A Year After Comey's Firing, Scope Of Mueller Probe Expands to Lawyer's Shell Company

WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer accepted millions of dollars in consulting fees through a Delaware-registered dummy corporation that was used to funnel hush money to a porn star. 

What consulting, exactly, did Michael Cohen provide to entities including AT&T, a Swiss pharmaceutical giant and an investment firm run by the cousin of a Russian oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin? Did any of that money flow to Trump himself or pay off any of Trump’s personal obligations?

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders referred questions about the shell company to Trump’s outside lawyers.

Chief outside lawyer Rudy Giuliani said he didn’t know anything about it and suggested asking Cohen’s lawyer Stephen Ryan.

And Ryan had little to say Wednesday. “Sorry, I’m not talking to reporters,” he said before hanging up.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Robert Weissman, president of the open government group Public Citizen. “We don’t know enough, so I can’t tell you if it was a bribe. But the facts that we have fit what bribes look like.”

One year to the day after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey over the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s efforts to get Trump elected, Cohen and his use of a limited liability company, Essential Consultants, is the latest branch of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation to become public.

The Swiss drug company Novartis said in a statement that it had been contacted by Mueller’s office and “cooperated fully.” It had paid Cohen $1.2 million for health care consulting, even though it says it realized early on that Cohen had no expertise in that area.

Columbus Nova, the investment bank run by the cousin of Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, paid Cohen $500,000 for what it called “consulting fees.”

“The half-million dollars came into the exact same bank account that was used to pay my client,” Michael Avenatti, who is representing Stephanie Clifford (aka porn actress Stormy Daniels), told HuffPost on Wednesday.

Clifford is suing Cohen to break a “hush agreement” she signed days before the 2016 election promising not to talk about the affair she says she had with Trump a decade earlier. Her lawyer Avenatti has become one of Trump’s fiercest public antagonists in recent months. He sparked an avalanche of news coverage about Cohen’s consulting fees by releasing a summary of the payments Tuesday night on the internet.

On Twitter, Trump’s favored medium of communication, Avenatti wrote: “Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen have a lot of explaining to do.”

But Giuliani, who took charge of Trump’s legal team last month, said whatever Cohen did with his shell company, it had nothing to do with Trump. “I don’t care what bank he used,” he said, adding that Mueller had now gone far afield of his original mandate. “This was supposed to be an investigation of whether there was Russian involvement in the election. This is not that.”

One prominent Republican lobbyist said it was fairly common for lawyers close to politicians who get elected to high office to find new clients who suddenly want to hire them. “It’s the relationship that counts,” the lobbyist said on condition of anonymity. “There are lots of lawyers who live off of knowing someone.”

Public Citizens’ Weismann agreed that who you know is often far more important than what you know in the world of lobbying and influence. Nevertheless, it was curious that Cohen did not use his existing business, Michael D. Cohen & Associates, to receive payments and instead used the LLC he formed in October 2016 to pay Daniels her $130,000 in hush money within days of its creation, Weismann said.

“You would not expect a payment for advice and counsel to be run through a newly invented shell company rather than a standing business,” Weismann said. “In my experience, it is not part of the practice of most law firms.”

Giuliani said it did not matter legally how Cohen chose to accept his payments. He added that even if Trump’s monthly retainer payments flowed through the same business entity or even the same bank account, there was nothing illegal about it.

Moreover, what Cohen did was Cohen’s business, Giuliani said. “There’s not involvement of the president in any of that. We can’t be responsible for what Michael Cohen is doing.”

Giuliani had once been the U.S. attorney for the same office that is now investigating Cohen. He later was elected mayor of New York.

Giuliani did concede that he would not have been pleased if, as mayor, his personal lawyer had collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees to provide access to the mayor’s office.

“I wouldn’t be happy about it. But I wouldn’t be investigated for it.”