Michael Cohen’s depiction this week of how the Trump Organization manipulated figures to change the value of the company opened up the possibility that Donald Trump’s strategy of using the illusion of vast wealth as an ego- and image-enhancing measure might also have been a crime.
In his public congressional testimony on Wednesday, Cohen indicated that his former client potentially committed a variety of financial crimes from bank to tax fraud in order to secure loans and even to move up in Forbes magazine’s rankings of the very rich.
It’s not clear whether Cohen’s claims are being pursued by criminal investigators, but top Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, chair of the House Oversight Committee, said Wednesday that congressional committees are already divvying up the revelations for further investigation.
“We got a lot of information that I think will be – we may not look into it in our committee, but one of the five or six committees will, and that’s one of things that we have to discuss to figure out,” Cummings told reporters.
Cohen testified that, in 2014 when Trump was making a play for the Buffalo Bills football team, he provided financial statements to his long-time lender that his former attorney now claims were inflated.
Among the documents that Cohen provided to Congress were Trump’s financial statements for the years 2011, 2012 and 2013. The documents showed a near doubling in Trump’s net worth from $4.26 billion in 2011 and $4.56 billion 2012 to $8.66 billion in 2013. The leap was attributed to $4 billion in “brand value.”
“These documents and others were provided to Deutsche Bank on one occasion when I was with him in our attempt to obtain money so that we can put a bid on the Buffalo Bills,” Cohen told the House Oversight Committee.
A lawyer for the Trump Organization declined to comment to CNN Thursday. Earlier Thursday morning, Trump dismissed Cohen’s testimony during a news conference in Hanoi, Vietnam.
“He lied a lot,” Trump said following his summit with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un. “He lied about so many different things.”
Trump never did get a loan from Deutsche Bank to bid for the football team. But Trump has borrowed more than $300 million in loans from the German lender.
Deutsche Bank has been the only major bank willing to loan to the Trump Organization for much of the last two decades. A spokesman for the bank declined to comment.
Cohen also alleged that Trump inflated assets provided to an insurance company and when asked if there was other wrongdoing he was aware of that hadn’t come up in testimony Cohen replied, “Yes, and again, those are part of the investigation that’s currently being looked at by the Southern District of New York.”
Cohen offered only three internal financial documents as his proof, but no other documents to bolster his claims.
He alleged that the Trump Organization manipulated financial statements by deriving value for a property by comparing it to another higher-valued asset or by making up a number to get to the desired outcome.
Cohen explained that when looking to value one of the Trump properties at 40 Wall Street, they found an asset that was roughly the same size, 1.2 million square feet, and then worked to “find an asset that is comparable, find the highest price per square foot that’s achieved in the area and apply it to that building.”
Another strategy, he explained, was to “make up the multiple” – a backwards approach that Cohen said was “based upon what [Trump] wanted to value the asset at.”
Providing false statements to a bank to obtain a loan is a crime even if the loan is not ultimately granted.
But experts said whether a crime was committed turns on several factors, such as if the numbers are truly false and what the intent of the person was in coming up with the number.
“Everyone knows appraisals are really soft numbers that are spongy,” said one accounting professor who declined to be identified. “You’re making yourself look better, which is not uncommon. The question is, ‘Is it done in a way that’s beyond the norm and is fraudulent.’”
In 2012, Trump valued a property in Westchester County, New York, at $291 million. In 2018, the same property was listed in Trump’s federal ethics filings as being worth between $25 million and $50 million. The discrepancy was first reported by the New York Times.
Cohen also said Trump “deflated his assets to reduce his real estate taxes.” And he alleged they would play with the number when dealing with insurance companies.
“When we were dealing, later on, with insurance companies, we would provide them with these copies so that they would understand that the premium, which is based sometimes upon the individual’s capabilities to pay, would be reduced,” he testified.
Much of Cohen’s testimony was uncorroborated and it’s unclear how much of it is part of the sprawling investigation by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. Cohen pleaded guilty last year in the southern district to federal campaign finance violations, lying to a bank and tax fraud relating to his personal accounts.
During his testimony, Cohen was also asked if there were any other illegal activities that he hadn’t been questioned about. He said, “Yes, and again, those are part of the investigation that’s currently being looked at by the Southern District of New York.”
A spokesman for the US attorney’s office declined to comment.
But Cohens’ testimony was restricted based on his communications with prosecutors and the special counsel’s office. One lawyer said since Cohen is discussing the matters in public it seems less likely they are a focus of an ongoing investigation.
“It seems likely given what Cohen said that those matters are no longer under investigation if they ever were,” said Daniel R Alonso, a former federal prosecutor.