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ILYA MARRITZ: Hello, and welcome to this Trump, Inc. podcast extra. Trump, Inc. is an open investigation from ProPublica and WNYC into the Trump family business. I'm Ilya Marritz from WNYC.
MARRITZ: This week, Donald Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, will be sentenced in a New York courtroom on a raft of charges including tax evasion, illegal campaign donations, and lying to Congress.
Also this week, a judge will consider Paul Manafort's future, now that he is apparently in breach of a cooperation agreement with special counsel Robert Mueller. Manafort, of course, was Donald Trump's campaign chairman and was convicted of bank fraud and tax fraud.
Right now we've got my Trump, Inc. cohost, Andrea Bernstein, here. Hi, Andrea!
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Hey!
MARRITZ: Andrea and I have spent a lot of time tracing the twists and turns in Michael Cohen’s very interesting life. Also here via Skype, we have Franklin Foer, staff writer at The Atlantic. He has paid closer attention to Paul Manafort's career than any journalist I know of. Hi, Frank.
FRANKLIN FOER: God help me. [ALL LAUGH]
MARRITZ: Are you guys feeling as overwhelmed as I am with all of the information coming at us all at once about these two men?
FOER: Too many threads! Too many narratives to keep hold of. And, you know, we're living in this kind of state of suspense, which is that we have all these disparate data points. They look dodgy as hell. Yet you don't know how anything stitches together in an ultimate sort of way. And so we've been living with this scandal for so long and yet, like, we really don't know where it's going. And I find, several years into it, it’s just — it's a kind of … I wake up in the middle of the night, just kind of screaming. Like, make it end! [BERNSTEIN AND MARRITZ CHUCKLE] Like, I want — I need to know! Like, what — what the hell happened? Please, tell me, someone!
BERNSTEIN: Well, except that the last time the three of us spoke, it was summer, it was really, really hot, and it was during the first days of Paul Manafort's trial. And I think we know a lot more than we did then about the emerging narrative.
I think, including, just beginning with Paul Manafort for one, his crimes — per Mueller — did not end with some shady financial transactions involving Ukrainian oligarchs before the Trump campaign but, in fact, went up into May of 2018, just a couple of months before we sat down, before his trial, where he was speaking to administration officials, and then subsequently lying about it to the special counsel.
So I think there's a — Paul Manafort has pulled his crimes into the present.
FOER: Andrea, just to quibble with you — I mean, I feel like, incrementally, we know a lot more about what happened. But, you know, when I step back and I look at the bigger picture, it's still murky to me.
MARRITZ: Frank, I feel like you're talking about these middle pages of the memo that came out on Friday, which have huge redactions — huge amounts of black lines — but one name keeps coming up again and again, next to the redacted text, and that's Konstantin Kilimnik. You want to fill us in on who he is, and the role that he played with Paul Manafort over many, many years?
FOER: [INDISTINCT, MAYBE] Cognizanti knows — [THEN] Konstantin Kilimnik as either Kostya or KK. And I just love the nickname KK. [MARRITZ LAUGHS] Um, and so I think for the sake of this podcast, can we refer to him as KK?
FOER: Or Kilimnik? Okay. [PAUSE] So, um, KK was kind of Paul Manafort's little buddy — emphasis on little, he's a very diminutive character. I think he's just over five feet tall. He was born in Eastern Ukraine, um, and in the dying days of the Soviet Union went to a foreign language school that was run by the GRU, which is Soviet military intelligence, which is a notorious recruiting ground for spies.
So he ultimately ends up getting hooked up with Paul Manafort first as his translator, but then he evolves into something more than that, because he's always in the room with Manafort and Manafort's working in Ukraine.
MARRITZ: I was gonna say, you're talking — you’re talking about this period where Manafort is sort of amassing power and influence working for the then-leader of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych.
FOER: Yes. For that. And also, at the same time, they’re working with a Russian oligarch, an aluminum magnate called Oleg Deripaska, who was known as Putin's oligarch. And at — at a certain point, he was somebody who was deep in Putin's inner circle. He was a guy who would travel with Putin, um, who Putin would actually talk to for advice.
