In light of new reporting on the leaks of Michael Cohen‘s bank records, there are several indications, in my opinion, that the law enforcement official who came forward may have been paranoid about the threat Donald Trump and his associates represent when they expressed concern to the New Yorker about “missing” suspicious activity reports (SAR) and a possible cover-up.
NBC News reporter Tom Winter, who by his own admission got it wrong recently on a story about Cohen being wiretapped before the feds raided his home, office and hotel room, said that an official familiar with the workings of U.S. Department of the Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) said that the SARs the source described as “missing” are actually just “unavailable for viewing.”
A U.S. official familiar with the process says that the SAR is not deleted or removed from the FinCEN database.
The official says users attempting to view the SAR are informed that is unavailable for viewing.
— Tom Winter (@Tom_Winter) May 17, 2018
Two former prosecutors said the same to MSNBC’s Ari Melber.
Two former prosecutors tell @AriMelber that it’s likely the SARS reports were simply restricted—not, as the New Yorker’s source suggested, removed from the database nefariously.
— Ken Dilanian (@KenDilanianNBC) May 17, 2018
CNN’s MJ Lee had similar thoughts about what the new reporting suggests.
This all appears to suggests these financial records were restricted — not missing. The law enforcement official in the New Yorker story thought they were missing.
— MJ Lee (@mj_lee) May 17, 2018
“Missing” vs. “restricted” is a small detail but it actually makes a big difference.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) Board Chair Norm Eisen said if Winter’s update may turn out to be true or “something may be wrong here.”
He said he would await the inspector general’s conclusion before passing judgment.
That may very well turn out to be true; or something may be wrong here. The whistleblower reportedly is an experienced law enforcement person and thought something was off. Forgive my skepticism but we will await IG's independent review of our complaint: https://t.co/LSRnEJGjjC https://t.co/gy9Dtb0nnF
— Norm Eisen (@NormEisen) May 17, 2018
Here’s what the source told Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker on Wednesday.
The source described themselves as a career “law enforcement official” who “immediately became concerned” when they discovered two Cohen finance-related files were “missing.”
“I have never seen something pulled off the system […] That system is a safeguard for the bank. It’s a stockpile of information. When something’s not there that should be, I immediately became concerned.” the source said. “That’s why I came forward.”
“Why just those two missing?” the source said. “That’s what alarms me the most.”
This is notable because of the way this was reported from the start by many credible news organizations. “Missing,” as the source said, means something isn’t where it should be.
“Unavailable for viewing” means access is restricted for some reason.
FinCEN’s on the record comment about SARs said that “under longstanding procedures, FinCEN will limit access to certain SARs when requested by law enforcement authorities in connection with an ongoing investigation.”
There is an ongoing investigation of Cohen in the Southern District of New York (SNDY) and so it is reasonable to think that restriction of access to certain (“missing”) SARs may have been requested by investigators. Special Counsel Robert Mueller was the one who referred an investigation to the SDNY in the first place, so it’s also possible that he requested restricted access to the documents. A prosecutor speaking to Farrow said exactly that.
“[B]ecause of the highly sensitive nature of a potential investigation. It may be that someone reached out to FinCEN to ask to limit disclosure of certain SARs related to an investigation, whether it was the special counsel or the Southern District of New York,” she said.
Farrow said Thursday evening on Twitter that he explained in his story that SARs deemed “missing” were likely “restricted.”
Yes, we explain in story that SARs likely missing from search results due to restricted access (& possibility that it’s due to request from Mueller/SDNY). 7 experts agreed this is almost unheard of & source was still alarmed by what this suggested about contents of the two SARs. https://t.co/ePblKFGPkk
— Ronan Farrow (@RonanFarrow) May 17, 2018
He did do that, but whether Farrow intended it or not, what made headlines was not the likelihood that SARs were restricted, it’s that the whistleblower may have exposed a cover-up attempt. We’ll get to the media coverage in a moment.
In Farrow’s story, the source’s motivation for disclosing the reports was described this way:
[T]he official had grown alarmed after being unable to find two important reports on Cohen’s financial activity in a government database. The official, worried that the information was being withheld from law enforcement, released the remaining documents.
“Unable to find” also means something different from “unable to view.”
This, along with FinCEN’s statement about limiting access to SARs , raises a few questions about Farrow’s source: Why were they looking at/trying to find Cohen’s reports in the first place? How did they know something was “missing”? Was the source high-level enough to be aware that the reports were restricted, but low-level enough to not understand why that might be or how to accurately describe the status of the reports to the press? If SDNY is already investigating Cohen and this law enforcement official is worried investigators like SDNY don’t have access to something critical, then who is the source affiliated with? Why give this to Michael Avenatti? Was the leak motivated by fears of a greater Trump conspiracy?
The last question might seem absurd, but it’s not and this is why: multiple credible news organizations took that source’s words to mean that he or she feared a “cover-up,” and a cover-up is generally meant to mean an organized attempt to conceal the truth.
From Axios: “Leaker of Cohen financial records had suspected a potential cover-up.” From the Huffington Post: “Whistleblower Leaked Michael Cohen’s Financials Over Potential Cover-Up: Report.” From the New York Daily News: “Whistleblower reportedly leaked Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s financial records over fears of cover-up.” And from Mediaite: “Law Enforcement Official Leaked Michael Cohen’s Financials After Suspecting Possible Cover-Up.”
The New Yorker piece itself is headlined “Missing Files Motivated the Leak of Michael Cohen’s Financial Records.”
You get the idea. Lots of people took those words to mean the leaker believed they may have stopped Cohen from getting away with something by leaking the documents to Michael Avenatti. That sure sounds like they thought a conspiracy is going on that is bigger than Michael Cohen, who just happens to be the president’s lawyer. It’s also a criminal offense to disclose SARs, so this source has risked time behind bars.
In short, it seems unlikely that someone would risk prison unless they were a true believer of some sort. The thing that connects Cohen, Cohen’s bank records, ongoing investigations and Michael Avenatti is Donald J. Trump — or the idea that his Administration and those associated with it is enough of a threat that a whistle needs to be blown.
FinCEN is saying one thing about restricted access to SARs and Farrow is acknowledging that this is “likely” what happened, so what is this story: exposure of cover-up, a false alarm or other?
[Image via Yana Paskova/Getty Images]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.