Let’s talk about this eye-popping story from Reuters which claims that back in 2015 Michael Cohen helped early Trump endorser and now-consummate supporter Jerry Falwell, Jr. make some embarrassing photos disappear. This is at least the third story Aram Roston has written on this saga (this one at Reuters, the earlier two when he was at Buzzfeed). Each has reported a series eye-popping or bizarre facts. But each also reads with the clear sense that Roston either knows more than he can write or believes there’s much more to the story than he can prove.
The news story begins in 2017 with a Politico Magazine story about the odd fact that Falwell and his family – royals of a vast Fundamentalist empire and head of Liberty University – were the owners of a tumble down, flea bag hostel in one of the seedier parts of Miami that Politico not inaptly termed a “den of vice” and later “Falwell’s gay-friendly flophouse with an on-site liquor store.” It’s a great piece, plenty of color and general WTF about how exactly the Falwell family owns this dive combined with various stuff about the financing, tax status and the legal and financial structure of Liberty University.
Great, well-crafted bizarre read.
Then almost a year later Roston followed up with two pieces in Buzzfeed, one in May and a second in December 2018. A good bit of the fodder for these stories emerged from a lawsuit two disgruntled business partners had filed against Falwell and another business partner, Giancarlo Granda. The Fernandezes first filed in 2015, had the case tossed out and then filed again in 2017.
The precise claims the plaintiffs made aren’t really important. It’s the backstory about the Alton Hostel that the case filings reveal.
The gist is this.
In 2012 the Falwells travel to the Fontainebleau Miami Beach. There they strike up a “friendly relationship” with a 21 year old pool boy on staff named Giancarlo Granda. The couple is apparently very taken with Giancarlo and soon they’re flying him on private jets up to Virginia, providing him with financial assistance and eventually deciding to set him as a business partner in the new Alton Hostel business venture. Falwell, or technically his wife and son, put up a million dollars for a downpayment on the property and then almost a million more on renovations. This was all because they “wanted to help Granda establish a new career and build a business.” They gave him an equity stake in the business in exchange for him managing the property even though he had no experience managing anything.
In other words, their staunch conservatism notwithstanding, the Falwells put together a kind of bespoke one-man social democracy on behalf of Miami millennial Giancarlo Granda for reasons that are less than clear.
Now, this all sent tongues a’wagging: morally censorious Liberty University chief poobah and his wife suddenly strike up a friendship with a pool boy on a trip to Miami and decide they like him so much that they were flying him on private jets and investing almost $2 million in giving him a start at life.
Now, the other thing Roston got into was Michael Cohen’s role. It turns out he’s the one who engineered Falwell’s endorsement of Trump in January 2016. The relationship goes all the way back to 2012, the same year Jerry and his wife met Giancarlo. In fact, not too long after the three of them meet in Miami, Trump was invited to deliver the 2012 convocation speech at Liberty University. Trump was there. Cohen was there. And Giancarlo was flown up for the event from Florida on the private jet. Giancarlo was actually introduced to Trump. Falwell and Cohen apparently stayed in touch going forward, usually checking in with Michael at Trump Tower when he was in New York.
Clearly there was a lot here already to get people wondering what was going on. But it was only in this new piece today where we got some critical new information, the first direct reference to possible extortion. In a call surreptitiously recorded by Tom Arnold, Cohen admitted that he’d helped the Falwells deal with an extortion scam. Someone was threatening to release compromising photos and Cohen made the problem go away.
The Reuters article describes the photos like this …
Falwell, president of Liberty University, one of the world’s largest Christian universities, said someone had come into possession of what Cohen described as racy “personal” photographs — the sort that would typically be kept “between husband and wife,” Cohen said in the taped conversation.
The Falwells wanted to keep “a bunch of photographs, personal photographs” from becoming public, Cohen told Arnold. “I actually have one of the photos,” he said, without going into specifics. “It’s terrible.”
The new article doesn’t say who was making the threats or where they were from. But it does say the lawyers representing the person were in Florida, a possible clue.
Feel free to connect whatever dots you care to.
Now if you’ve read all the earlier articles you will notice something critical and very conspicuous in this new piece: Roston never mentions Granda or the Alston Hostel in this new article. That lack of any mention sticks out like a sore thumb. Presumably Roston simply had no direct evidence they were connected. I doubt he forgot about the earlier reporting.
Are these things truly unrelated? Your guess is as good as mine.
Another detail buried down at the bottom of Roston’s May 2018 piece is this: A source familiar with Falwell’s endorsement decision told Roston he was “sure” Falwell had discussed the hostel/Granda lawsuit with Cohen. So we have this hint that there was a discussion of the 2015 version of the lawsuit while Cohen and Falwell were working on the endorsement. This wasn’t long after Cohen made the compromising photos problem go away.
One more final point. To me the most important part of today’s article is this rather non-descript passage.
Reuters has no evidence that Falwell’s endorsement of Trump was related to Cohen’s involvement in the photo matter. The source familiar with Cohen’s thinking insisted the endorsement and the help with the photographs were separate issues.
It seems that the origin of this new report is that Tom Arnold shared the surreptitiously recorded phone call (you’d think Cohen would be a little more cautious on this front) with Reuters. He’d earlier shared another snippet with The Wall Street Journal.
The “source familiar with Cohen’s thinking” is almost certainly Cohen himself or someone speaking on his behalf. That source apparently didn’t contest the ‘racy photos’ story but did insist that the clean up work and the endorsement weren’t connected.
The purported lack of connection seems pretty hard to credit.
On the one hand, why would Cohen lie? What does he have to lose? Perhaps Cohen is worried about some new legal jeopardy or thinks it’s still in his interest to protect Falwell. Perhaps he knows that unlike with any new Trump wrongdoing there’s no obvious way Falwell’s dirty laundry, if it exists, could help Cohen cut his jail sentence. Of course, maybe they’re just not connected, as Cohen claims. But logic and the nature of the universe itself militates strongly against that conclusion.
In any case, for me a timeline was helpful in putting this all together. So let’s see what we can piece together from all these different stories.
2012: Falwells meet Giancarla Granda in Miami; Cohen, Granda and Trump visit Liberty University for Trump’s convocation speech. Granda is introduced to Trump.
2013: Legal documents for the Alston Hostel are put together and the property is purchased. This is with Jesus Fernandez Sr. and Jesus Fernandez Jr., who will later file the suit the brings the details to light.
2014: Giancarlo Granda added to incorporation papers and given an equity stake in the business.
2015: Fernandez and son first sue Falwell and Granda. But the case is thrown out. Trump announces candidacy. At some point during the same year, the Falwells approach Cohen for assistance with the compromising photographs and the extortion.
2016: In January 2016, Falwell makes his pivotal endorsement, which Cohen was reportedly confident he could secure long in advance.
2017: Fernandez and son refile their lawsuit, this time with more success.
Something is up here and a number of pieces of the puzzle now seem to be in place.