And during that period, KK and Manafort would jet up to Moscow from Kiev and they would meet — they’d meet with Deripaska. And so KK rises through the ranks — and at certain points, Manafort refers to him as “my Russian brains” because, you know, Manafort doesn't just not know the language. He is also trying to find his way through this foreign political culture.
And so, eventually, Manafort’s operation in Kiev starts to contract. He sheds people. People come, people go. And the last man standing in his operation was Kilimnik. And there were always these questions about — people knew about his background in Russian military intelligence. It wasn't something that he kept a secret, and they just had this sense that he was a guy who could be a Russian agent. Nobody had any definitive proof, but there's a possibility that people are over-interpreting this deeper part of his biography — his training and Soviet military intelligence — and they're making assumptions about him being a spy that aren't backed up by anything else.
And it's a little too convenient and then, in these crevices of the filings and these asides, you start to see references to “Person A” who’s, quite obviously, Konstantin Kilimnik, and you start to see that Mueller refers to him as an asset of Russian intelligence — and not just an asset of Russian intelligence, but an asset of Russian intelligence who seems to have been working for Russian intelligence through 2016 — in other words, through the campaign.
MARRITZ: So this is my next question for you. Is there anything in this new filing that pulls Manafort's history with KK or Kostya into the present or the very recent past?
FOER: What pulls it into the present is that Robert Mueller's asking questions of Paul Manafort about Konstantin Kilimnik.
MARRITZ: Paul Manafort, who now has a cooperation agreement with Robert Mueller, so — which — obliging him to —
BERNSTEIN: Well, which he breached, per Mueller!
MARRITZ: — to answer questions. [CHUCKLES]
FOER: Yeah. So he's supposed to be asking … So he’s — he's promised to spill all the beans. He’s promised to come as clean as Mr. Clean. And yet, there's the subject — or maybe they're the handful of subjects — that Manafort continues to lie about. And the one that Robert Mueller seems to care the most about is that every time he asks Manafort questions about Konstantin Kilimnik, Manafort's just, baldly lying — lying to him. And the question, I think, is why.
BERNSTEIN: In fact, Manafort pleaded guilty to conspiring with Kilimnik to tamper with witnesses, and then subsequently — to Mueller's team — denied that he conspired with Kilimnik after he had already pleaded guilty to conspiring with Kilimnik.
MARRITZ: Sorta feels like this crazy sense that KK was, like, the vector of Russian influence. We still don't really know that. Mueller hasn't really been presented evidence (that’s un-redacted, anyway) of that. But it's still, like, a live idea, because Mueller is focusing on him, I guess.
FOER: Yeah. Well, so, here’s — here's the thing that I think is so important. Manafort has this long relationship with Oleg Deripaska that we've talked about. And first, Manafort is a consultant working for Deripaska. And then they come up with this idea of creating an investment fund that's going to buy distressed assets across Ukraine and Russia. And Deripaska promises to pour huge amounts of money into this fund that Manafort’s going to be the manager of, and then the financial crisis hits, and Deripaska wants his money back, and Manafort is unable to get him his money back, or really even quite account for what had happened to the money.
So you flash forward to the presidential campaign, and we know from emails that — so as soon as Manafort ends up on the Trump campaign, he’s starting to email Kilimnik saying, “How can we use our position — our new position in the Trump campaign to, quote-unquote, ‘get whole’ with —“ seems to be Deripaska. They speak a little bit in code, but it doesn’t — it’s not hard to crack the code. “How do we — how do we — how do we use it, leverage this campaign to — to make these debts that we owe to Deripaska disappear?” And Kilimnik has always been the interface with Deripaska, and he promises to forward messages to Deripaska, and he comes to New York to meet with Manafort to discuss Deripaska. And these are things that are actually referenced obliquely, it seems like, in the filing. Um, if you read between the blacked-out lines, it seems to be one of the things that Manafort was lying about. And so the question is: Did Deripaska get these messages from Kilimnik? Did it end up resulting in any sorts of meetings or messages exchange between Manafort and Deripaska? And, if so, did Manafort indeed try to leverage his position in the campaign to, quote-unquote, “get whole” with Deripaska. And what does that mean?
