Michael Cohen builds the case against Trump: The president's inflated net worth provides big clues

Cohen testified that Trump has lied repeatedly about his wealth. That could mean real trouble for the president

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published March 1, 2019 7:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump; Michael Cohen (AP/Getty/Salon)
Donald Trump; Michael Cohen (AP/Getty/Salon)

When Michael Cohen told a congressional hearing on Wednesday that President Donald Trump regularly lies about the extent of his wealth, he may have hinted — intentionally or otherwise — at potential crimes committed by the president. Cohen hinted at other unknown investigations into Trump being conducted by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Could these be tied to his lying about his wealth?

"It's possible," Juliet Sorensen, director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern Law and the Harry R. Horrow Professor in International Law, told Salon. "With any discussion of the criminal investigations, it is important to bear in mind how little is in the public record at this point." Sorensen added, "With respect to what has been charged: Both the action brought by the attorney general's office against the Trump Organization and, of course, the criminal case against Michael Cohen, we have charging documents. We have a complaint case. In Michael Cohen's case, we have a charging document in a criminal case. But we don't have access to a full record, we don't have access to pre-trial discovery, to witness testimony.

"It is quite possible that Trump's inflating or deflating his income as it suits him ... is related to an investigation into tax fraud either as it relates to his personal taxes or to tax issues around the Trump Organization and their nonprofit entity."

Cohen testified that Trump's tax returns could shed more light on potential crimes, as Bloomberg reported:

Former Trump fixer Michael Cohen attested to Trump’s shifting wealth valuations to lawmakers on Wednesday, bearing what he said were annual net-worth summaries prepared for Trump earlier this decade. Trump handed the summary with high valuations to lenders and journalists, Cohen testified. When it came to tax authorities, he lowballed.

Kenneth McCallion of McCallion & Associates LLP, one of the first DOJ prosecutors to work on Trump corruption cases, had a similar answer to that question.

If these "net worth statements or representations were made to banks that Michael Cohen mentioned, like Deutsche Bank, for the purposes of obtaining a loan," McCallion told Salon, "that would constitute bank fraud and the statute of limitations would run up to 10 years for some of these transactions. I think the Southern District investigation take a pretty close look at some of the ... financial transactions not only of Mr. Trump but also of the Trump Organization.

"Knowing how they operate," he continued, "I think they may be well on their way to developing a racketeering case under the federal racketeering statute relating to the Trump Organization and some of the individuals within the Trump Organization, including President Trump."

Of course, one immediate way to learn whether Trump had committed a financial crime would be to see his tax returns, although Sorensen noted that as a result of Richard Nixon's tax-related offenses in the Watergate, it is now more difficult for the public to get such information due to privacy laws. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., clearly attempted to lay the foundations for obtaining Trump's tax returns by asking Cohen if Trump had ever inflated his assets to insurance companies, deflated them in order to avoid taxes, ordered witnesses to lie about his financial status or engaged in tax fraud.

"The American people essentially have two means of recourse at this point," Sorensen explained. "One is the criminal process and the special counsel ... and the other is Congress and the political process." It's unlikely that Robert Mueller will seek a criminal indictment of Trump, she continued. "So with that in mind, we know what comes next: Eventually Robert Mueller wraps up his investigation and turns over a report to the attorney general.

"This brings me to the second option, which is the congressional route. It is extremely important that Attorney General Bill Barr needs to make Mueller's report as public as is possible, and also turn it over to Congress. If that doesn't happen, Congress has to start from square one with its own investigation, which it can do. It has subpoena power, although it would be reinventing the wheel to some extent because Robert Mueller has done a lot of this."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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