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Legal Experts Raise Alarm Over Trump Witness Payouts

Even though Trump has never been charged with witness tampering, some say that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Former President Donald Trump appears in court for his hush money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 30, 2024, in New York City.

Before he broke down in tears on the witness stand in the civil fraud case brought against the Trump Organization, corporate controller Jeffrey McConney, overcome by how “very proud” he was of his work at the company, signed an agreement that netted him a $500,000 severance payment.

His colleague Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s former chief financial officer, did a lot better. Before he checked into Rikers Island, where he was sentenced to a five-month stint for lying under oath, the loyal accountant got a severance payout of $2 million; in exchange, the 76-year-old explicitly promised that he would never criticize the company and its owner, Donald Trump, or voluntarily “provide information to, or otherwise cooperate in any way with” law enforcement.

As ProPublica reported Monday, McConney and Weisselberg are just two of the people who testified in trials involving the former president and who happened to also receive big raises or other payouts from Trump’s campaign and company. Others included a campaign aide whose salary doubled to more than $53,000 – per month – and another who got a 20 percent raise, herself, in addition to her daughter landing a $222,000 gig on the Trump campaign.

“If you’re not outraged, you should be,” commented Katie Phang, a legal analyst with MSNBC who says the payments suggest that testimony favorable to Trump is being rewarded, if not purchased. “Is this bad? ‘Cause it seems bad,” chipped in George Conway, a conservative attorney and Trump critic.

It could all be a coincidence. In 2024, however, there is a record that one can review.

Take Paul Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager who handed over internal polling to an agent of Russian intelligence: After he was indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller, Manafort assured a colleague that he would be fine, saying he had spoken to Trump’s personal attorney and was told that Trump and company are “going to take care of us.” Manafort, who refused to cooperate with investigators, later received a pardon.

A former Trump White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson, did cooperate with those investigating the January 6 insurrection. But as she was preparing to tell investigators what she know about the attack on the U.S. Capitol, she received a message claiming that her old boss, ex-Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, “knows you’re loyal, and you’re going to do the right thing when you go in for your deposition.”

Timothy Heaphy, an attorney who worked as chief investigative counsel for the January 6 committee, does not believe in coincidences. Even though Trump has never been charged with witness tampering, Heaphy argued that does not mean it’s not happening.

“In these cases you never have direct evidence of the sort of attempt to corruptly influence testimony – you don’t need it, because the power of the person providing the benefit is such that it’s clear what the intent is,” Heaphy said on MSNBC. “The mob boss doesn’t say, ‘Hey, if you don’t do this, I’m going to kill you.’ But it’s clear, right? Because of the power imbalance and the provision of the benefit that engenders loyalty.”

It is also hard to prove, or at least no prosecutors have been confident enough to charge Trump over. MSNBC anchor Nicolle Wallace argued that reflected timidity, not the facts, and has contributed to the apparent pattern identified by ProPublica.

“There’s a consequence to never holding Trump accountable,” she said. “If someone’s going to keep doing this thing over and over again, the system has failed.”

Trump and his acolytes, as ever, insist that the former president has done nothing wrong. A campaign official told ProPublica that the money flowing to the nine witnesses was a product of business as usual: standard raises for performance or, for example, lawyers working more hours on Trump’s cases (one attorney, Jennifer Little, received $1.3 million from a Trump PAC after providing favorable testimony before a Georgia grand jury).

But former assistant U.S. attorney Richard Signorelli doesn’t believe any innocent explanation.

“Buying off witnesses constitutes alleged obstruction of justice,” he posted on social media. But he doesn’t blame Trump alone. The former president “wouldn’t get anywhere close to destroying us without his many craven enablers,” Signorelli wrote, “including lawyers unfortunately.”

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