BERNSTEIN: I think that one of the things that is very interesting that … I mean, Mueller's office releases these two filings within a couple, you know, hours of each other. One about Manafort, and one about Cohen. And in the Cohen one, they are clear to point out that the activities that Cohen was undertaking in Moscow — and that discussing with Trump how they were going to get Putin's approval of a Trump Tower — that that was happening while the Russian government was using active measures to interfere with the U.S. election process.
MARRITZ: So let's talk about Michael Cohen, ‘cause we got not one but two juicy memos on Michael Cohen last week. Uh, one is from the Southern District in New York, and that really goes into his crimes that he's pleaded guilty to in vivid detail and calls for a significant sentence of imprisonment.
Then we have this other memo from Robert Mueller. It's a bit lighter on information, although it contains some really juicy stuff. And it seems to suggest a little bit of a lighter touch to the judge when considering a prison sentence. What's your headline, Andrea?
BERNSTEIN: [LAUGHINGLY] The headline on which one?
MARRITZ: [LAUGHS] On the whole thing!
BERNSTEIN: I mean, I think that — well, I mean …
MARRITZ: I mean, it was funny to — it was funny to watch all the newspaper headlines come out, and they seem to almost not be in agreement.
BERNSTEIN: [MAKES EXASPERATED NOISE] Okay. Right. I do think the headline is that Cohen, along with Trump, or, you know, “Individual-1,” who, by this time, was President of the United States, as he's described in one extraordinary sentence in Robert Mueller's memo — that Cohen, in connection with Individual-1, were discussing this business deal in Russia while these active measures were taking place. I think that that is the clearest lining-up and the closest we've come to the collusion.
There are several references in the Mueller Cohen memo about the information that Cohen provided being central to their core investigation. So it suggests that he knows stuff about collusion with Russia, and that he has now told it to the Special Counsel's office.
So, to me, that is the headline. I mean, I'm super interested in the Southern District memo. And I think we should talk about it some more in a second, because I think it goes into sort of Michael Cohen's history of criming that you and I have spent so much time in. And I learned a whole bunch of new things on that. But I do think that that is the headline.
The fact that the Southern District now says, “Yeah, Trump committed campaign finance laws,” that they're willing to say that, to go so far in their paper, as to say —
MARRITZ: [CORRECTING] Violations.
BERNSTEIN: — as he directed it, that he — that Trump committed the violations, suggests to me that they have an awful lot of evidence to that effect. And they — the Southern District says in their memo that that undermined democracy, and needs to be taken very, very seriously. So they are — have made clear they are not taking this lightly.
MARRITZ: So Andrea, you and I have spent a lot of time thinking about Michael Cohen and digging really deep into his past. Like, I'm talking 20 years before he went to work for Donald Trump, and then including all of his work for Donald Trump. Now we have these two pretty juicy sentencing memos — especially, the one from the Southern District of New York really goes into a lot of detail about Cohen's business dealings. Was it a satisfying read to you? Did it jive with what we have learned in your opinion?
BERNSTEIN: Well, yes and no. I mean, I think that — I mean, overall, in tone, this was a very, very stern memo. It is much, much longer than the Special Counsel memos. And it is very, uh, I think under-reported. People have sort of — you know, because there's so much going on with Russia collusion, and there's so much to talk about, what is in this specific memo — other than the top-line narrative, which is that they're now saying, “Yeah, we own this idea that Trump was involved in making these illegal campaign finance payments.” That's just the jumping-off point of this memo. I mean, what the argument that they're making — in essence — is, he does not deserve to have no jail time, which is what Cohen is arguing, because he's had a pattern of deception throughout his life.
MARRITZ: Here, allow me to quote: “The nature, multitude, and temporal span of criminal behavior betray a man whose outlook on life was often to cheat — an outlook that succeeded for some time. His professional history and lack of prior convictions are not a significant mitigating factor.” That is brutal.
BERNSTEIN: Yeah. I mean, and there's a lot of that language. I mean, there's a whole thing in there about how he should, in fact, be punished more because he was a lawyer, and — and he knew better. He had special skills about how he used particularly devious means to structure these secret payments to Stormy Daniels, and then build the Trump Organization using another set of fraudulent documents.
MARRITZ: What it — what it sort of suggests to me is that day — April 9th, 2018 — a day you and I will not soon forget, when Michael Cohen's office and hotel and, uh, home were all raided.
BERNSTEIN: And where were we?
