How Michael Cohen, Denied White House Job, Was Seen as Its Gatekeeper

None of it boded well for a firm seeking approval for an $85.4 billion merger with a media company that the incoming president had publicly attacked and that had various other matters pending in Washington. Soon, AT&T donated $2 million to the inauguration festivities and an additional $80,000 for telecom equipment used during the event.

It was around this time that Mr. Cohen and AT&T officials first met, according to one person familiar with the details of the arrangement. Mr. Cohen was in Trump Tower in Manhattan on the day in January 2017 that AT&T’s chief executive, Randall Stephenson, went there to visit the president-elect, but the person, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the meetings were private, said that AT&T and Mr. Cohen did not meet then.

Under the company’s yearlong contract, Mr. Cohen provided advice on how AT&T should approach the merger and various regulatory issues, according to a company note to employees. AT&T said Mr. Cohen was one of several consultants it retained at the start of Mr. Trump’s term to help it better understand the president’s thinking.

“Companies often hire consultants for these purposes, especially at the beginning of a new presidential administration, and we have done so in previous administrations, as well,” the company said on Wednesday in the communication to employees.

As for Novartis, it was concerned about Mr. Trump’s pledges to end Obamacare and his complaints about high drug prices. Mr. Cohen reached out to company executives in early 2017, presenting himself as knowledgeable about the president’s thinking on those matters, according to two people briefed on the talks. They would speak only under the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the contract publicly.

Novartis said it soon determined that Mr. Cohen could not provide the services he offered. The drug giant considered terminating his contract but learned it could do so only for cause, so it continued paying him until the deal expired.

Joseph Jimenez, the chief executive at Novartis at the time the deal was signed, left the company this January. His replacement, Vasant Narasimhan, took over the next month, and the company has said he had no role in the arrangement. Mr. Narasimhan dined with Mr. Trump along with other European business leaders at this year’s World Economic Forum. Novartis said Mr. Narasimhan’s presence at the dinner had nothing to do with the payments to Mr. Cohen.

Mr. Jimenez did not respond to requests for comment.

In court papers filed on Wednesday, Mr. Cohen’s lawyers tried to get Mr. Avenatti prohibited from appearing in a Manhattan federal courthouse, saying that he had improperly obtained Mr. Cohen’s bank records and also peddled some false information. Meanwhile, the Treasury Department’s inspector general said it was examining whether confidential financial records related to Mr. Cohen were leaked.