A consulting firm owned by Michael Cohen, an attorney for President Donald Trump, reportedly received payments totaling about $500,000 from the U.S. affiliate of a Russian billionaire’s company.
The payments were first reported by porn actress Stormy Daniels’ attorney Michael Avenatti, who said Tuesday his legal firm had uncovered the transactions. The New York Times later reported on the payments based on interviews and an internal review of financial records. The Daily Beast also said it could confirm Avenatti’s claims, citing an anonymous source.
CNN later reported that special counsel Robert Mueller questioned Viktor Vekselberg, the Russian reportedly behind the payments, about the sums his company’s U.S. affiliate paid to Cohen. As the Times reported last week, Mueller spoke to Vekselberg as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
In a tweet, Avenatti said that money from Columbus Nova, the Vekselberg-tied firm, “may have reimbursed” a $130,000 payment Cohen made to Daniels as hush money to keep her from discussing her alleged 2006 affair with Trump.
According to a seven-page summary of Avenatti’s firm’s claims, the payments were sent “within approximately 75 days” of the payment to Daniels (aka Stephanie Clifford). Avenatti’s documents did not provide any sources as to how he obtained that information, and he did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Columbus Nova on Tuesday confirmed to The Guardian that it hired Cohen “as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate” but denied that Vekselberg had anything to do with payments made to the lawyer’s company.
Avenatti’s report also said that Cohen’s company Essential Consulting received payments from AT&T, Novartis and Korea Aerospace Industries LTD in 2017 and 2018. In a statement to HuffPost, AT&T confirmed that it made four payments totaling roughly $200,000 to Essential.
“Essential Consulting was one of several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration. They did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017,” AT&T said in a statement.
In a statement to The Guardian, a spokesman for Novartis did not deny Avenatti’s report that it paid Cohen’s company roughly $400,000. “Any agreements with Essential Consultants were entered before our current CEO taking office in February of this year and have expired,” the spokesman said.
An attorney for Cohen, Steve Ryan, told Atlantic reporter Natasha Bertrand that he wouldn’t discuss Avenatti’s claim.
Cohen acknowledged in February that he paid Daniels the $130,000 sum in October 2016 but said that Trump had no knowledge of it. Yet Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who recently joined the White House legal team, countered that claim in a Fox News interview earlier this month when he said Trump repaid Cohen.
Giuliani sparked more confusion over what he knows in subsequent interviews, adding that he is “not an expert on the facts.”
Trump has continued to deny knowledge of the payment and has said the affair never happened.
Vekselberg, an energy and financial tycoon, is reportedly close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was among the 38 Russian oligarchs, government officials and businesses targeted with a new round of sanctions by the Trump administration in early April.
This article has been updated with more details about the various payments.