MARRITZ: [LAUGHS] We were out reporting on Michael Cohen.
BERNSTEIN: We were in Brighton Beach. [LAUGHS]
MARRITZ: We were in his hometown. We were in the — we were in the Five Towns of Long Island when we, you know — we got word on our drive back. At the time, there was a question: How can prosecutors do this? And — and President Trump was calling it a witch hunt and saying, “This is blatantly illegal. How can they do this raid?” I think what this memo is telling us — without spelling it all out — is they already had so much dirt on him, about his criminal history, that they — that it was easy to get a search warrant for all three of those properties.
BERNSTEIN: There was — I mean, prosecutors were telling us at the time that you don't just get a search warrant based on nothing. Uh, but what is interesting to me is that, you know, even at this — I mean, there was a point even after the search warrant where this memo quotes a Michael Cohen tweet, where he says something about “Make America Great Again,” and then has “#Fixer” in his tweet.
So they're showing how he embraced this role that he was the — the fixer for Trump. And they're talking about this meshing of his personal greed and deception and desire for power and money, and his relationship with Donald Trump, which is so striking to me. And then, when you get to the point at the sort of, you know, page — let me try and figure out what it is. It is, um … [THE SOUND OF PAGES TURNING] Okay, here we go. “Campaign finance crimes, because they are committed in secret and hidden from the victims, are difficult to identify and prosecute. Nonetheless, they have tremendous social costs, described above, as they erode faith in elections and perpetuate political corruption.” So, I mean, that is a pretty strong statement.
MARRITZ: Right. So, just to clarify here, we are talking about the two hush money arrangements that were organized — and one of them even financed — by Michael Cohen for women who said they had affairs with Donald Trump: Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels. Now, Frank, I know your focus is on Paul Manafort, but what do you take away from these two Cohen sentencing memos?
FOER: So I think — November 2015. That's my takeaway. That — that we've been searching for the beginning point. And I think it’s — it’s — it’s, as Mueller sets out the narrative, it's earlier than — than it's ever been firmly established, which is that, in that date — which is, you know, way before the Iowa caucus, way before Trump really solidifies himself as a front-runner — the Russians and Michael Cohen are talking about some sort of quote-unquote “political synergy.”
And when we look at what happens over the course of the next year, you know, you see that they weren't just improvising on the fly, but that this was — this was an operation that they'd been thinking about way earlier. And so the question is: Why did they settle on Donald Trump as a partner for political synergy? Was it just because Michael Cohen was there, offering himself as a willing partner? Was it because there was this longer relationship with Donald Trump that goes back through his previous visits to Moscow? I mean, I — I think that it's — the early start date is, uh — is very tantalizing for what it suggests about what we’ll ultimately find out about the structure of the narrative.
MARRITZ: You know, that one grabs me too, because I had spent some time looking at this speech that Donald Trump gave to a Ukrainian conference, uh, I think it was by Skype, or by video conference, in September of 2015. This is a conference hosted by an oligarch over there called Victor Pinchuk. And that appearance, the Trump Foundation was paid $150,000 for. Pinchuk became their biggest donor that year.
DONALD TRUMP: I know many people that live in the Ukraine. They're friends of mine. They're fantastic people. Victor is an example. [LIGHT APPLAUSE]
MARRITZ: And, reportedly, Robert Mueller is also interested in Trump's appearance there. Um, do you think we could push the start date even further back in time? Or do you think this is sort of definitive?
FOER: I don't know. You know, that's kinda my perpetual note of caution to everyone, which is that, you know, I think that you hear on other podcasts — or you see in other places — reporters suggesting that Mueller's tying together all the loose ends. And I remain skeptical that that's the case, that, when I look at what he's presenting now — and what's so elliptical in this official case, my sense is, he's on the earlier end. He's not quite — he’s not just getting started. But what he's untangling is very tangled.
And so — and — and as we said earlier in the podcast, it's not just coming from one direction. This is a scandal that has many, many different threads. And you look at the number of lawyers that he has on the case. You could devote all the lawyers in his office just to the Paul Manafort case alone, [LAUGHS] and they'd have their hands full, but that they're working simultaneously Stone, Corsi, Cohen, you know, Manafort, Papadopoulos, et cetera, et cetera — Flint, et cetera, et cetera. You know, I feel overwhelmed as a journalist. I can kind of imagine the way in which even this — this supposedly all-star cast of lawyers could feel like their circuits are just overheating, because there's so many directions that this thing goes.
