STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Federal prosecutors in New York want to know who donated to President Trump's inaugural committee and how much and, most important, why. The inaugural fund raised a record-setting $107 million. This we know. The investigators want more information, though, and subpoenaed members of the committee yesterday. Ben Protess is a reporter for The New York Times, and he's covering this story. He's on the line. Good morning.
BEN PROTESS: Good morning.
INSKEEP: So let's go with the basics here first. People know about the Mueller investigation into Russia. They know there are prosecutions centered around the Southern District of New York and the prosecutors there. Who subpoenaed the committee exactly?
PROTESS: This is the Southern District of New York. It kind of grew out of the Cohen - Michael Cohen investigation down in Manhattan. And that's kind of the origin of that.
INSKEEP: You mention a tape recording here. Of course people know that Cohen recorded himself, apparently, a lot. And there's one recording in particular that points toward the inaugural committee.
PROTESS: That's correct, including with one of the vendors who worked for the inaugural, Stephanie Wolkoff. And so that's kind of the tape that led to prosecutors getting an understanding of kind of what was going on and that there potentially was some issue related to the inaugural.
INSKEEP: Let's start with what is known about Stephanie Winston Wolkoff. She's on the inaugural committee - right? - as it's raising this $107 million.
PROTESS: She put together a lot of the event. She made $1.6 million for her work. She's not actually a member of the committee, but she was a main worker for the committee.
INSKEEP: Oh, top official of the inaugural committee it says in your story here. So...
PROTESS: Right, exactly. She's kind of arranging the events and kind of putting together a lot of the candlelight dinners and this and that in Washington - the events leading up to the inaugural.
INSKEEP: But I think you're telling me that she was in - on two sides of the transaction at once. She was connected to the committee, which was spending the money...
INSKEEP: ...But also connected with companies that were getting paid the money to do things.
PROTESS: Right. So she kind of - her company kind of led the event. And so she was paid to actually do some of the work. And that included bringing in, you know, different event planners and different, you know, organizations to actually make the event get off. And so that means, you know, putting the place cards, you know, down at the event and organizing it and making sure it kind of got off. She was sort of the stylistic designer of a lot of these events she...
INSKEEP: OK. So she made a bunch of money, but is there a crime in there somewhere?
PROTESS: No, not - not with that. But it's a question of, is everything recorded correctly when you submitted to the FEC? And it's not necessarily her being the focus but perhaps more the committee itself in terms of what reports they made and were they accurate. And if you lie to the FEC, that is definitely a crime.
INSKEEP: The Federal Election Committee (ph).
INSKEEP: Is there some question here as to whether donors expected something for the $107 million? And we should say that any inaugural is paid for. It costs millions of dollars, and we assume that people who donate that kind of expect something down the road. But is there some suspicion of some specific quid pro quo?
PROTESS: Well, they're definitely looking at that. The prosecutors are, and they're looking out for any benefits that were handed out in exchange for donations. It could be something simple like photo opportunities with the president, but they're also looking at more explicit, I think, you know, official actions that they were - that donors were seeking. And so, you know, this initial subpoena that - we don't quite know exactly where they're going. But this is sort of the road map we can see as far as now. And one of those definitely is quid pro quos and actions in exchange for these donations.
INSKEEP: Your story also uses the phrase money laundering. What do you mean by that?
PROTESS: Well, we don't know. I mean, in a subpoena, you list a bunch of statutes that kind of give you the justification for asking for these records. And one of them is money laundering. You know, one of them is wire fraud. One of them is mail fraud. One of them has to do with, you know, foreigners donating to the campaign, which is illegal. It doesn't mean that the inaugural committee itself is under investigation for these specific things - you know, false statements to a federal agency. That's the FEC I mentioned. You know, it just means that that's the justification for doing their investigation and seeking these documents.
INSKEEP: I appreciate...
PROTESS: We'll have to see kind of where exactly it leads.
INSKEEP: Yeah. I appreciate you being frank about what you know and what you don't. What you know is there is an investigation. It's not clear quite where it's going, but do you feel you have understanding - some understanding of where this investigation fits in with all the other investigations of the president and people around the president?
PROTESS: And there are so many. So, I mean, I think that's right. I think that in the Southern District, you know, that's kind of, again, the outgrowth of the Cohen matter. And I think that this is a real threat, potentially, to, you know, people who are close to the president and people who worked on the inaugural. And we'll have to see kind of, you know, where they go with this. But for the president's inaugural committee to receive a subpoena, this is not - this is unprecedented. This is something that is, you know, potentially a real threat to people in his inner circle. And so we have to kind of keep a close eye on it and see what happens.
INSKEEP: Ben Protess of The New York Times, thanks for joining us - really appreciate it.
PROTESS: No problem. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.