WASHINGTON ― The world’s largest telecommunications company, an investment firm tied to a Russian oligarch, a pharmaceutical conglomerate and an aircraft manufacturer competing for a government contract all sent money to President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer through the same shell company he used to pay off a porn star who says she had sex with the reality television star turned commander-in-chief.
That raises a few questions. But even the most innocent explanation for the transactions — that companies were paying Trump lawyer Michael Cohen in an attempt to buy access to or influence the president — represents a form of corruption.
Here’s what we know:
AT&T said it paid Cohen’s limited liability company, Essential Consultants LLC, roughly $200,000, but claimed that Cohen did no legal or lobbying work for the telecom firm. The company, which was seeking government approval of a merger with Time Warner Inc., said the payments were for “insights” into the administration.
Columbus Nova, a New York investment firm with close ties to billionaire Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, paid Cohen’s LLC around $500,000 — which was a “consulting fee” that had nothing to do with Vekselberg, Columbus Nova’s lawyer told The New York Times.
Novartis, a pharmaceutical giant, acknowledged paying Essential Consultants LLC $100,000 per month for one year ($1.2 million total) and said that “any agreements with Essential Consultants were entered before our current CEO taking office in February of this year and have expired.” They said the payments were for “healthcare policy matters.”
A seven-page document prepared by Michael Avenatti, an attorney for Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress, said that Cohen’s company also received money from Korea Aerospace Industries. The company told Bloomberg it paid Cohen one $150,000 payment for advice on what the outlet refers to as local accounting standards. A spokesman maintained that their contract with Cohen was legal.
We also know that the special counsel team headed up by Robert Mueller has known about all of this for awhile. Novartis told The Wall Street Journal that Mueller’s office contacted the company about six months ago, in November 2017. Cohen’s attorney Stephen Ryan did not respond to HuffPost’s inquiry about the payments, but told The Atlantic only that the money Essential Consultants LLC received from Columbus Nova was “not a payment.”
But Tuesday night’s revelations still leave us with more questions than answers. Here are a few of the big ones:
1. How did these companies come to know about Essential Consultants and what did they get in exchange for their money?
Several of these companies had business before the government or a vested interest in legislation the government was considering. But how did they come to pay the same shell company that Cohen used to pay Stormy Daniels? What were they expecting in exchange for their money?
Cohen ― the graduate of what’s often called the worst law school in America ― had a “strategic alliance” with the law firm Squire Patton Boggs for about a year, which ended shortly after the FBI raided several locations used by Cohen, including his Squire Patton Boggs office at 30 Rock.
Korea Aerospace Industries has been working with American defense contractor Lockheed Martin to bid for a multi-billion dollar contract with the U.S. Air Force. That contract is expected to be awarded this year, according to The Times.
AT&T paid Cohen four installments of $50,000 from early 2017 to January 2018. The telecommunications giant currently has a proposed merger with Time Warner pending before the Justice Department but has denied that Cohen did any “legal or lobbying work” for the company. Some have also noted that AT&T’s payments ended shortly after Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, voted to repeal net neutrality.
It’s unclear precisely what services Cohen ― not a man necessarily known for his expertise on health care policy ― provided to the pharmaceutical company Novartis.
Novartis and AT&T didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
2. How did Stormy Daniels’ lawyer find out about these payments?
“How the fuck did Avenatti find out?” a source who confirmed the payments did in fact happen asked The Daily Beast Tuesday.
Avenatti said on MSNBC Tuesday night that he knew “for a fact” there were three Suspicious Activity Reports filed with the Treasury Department by a bank that handled money paid to Cohen’s LLC. Banks are required to file such reports, also known as SARs, when they know or suspect that transactions “involve money laundering or violate the Bank Secrecy Act.”
Avenatti said the Treasury Department should release those reports and claimed that officials had rejected his prior requests to do so. Some have speculated Avenatti has already gotten access to those reports and that they were the basis of the document released Tuesday.
He pushed that point on Twitter later Tuesday evening, saying there was ”no reason why the SARs should not be released.”
“Demand it!” he concluded.
3. What did the president know about Cohen’s activities?
So far, the White House hasn’t commented and referred questions to Trump’s outside lawyers. Trump lawyer Rudy Guiliani said he didn’t know anything about Essential Consulting’s work. And Cohen has likewise remained mum.
But Cohen has long been Trump’s personal lawyer and a trusted fixer. As recently as last month, Trump maintained that Cohen was still his lawyer, even though he has moved to distance himself from the man in recent weeks.
“You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One in response to a question about a hush money payment to Daniels. “Michael is my attorney. You’ll have to ask Michael.”
4. So, where’s the money now?
At least $4.4 million flowed through Cohen’s LLC between just before Trump’s election through January, the New York Times reported. A Washington Post breakdown said there is more money somewhere, but details are incomplete.
Avenatti speculated that the answer to this question is the bigger issue.
“It’s where did the money go,” he said on MSNBC before challenging Cohen to release his bank statements affiliated with the LLC. “If there’s nothing to hide here and it’s all above board and it’s all legal, then the documents will prove that out. People lie, documents don’t. Period.”
S.V. Date and Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.
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