is an opinion contributor to The Hill.
Snell, the former assistant attorney general, said that Weisselberg's immunity deal could potentially pose the risk of the Trump Organization itself being implicated in Cohen's case: The finance chief was previously subpoenaed to testify on the payments, and was mentioned by Cohen on a tape about making a payment tied to a Playboy model alleging an affair with Trump.
"I've spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up," Cohen can be heard telling Trump on the recording, made in the months ahead of the 2016 election. "So, I'm all over that. And, I spoke to Allen about it."
The National Enquirer held a story detailing Karen McDougal's allegations of an affair with Trump after paying the then-Playboy model $150,000 for the piece. McDougal sued the media company over the deal and reached a settlement in the case earlier this year.
Prosecutors also reportedly granted immunity to Trump ally David Pecker, the CEO of the company that publishes the National Enquirer.
"This really cuts to the core of [Trump's] inner circle, there's no way around it," Snell said of the immunity deals.
The former federal prosecutors noted that Weisselberg likely received an immunity deal because he showed he is able to provide substantial information to the authorities.
And while Weisselberg has been close with the Trump family for decades - he previously worked for the president's father - Snell said prosecutors must have presented enough evidence to the business associate that he "felt that the wisest course of action was to cooperate."
The legal experts noted that while the immunity deal is like a free pass that will protect Weisselberg, it does not immunize him from making some future perjury or false statement to prosecutors.
Former U.S. attorney Kendall Coffey said that prosecutors will sometimes grant immunity to witnesses that aren't believed to be the most responsible for the alleged crimes under investigation, but can speak to the actions of others in a probe.
"The fact that he successfully negotiated for immunity is consistent with the thesis that he was not seen as deeply culpable," he said.
Coffey added that it is possible Weisselberg's testimony helped secure Cohen's guilty plea on eight charges last week.
It's unknown as to what topics Weisselberg is discussing with federal prosecutors, but his notable involvement in the Trump Organization alongside the president's adult sons could impact Trump family members in a separate legal matter - a lawsuit filed earlier this year by state of New York against the Trump Foundation that included the president's three eldest children.
"While there is a debate over whether the president of the United States can be indicted while he's in office, there is obviously no issue of potentially indicting Jared Kushner or Don Jr. or Ivanka for that matter," Waxman said. "If part of Mr. Mueller's investigation is to determine whether the president has committed any crimes, flipping or putting pressure on those who are the absolute closest - his children and son-in-law are a step that any prosecutor would explore."
Mueller has largely stepped away from the Southern District of New York's probe, allowing prosecutors to handle the charges against Cohen. The two teams, however, have collaborated together in the past, and the FBI raids on Cohen's home and office were carried out after receiving a referral "in part" from the special counsel's office.
Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor with three decades of experience, cautioned that news of Weisselberg's immunity deal should not be taken lightly, citing the finance chief's long-standing ties with the Trump family.
"The amount of knowledge that man has is incalculable," Rossi said. "I cannot stress enough, he could potentially be a very serious risk and problem for the president of the United States and his family."
Updated: 11:40 a.m.