The Memo: Cohen storm grows graver for Trump

The growing storm over Michael Cohen, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump greets 3 American detainees freed by North Korea Trump called Blankenship after Senate primary loss: report Education Dept to relax rules restricting faith-based institutions from getting federal aid MORE’s personal attorney, is casting a dark cloud over the White House.

The controversy around Cohen deepened Wednesday when the attorney was reported to have promised access to the Trump administration to one of the corporations that was paying him, drug company Novartis.

That allegation, contained in separate reports from NBC News and Stat News and sourced to unnamed people inside Novartis, capped a fraught 24 hours for the White House. 

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The previous evening, lawyer Michael Avenatti, who represents adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, had delivered a bombshell. 

He asserted that Essential Consultants LLC, a shell company operated by Cohen, had received $500,000 from an investment firm whose biggest client was a company controlled by a Russian oligarch and ally of President Vladimir Putin. About $4.4 million was said to have passed through the previously obscure company, including payments from Novartis, AT&T and Korea Aerospace Industries.

Those allegations were broadly backed up by reporting from The New York Times and NBC News, as well as acknowledgments from some of the companies that they made payments. The investment firm, Columbus Nova, however, insisted that it was false that it had been used as a conduit by the oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg.

Avenatti told The Hill in a phone interview Wednesday that the allegations “appear to reflect a pattern and practice by Michael Cohen of accepting money in return for access to the president.”

There is no suggestion that Trump himself was party to any such agreement, nor has there been any acknowledgment from Cohen’s side that he was engaged in anything unethical.

But, according to Avenatti, the controversy holds serious dangers for both men.

“It’s beyond that it doesn’t look good,” he said. “This is the right-hand attorney of the president. If that attorney is selling access to the president without the requisite disclosures, that is a serious problem.”

The White House, as well as the president’s private legal team, has shown little willingness to engage with the subject. 

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was put on the defensive during Wednesday’s media briefing as she was peppered with questions about Cohen. She refused to be drawn in and suggested reporters direct their inquiries to Trump’s outside counsel.

The two most prominent members of the president’s legal team, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and attorney Jay Sekulow, however, did not respond to calls or texts from The Hill on the matter.

Sanders did say that she was not aware of any actions Trump had taken in office to benefit the corporations that had paid Cohen.

So far, the ethical and political problems for the president seem to exceed any direct legal exposure in the Cohen matter. 

“We need to be a little conservative in crying from the rooftops that there is criminal activity here,” said Caroline Polisi, an attorney and legal commentator. “It seems swampy, but I don’t know if I would use the word ‘criminal.’ ” 

Polisi, who specializes in white-collar and criminal defense with Pierce Bainbridge, added, however: “The optics are horrible. It is certainly unseemly and certainly unethical.”

Trump critics have also seized on the recent reports to make their argument that the administration has broader problems. 

In addition to the issues surrounding Cohen, they highlight the troubled tenure of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Perry eyes decades-old law to boost coal industry | California to mandate solar panels on new homes | Dem states push for court decision on Obama climate rule Green activists up the pressure on automobile efficiency standards Dems target Trump administration’s use of military planes in defense bill debate MORE and controversial recent comments by budget director Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyOvernight Finance: Treasury probing how Stormy Daniels lawyer got Cohen’s bank records | Mulvaney under fire over changes to student loan office | Rescissions package could tie lawmakers’ hands on funding bills Mulvaney faces backlash over moving student loan investigation division Overnight Finance: Deal on Dodd-Frank rollback | Trump pulls US out of Iran nuke deal | House votes to repeal auto-loan guidance, setting new precedent MORE regarding access granted to lobbyists during his time in Congress.

“Washington is still Washington, and it was Washington before Trump got here,” said Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Latest on marathon markup of 7B defense bill | CIA pick bolsters chances for confirmation | North Korea frees three American prisoners House panel approves commission to study military aircraft accidents Air Force orders one day aviation pause for safety review following series of crashes MORE, communications director of Every Voice, a liberal advocacy group. “But they have been willing to say the quiet part out loud. Nobody talked about that. One of the differences is that they are just more blatant and open about the corruption.”

Allies of the president have been concerned for some time about the damage that a probe into Cohen’s affairs could inflict. 

Cohen has worked with Trump and the Trump Organization for more than a decade.

When investigators raided Cohen’s home, office and hotel room a month ago, Trump reacted with fury. It has been widely reported that the president’s willingness to submit to a voluntary interview with the team led by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE receded in the aftermath of those raids.

Trump has not yet weighed in on the most recent Cohen allegations. 

But the controversy is set to detract attention from events that the president would much prefer to be talking about. 

Three Americans who had been held in North Korea were released on Wednesday. The three men were set to return to the United States in the company of Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump greets 3 American detainees freed by North Korea Freed North Korean hostages thank Trump, Pompeo ‘for bringing us home’ Overnight Defense: Latest on marathon markup of 7B defense bill | CIA pick bolsters chances for confirmation | North Korea frees three American prisoners MORE in the early hours of Thursday. 

The president said on Twitter that he would be there to great the men at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

Right now, however, that seems likely to offer only a brief respite from the rising tide of legal and political troubles.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.