Berman’s book says Trump was almost more directly involved in Cohen’s secret money scheme

It was quite a shocking document as it was. Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, had pleaded guilty to illegally concealing hidden money paid to two women who accused Trump of extramarital affairs. The 2018 charging document implicated Trump, named “Individual-1”, including saying he attended a meeting about how he could quash any negative stories about his relationships.

And it might have implicated Trump even more, then-U.S. attorney Geoffrey Berman now says, were it not for the kind of politically tinged interference he said was endemic to Trump’s Justice Department.

Last week, The New York Times briefly noted that Berman’s new book alleges that a Justice Department official tried to have references to Trump removed from Cohen’s indictment document. And now that the book is out, we have Berman’s fuller account of the events.

Numerous references to “Individual-1” were left in the document, but Berman says the pressure led to its dilution. Specifically, he says the document has been edited to remove references to the idea that Trump acted “in concert with” and “coordinated with” Cohen to make illegal campaign contributions.

Berman alleges this was done in response to pressure from Edward O’Callaghan, the senior associate deputy attorney general:

O’Callaghan proceeded to identify specific allegations he wanted removed, almost all of which referred to Individual-1. It soon became apparent to [Berman’s deputy Robert S.] Khuzami that, contrary to O’Callaghan’s assertion, it was not the length or detail of the document that concerned him; it was any mention of Individual-1. Khuzami and O’Callaghan went through a handful of these allegations, some of which agreed to strike; others, to ensure a consistent description of the crime, he did not.

Sensing it was going to be a long and adversarial process, Khuzami told O’Callaghan that he was now aware of O’Callaghan’s concerns and that the team would rephrase the information and redact some non-essential details.

The team was tasked with the rewrite and stayed up most of the night. The revised information, now twenty-one pages, retained all of the charges but deleted some allegations, including claims that Individual-1 acted “in concert with” and “coordinated with” Cohen on illegal contributions to countryside. The information now alleged that Cohen acted in concert and coordinated with “one or more members of the campaign.”

O’Callaghan denied another action Berman attributed to him – pressuring Berman’s office to sue Democratic attorney Gregory B. Craig to “even things out” after he sued two top allies. Trump’s plan. He called the statements attributed to him “categorically untrue”. He did not immediately comment on his nomination in this episode.

But precisely, what was the difference between the draft tax document and the final version?

To be clear, the document still stated that, “as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1.” This clearly implicated Trump in the scheme, to some extent. But he said Trump was involved in the payments and not necessarily that he himself had done anything illegal.

Where Trump’s role was watered down, according to Berman, was in places where the document more directly tied a number of unnamed individuals to the larger agenda.

The final version said (key elements in bold): “Cohen coordinated his actions with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and telephone calls, on the fact, nature and timing of payments.” He added on another point that Cohen “knowingly and voluntarily made and caused to be made a contribution to Individual-1…and did so by making and causing to be made an expenditure, in cooperation, consultation and concert with, and at the request and suggestion of one or more members of the campaign.”

Berman says that was emblematic of the kind of unsavory political pressure he faced throughout his tenure — something that will now be investigated by the Senate.

“It was part of an emerging pattern,” he wrote. “If we stood firm with Main Justice, we could generally avoid the worst consequences of their interference. But the game they played was nonetheless evil and dangerous.

He also wrote, however, that he was comfortable with the final document, which contained “everything that really needed to be in it.” He noted that Cohen later more directly involved Trump himself.

But it’s worth noting that there’s a difference between that coming from Cohen — a felon with credibility issues and highly motivated to report on his former boss — and being stated outright by the Justice Department itself. What made the charging document so important was that it came from prosecutors who may have to back up their carefully chosen words with evidence. Indeed, you could make a compelling case that the moves to water down the document show how the political pressure decried by Berman worked, to some extent.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Berman reiterated that he was comfortable with how the process ultimately unfolded.

“I believe the charging document has retained its integrity, although some references to ‘Individual-1’ have been removed,” he said. “We have taken a phased approach to this interference from Main Justice. And at the end of the day, Cohen in open court identified who gave him instructions.

Berman said investigators still have all the information they need to investigate. Trump was never charged in connection with the silent money scheme.

Indeed, Trump’s mentions in the charging document might not have mattered to a potential prosecution. But there’s also the court of public opinion — and the silent money scheme has been one of the biggest scandals of Trump’s presidency. Shortly after the indictment was released in late 2018, it was recorded as the scandal in which most Americans – nearly 8 in 10 – said Trump had acted either illegally (38%) or contrary to law. ethics (40%).

There are valid reasons why documents like the one in the Cohen case might be restricted. These include that some information might not have been reviewed by a grand jury. Another is that the Department of Justice does not want to attack those who are not charged with crimes. (That’s why prosecutors refer to those who are not charged anonymously, even though it was obvious who “Individual-1” was.)

But Berman says it was symptomatic of a broader campaign within Trump’s Justice Department. And without that campaign, he suggests, we might have seen Trump embroiled even more directly in the silencing scheme — and officially.

Angela C. Hale