BERNSTEIN: I think it's worth saying that we don't know. I mean, we just don't know. It’s a black box special counsel's office. So — and this is just uncharted territory. So we can't really even make an educated guess.
To the date of November 2015, Trump was the front-runner then. I mean, he was way up in the polls. Maybe the Russians knew how to interpret our polls better than we did. [MARRITZ LAUGHS] I mean, it's kind of bizarre, but —
MARRITZ: Because early front-runners often don't become the nominee.
BERNSTEIN: Remember? There was — there was that whole discussion about who was going to be in the establishment lane, and Trump was not going to hold up, and that poll wasn't real. But, I mean, he was doing well by polling measures. So, you know, it's not like he … He wasn't taken seriously here, for sure, but it's not like he was a nothing, either. [A BREATH]
I have a question for you.
BERNSTEIN: You made me say what my overall takeaway is. [MARRITZ LAUGHS] Ilya, what is your overall takeaway?
MARRITZ: This thing that we've been saying for such a long time about there being no line between the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign and Trump the man and his children, and even Michael Cohen, who functioned effectively as an extension of Donald Trump the person. It's really true.
And I'm not a lawyer, I don't know exactly how it's going to come back to bite him, but, by not scrupulously following those lines and being knowledgeable and adhering to the rules about how you conduct yourself in a campaign and how you conduct yourself as a real estate business or licensing business or a lawyer, I think that's creating a lot, a lot of problems.
BERNSTEIN: Could be. I mean, Michael Cohen is a walking embodiment of what you're saying, because he had a campaign email. He was doing business. He was working as an attorney. He was working as all of these things.
MARRITZ: He was taking credit as — as these documents note, for — for Trump’s 2012 campaign.
BERNSTEIN: He was all of them, rolled up into one man.
MARRITZ: One last thing that really kind of caught my eye here. Donald Trump had tweeted last week about Michael Cohen. “He's just someone who once did a favor for me.” And I don't know what — how you read that tweet, but I was like, “What was — what was the favor? Come on, tell us!” [LAUGHS]
MARRITZ: The Southern District here seems to try to answer that question.
BERNSTEIN: Very helpfully!
BERNSTEIN: So, they say that he … I mean, it's really fascinating, ‘cause they say it was making $75,000 a year, and then he buys into —
MARRITZ: Which, for a lawyer, is not a lot of money.
BERNSTEIN: — and then he buys into some Trump properties and he stages a coup on the co-op board so that — because they want to take Trump's name off of the property.
MARRITZ: Foreshadowing of what was to come.
BERNSTEIN: Right. And as a result of that, Donald Trump hires him.
MARRITZ: This is in 2007.
BERNSTEIN: In 2007, at which point he's making $500,000 a year. So that was quite a big promotion. And from my understanding of Trump Organization in that era — and in any era — Donald Trump just didn't hand out money to people. In fact, you might remember that when we spoke to Abe Wallach, who had been also an Executive Vice President for Development and Acquisitions, but in a much earlier period, he told us how Trump specifically sounded him out so he could make a low-ball offer. So I don't know what that mystery means, that Trump was paying him so much more money, but it is laid out in the Southern District papers. So Trump must've considered that quite a favor.
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MARRITZ: Andrea, Frank, thank you so much for joining us.
BERNSTEIN: Thank you.
FOER: Such a pleasure to be here, as always. Thank you.
MARRITZ: And there will surely be a lot more from Trump, Inc., so keep watching your podcast feed. We will be back in this space again soon. And if you know something about Paul Manafort, or Michael Cohen, or how Donald Trump did business at the Trump Organization, we definitely want to hear from you. You can head on over to TrumpIncPodcast.org to find out how to send us tips.
Trump, Inc. is produced by Meg Cramer. The Technical Director is bill Moss. The editors are Charlie Herman and Eric Umansky. The Managing Editor of ProPublica is Robin Fields. Jim Schachter is the Vice President for News at WNYC, and Steve Engelberg is the Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica. Original music by Hannis Brown.