Taken together, SDNY seems to be homing in on Trump—and former prosecutors told me its latest steps are reminiscent of processes in organized-crime cases.
“This is a classic move in investigations of a criminal organization,” said Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who was part of the team that convicted the Gambino family boss John Gotti. “They’re moving up the ladder. Peripheral characters are given immunity, witnesses testify, but they’re ultimately keeping their eye on the prize.”
SDNY’s aggressive pursuit of the Mafia and similarly structured organizations earned it a nickname, the Sovereign District of New York, and allowed it a little more leeway and independence from the Justice Department than most U.S. attorney’s offices enjoy, Cotter said. It is also arguably subject to less oversight than Mueller’s probe, which is being overseen directly by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. “I think there’s a lot of truth to that sovereignty notion,” Cotter said. “Their strike zone is bigger in terms of DOJ supervision.”
The SDNY investigation has prompted comparisons to a mob roll-up—of the kind, ironically, that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani oversaw in the 1980s while he was a prosecutor in New York. “It resembles a mob case in so many ways,” said Elie Honig, a former assistant U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted more than 100 members and associates of La Cosa Nostra.
“If you were to just strip the violence out of a mob case, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” Honig said. “From the structure,” with one person at the head of the organization, “to the notion of loyalty, even the president’s own language is distressingly moblike.” My colleague Jeffrey Goldberg wrote Thursday that in Trump’s comments this week about Manafort and Cohen, he heard “echoes of many conversations I had while trying to understand the culture of organized crime.”
The immunity deals are telling, Cotter and Honig said, in that they demonstrate just how important the witnesses’ testimony is—and how SDNY is staying focused on higher targets. “Immunity is not given out like candy,” Honig said. “I used it quite a bit in mob cases for people on the fringes of criminality.” Cotter said that Weisselberg “is not the real bad guy here”: “In a business where you’re not the owner, when you misreport expenses, the real benefit goes to the company—not the employee, no matter how high level.”
Weisselberg, who has worked for the Trump Organization since the 1970s, was referenced in the Cohen court documents as “Executive-1,” NBC News reported on Friday, shedding new light on his alleged involvement in covering up the hush-money deals. According to those documents, when Cohen sent an invoice to Weisselberg asking for reimbursement for the payments, Weisselberg, in NBC’s telling, “sent the invoice to another Trump Organization executive via e-mail directing him to, ‘Please pay from the Trust. Post to legal expenses. Put ‘retainer for the months of January and February 2017’ in the description.’”