ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Michael Cohen's testimony on Capitol Hill this week was revelatory, and it gave Democrats a roadmap to broaden their investigation into President Trump.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
CAROLYN MALONEY: Can you suggest who else this committee should talk to for additional information?
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Who else knows that the president did this?
HARLEY ROUDA: Mr. Cohen, where would we find business records that explain the president's relationship to the convicted Russian mobster, Felix Sater?
UNIDENTIFIED POLITICIAN: You got to quickly give us as many names as you can.
SHAPIRO: President Trump's former lawyer and fixer did not disappoint.
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MICHAEL COHEN: Allen Weisselberg, Ron Lieberman and Matthew Calamari.
David Pecker, Dylan Howard, Barry Levine of AMI, as well...
STACEY PLASKETT: Is Ms. Rhona - what is Ms. Rhona's...
COHEN: Rhona Graff is the - Mr. Trump's executive assistant.
SHAPIRO: We're going to dig into the stories behind some of those names now with NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas. Hi, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.
SHAPIRO: Let's start with the name that came up more than 20 times in Cohen's public hearing, somebody who we know is going to testify before Congress, Allen Weisselberg. Who is he?
LUCAS: Well, he is the chief financial officer for The Trump Organization. He actually started off working for Trump's father back in the 1970s, been around for a long time, one of the highest-placed people in the organization. He's been described as Trump's money man, somebody involved in basically every financial decision, including, Cohen says, in that now-infamous $130,000 hush money payment made to Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet about an alleged affair with Trump. And Cohen told lawmakers how that payment went down.
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COHEN: I had gone into Mr. Trump's office, as I did after each and every conversation. And he had told me that he had spoken to a couple of friends, and it's $130,000. It's not a lot of money, and we should just do it, so go ahead and do it. And I was, at the time, with Allen Weisselberg - where he directed us to go back to Mr. Weisselberg's office and figure this all out.
LUCAS: Now, Weisselberg's signature actually appears on one of the checks that Cohen presented to House investigators as evidence this week. Now, Weisselberg has spoken about this payment with prosecutors in New York as part of their investigation into Cohen, and he was granted immunity in that probe.
SHAPIRO: And, of course, that payment is one of the reasons that Cohen is going to prison.
SHAPIRO: Now, yesterday, I asked a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Democrat Eric Swalwell, what he wants to ask Weisselberg about, and he named a lot of issues connected to Russia - from Trump Tower Moscow to other Trump family cash flows in and out of Russia. Congressman Swalwell told me his big question related to Weisberg is whether the president is financially compromised by Russians. Is that the heart of it here?
LUCAS: Well, all of those issues are on the table, but there are also domestic financial questions for Weisselberg involving Trump's taxes, Trump allegedly inflating the value of his assets - including to an insurance company - and then efforts to suppress stories about Trump's alleged misdeeds like extramarital affairs. And those are operations known as catch and kill.
SHAPIRO: OK, that brings us to two other names that came up several times in Cohen's testimony. David Pecker and Dylan Howard both worked for American Media, Inc., the parent company of National Enquirer, which was involved in those catch-and-kill stories.
LUCAS: Right, Pecker is the head of AMI. He and Trump are friends going back years and years. Dylan Howard is the VP and the chief content officer at the company. Cohen confirmed in his testimony that Pecker and Trump had a longstanding agreement. Pecker would contact Trump or his people about a negative story involving Trump, and then AMI would buy the rights to it with zero intention of ever publishing it. Now, like Weisselberg, AMI struck an immunity deal with federal prosecutors in New York as part of the Cohen investigation.
SHAPIRO: OK. There were kind of gasps in the newsroom yesterday when the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said his panel is going to have a public hearing this month with Felix Sater. Remind us who that is and why people would gasp about a hearing with him.
LUCAS: (Laughter) there are a lot of colorful characters in the trap - in the cast of Trump world. Sater may very well be the most colorful of all. He's in his 50s now, but he was born in the Soviet Union, came to the U.S. as a kid, grew up in Brooklyn, started off his career on Wall Street, and then things took an unexpected turn. Here he is describing that to NBC's Chris Hayes.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES")
FELIX SATER: I had a very successful career on Wall Street as a young man. Unfortunately, one night in a drunken bar brawl, one guy went for a beer bottle, I went for a margarita glass, and that changed the trajectory of my life.
LUCAS: Sater served a year in jail for slashing the man's face with that margarita glass. When Sater got out of jail, he got involved in a stock and money laundering scheme that had links to the Mafia. He pleaded guilty to racketeering in 1998. He cooperated with investigators. And around that time, the details of his life get a little fuzzy. For example, he has said that he worked as an informant for the U.S. government, including American intelligence agencies. Fast-forward
several years, Sater finds himself in the real estate business with Trump. And it was Sater who worked closely with Cohen on trying to get a Trump Tower built in Moscow.
SHAPIRO: Ryan, we don't even have time to talk about the president's children - Ivanka, Don Jr., Eric...
SHAPIRO: ...The son-in-law, Jared Kushner. But suffice to say, they're on the list, too.
SHAPIRO: NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas, thank you.
LUCAS: Thank you.
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