Thanks to Stormy Daniels’s attorney, Michael Avenatti, we learned last night that Michael Cohen’s shell company, Essential Consultants LLC, whose existence came to light as the vehicle for the hush money payments to Daniels, also had considerable income from Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg as well as corporations including AT&T and Novartis.
Billionaire Viktor Vekselberg chairs a company called the Renova Group, and a US-based subsidiary of that company sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to Cohen, CNN’s Kara Scannell and Shimon Prokupecz reported Tuesday evening, citing sources familiar with the matter.
The report, which has since been confirmed by the Daily Beast’s Betsy Woodruff, Noah Schachtman, and Kate Briquelet, raises some extremely serious questions about just why this oligarch was paying Donald Trump’s personal lawyer large amounts of money.
Mueller seems to be asking those questions. When Vekselberg traveled to the United States earlier this year, Mueller’s investigators questioned the billionaire at an airport and searched his electronic devices. The CNN team reports that the payments to Cohen were one subject of Mueller’s questioning. According to the New York Times, a lawyer for the company in question “described the money as a consulting fee that had nothing to do with Mr. Vekselberg.”
But Vekselberg was only part of it. Avenatti posted a seven-page PDF document from what he calls “Project Sunlight,” listing what he claims is other information about transactions from bank accounts controlled by Cohen. Most of these have been confirmed.
To recap: Among the other payments to Mr. Cohen’s company described in the financial records were four for $99,980 each between October and January by Novartis Investments S.A.R.L., a subsidiary of Novartis, the multinational pharmaceutical giant based in Switzerland. Novartis — whose chief executive was among 15 business leaders invited to dinner with Mr. Trump at the World Economic Forum in January — spent more than $10 million on lobbying in Washington last year and frequently seeks approvals from federal drug regulators. Novartis said in a statement that its agreement with Essential Consultants had expired.
In addition, Korea Aerospace Industries paid Mr. Cohen’s company $150,000 last November, according to the records. The company, an aircraft manufacturer, has teamed with the American defense contractor Lockheed Martin in competing for a multibillion-dollar contract to provide trainer jets for the United States Air Force that is expected to be awarded this year. A representative for Korea Aerospace declined to comment.
AT&T made four payments totaling $200,000 between October 2017 and January 2018, according to the documents. AT&T, whose proposed merger with Time Warner is pending before the Justice Department, issued a statement on Tuesday evening confirming that it made payments to Mr. Cohen’s firm.
A January 12, 2017 pool report from Trump Tower shows Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson entering 8 minutes apart. AT&T would go on to hire Cohen “to provide insights into understanding the new administration.” pic.twitter.com/6MZ3diWcmn
— Gregory Korte (@gregorykorte) May 9, 2018
“Essential Consulting was one of several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration,” the statement said. “They did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017.”
The payments by Columbus Nova occurred between January and August of last year. Andrew Intrater, the company’s American chief executive and Mr. Vekselberg’s cousin, donated $250,000 to Mr. Trump’s inauguration, campaign finance records show. He and Mr. Vekselberg attended the event together and met with Mr. Cohen there, according to a person briefed on the matter. Columbus Nova retained him as a consultant soon afterward.
All this raises any number of possible legal and political questions — including the disturbing but very real possibility that under currently prevailing legal standards, there’s nothing actually illegal about putting cash into the president’s fixer’s slush fund and hoping to gain political access in exchange.
But it also serves as a reminder of the fundamentally corrupt setup of the Trump administration and Donald Trump’s business interests.
In a normal presidency, it would be very difficult to make large, secret cash payments to the president of the United States as a means of currying favor with him. You could donate to his reelection campaign, but that would have to be disclosed. And you could hire people who you believe to have a relationship with him in hopes that they can peddle influence on your behalf (as AT&T and Novartis apparently did with Cohen), but it might not work.
But there would be basically no way to directly pay the president in secret. Trump has changed that. It’s completely unclear how Avenatti came to be in possession of the documents that reveal the payments to Essential Consultants, but it came about due to some kind of leak. Had they not leaked, we would still be in the dark. And since no financial documents related to any of the many LLCs that Trump controls personally have leaked, we have no idea who is paying him or why.
The news re Vekselberg/Novartis/Cohen/Stormy might be too complex for some to assimilate, so here’s the user-friendly bumper-sticker version:
Consigliere Michael Cohen was the bag man for Fortune 500 and Kremlin bribes designed to move Trump’s policies their way.
— Laurence Tribe (@tribelaw) May 9, 2018
UPDATE — CNBC
The company also said it has been questioned by special counsel Robert Mueller‘s team about the payments to Cohen.
Novartis said it signed a one-year contract with Cohen’s shell company, Essential Consultants, for $100,000 per month in February 2017, shortly after Trump was inaugurated as president.=
Novartis said it believed Cohen “could advise the company as to how the Trump administration might approach certain U.S. health-care policy matters, including the Affordable Care Act.”
But just a month after signing the deal, Novartis executives had their first meeting with Cohen, and afterward “determined that Michael Cohen and Essentials Consultants would be unable to provide the services that Novartis had anticipated.”
It is quite possible that Cohen was doing this all for himself. It just means he is more likely to flip. IF he has something to flip on.
AT&T paid Michael Cohen up to $600,000 as part of a consulting contract to get insight on Trump’s thinking, a source told CNBC.https://t.co/HNooazWqkr
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) May 9, 2018
Nice work if you can get it.