(Bloomberg) -- “Follow the money.” That Watergate meme is now poised to dominate the Donald Trump-Michael Cohen investigation for this news cycle — and beyond. The impetus is a document released by lawyer Michael Avenatti, confirmed by the New York Times, that revealed that a shell company Cohen created and used to pay off the porn star Stormy Daniels received $500,000 from a company linked to a Russian oligarch with ties to Vladimir Putin.
That’s not all. Cohen’s shell company, Essential Consultants LLC, received a total of $4.4 million in payments from a range of sources with an interest in influencing Trump, including the pharma giant Novartis AG, Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd. and AT&T Inc., seeking to pull off its merger with Time Warner Inc.
The giant question that follows from the payments to Cohen is what they were for — and whether any of the money in the shell company made its way into any entities owned or controlled by Trump himself.
If any money passed through the shell to Trump, then the B-word is going to be getting a lot of play — because it will look as if Trump’s fixer set up a shell company to accept bribes on the president’s behalf.
Of course, to emphasize: We are still far from that step. All we know now is that the money went into the shell company. The money has to be followed to find out where it went next, if anywhere. You can be sure the prosecutors from the Southern District of New York are on it.
In the best case scenario for Trump, Cohen has simply been selling a range of corporate actors on the idea that he has unique access to the president. That would make Cohen an unregistered lobbyist, which is a crime — but it would not necessarily implicate Trump in any wrongdoing.
If Cohen eventually testifies that he never did anything on behalf of his “clients,” then perhaps Trump could emerge from this part of the scandal without adding to his growing sources of potential criminal liability connected to Cohen.
How likely is it that the companies that paid more than $4 million into Cohen’s shell company were only seeking access? Consider AT&T, which paid $200,000 to Cohen between October 2017 and January 2018.
In a statement, AT&T said that “Essential Consulting was one of several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration.”
In essence, AT&T is saying that it paid Cohen to get his perspective on Trump at the beginning of Trump’s presidency. The dates are inconsistent with that explanation, however, because Trump had been in office for nine months when AT&T began the payments.
What changed in fall 2017 was that AT&T was in talks with the Department of Justice on whether its merger with Time Warner was going to go through. The talks were troubling enough that AT&T had to change its previous public claim that the merger would be completed by the end of the year.
The telecommunications giant added that Cohen’s shell company “did no legal or lobbying work for us.” AT&T can’t credibly claim that it wanted legal advice from Cohen, and it couldn’t legally have hired him as a lobbyist. A fair takeaway is that AT&T wanted to get close to Trump.
Given that AT&T is a publicly traded corporation with an independent board of directors, you can be fairly sure that an internal investigation is now or will soon be underway to get to the bottom of the payment. AT&T will be under significant pressure to make public what its investigation reveals.
As for the Russian oligarch linked to Putin, the path runs through a payment that Cohen’s shell company received from a New York-based investment firm called Columbus Nova. The firm’s biggest client is the Renova Group, a conglomerate controlled by the Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, who has already been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigative team. Columbus Nova insisted in a public statement Tuesday that “after the inauguration, the firm hired Michael Cohen as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures.” To be delicate, that sounds implausible. Mueller’s team reportedly asked Vekselberg not only about the payment to Essential Consultants but also about $300,000 in donations to Trump’s campaign and inauguration fund by Vekselberg’s American cousin Andrew Intrater, who runs Columbus Nova.
At this stage, we don’t know whether the payments that seem to trace back to Russia are part of any broader pattern.
But we do know that there is a link between Cohen’s shell company and Trump: Cohen used the company to pay $130,000 to Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about an affair with Trump. He also used the company as part of the more complicated transaction in which Elliott Broidy, a major Republican fundraiser, paid $1.6 million in hush money to a former Playboy playmate who is supposed to have had an affair with him, got pregnant and terminated the pregnancy.
In sum, then, Essential Consultants is the link between payments made on Trump’s behalf and a Russian oligarch connected to Putin. That link may be incidental to Cohen. Following the money will tell us if it isn’t.
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