Porn Star’s Lawyer Maps the Trump Money Trail

(Bloomberg) -- There may be any number of reasons why an investment firm linked to a powerful Russian oligarch favored by the Kremlin paid about $500,000 to retain the services of a once obscure and middling lawyer who was also President Donald Trump’s personal attorney.

And there are lots of possible explanations for why a major U.S. telecommunications firm, a subsidiary of a Swiss pharmaceutical giant, and a South Korean aerospace corporation each also recently poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the pocket of the president’s personal attorney.

But for efficiency’s sake, let’s presume that Michael Cohen’s clients made those payments to him for the same, old-fashioned reason money usually changes hands in places like New York and Washington: self-interest.

The Russian business community and the Kremlin, for example, were unhappy with economic sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Russia after it annexed part of Ukraine in 2014. Perhaps Columbus Nova, an investment firm whose biggest client is a company controlled by Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, thought that its hefty payments to Cohen during the first several months after Trump was inaugurated might encourage the lawyer to ask the new president to consider lifting those sanctions? Who knows?

(Cohen and his high school chum Felix Sater actually crafted a peace proposal for Ukraine that they tried to shop to Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, during the same period when Cohen was being paid by Columbus Nova. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Cohen and Sater also pitched Trump, and tried to pitch the Kremlin, on the idea of building a Trump-branded tower in Moscow.)

In a statement Tuesday night, Columbus Nova (which is run by Vekselberg’s cousin) shot down the idea that the oligarch had any connection to the Cohen retainer.

“The claim that Viktor Vekselberg was involved or provided any funding for Columbus Nova’s engagement of Michael Cohen is patently untrue,” said the firm’s attorney, Richard Owens. “Neither Viktor Vekselberg nor anyone else other than Columbus Nova’s owners were involved in the decision to hire Cohen or provided funding for his engagement.”

Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd., an aircraft manufacturer, paid Cohen $150,000 last November. After that payment came to light on Tuesday night, the South Korean company declined to comment. Korea Aerospace has partnered with Lockheed Martin Corp., the U.S. defense contractor, to bid on a multibillion-dollar training jet contract that the U.S. Air Force plans to award this year. Could Cohen have helped Korea Aerospace secure that contract? Who knows?

Novartis Investments, a subsidiary of the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis AG, paid Cohen about $400,000 between October and January. A Novartis spokesman said payments to Cohen ended in January and its contract with the lawyer expired before the company’s new CEO took over in February. Could Cohen have helped Novartis navigate the tangle of regulations that the federal government imposes on big pharmaceutical companies? Who knows?

AT&T Inc., which paid Cohen $200,000 in late 2017 and early 2018, announced shortly before the 2016 election that it planned to merge with Time Warner Inc. That deal drew the attention of federal trust busters around the time that AT&T retained Cohen; the Justice Department sued AT&T to block the merger in November. Could Cohen have been hired to try to help smooth the way for AT&T’s takeover of Time Warner? Who knows?

AT&T did try to provide some details about its relationship with Cohen in a statement it released Tuesday night. Cohen’s firm was one of “several” AT&T said it hired “to provide insights into understanding the new administration.” AT&T also said that Cohen “did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017.”

If Cohen, a lawyer who actually practices very little law and worked as a self-described “fixer” for Trump, wasn’t paid to lobby or lawyer, then what was left for him to do? Well, he could “provide insights” into Trumplandia, that’s what he could do. So the payments to Cohen, whose only real value to these clients was his proximity to the president, were meant to help AT&T “understand the new administration” and nothing more.

That all could be true. But ever since Trump and his family arrived in Washington they have essentially hung a for-sale sign on the White House by refusing to meaningfully separate themselves from their own business interests. That’s certainly not lost on the companies that do business in or with Washington. They know that in Trump’s swamp, you pay to play.

All of these payments to Cohen first came to light Tuesday night when Michael Avenatti posted summaries of them online. Avenatti is an attorney representing Stormy Daniels, a porn star who was paid hush money by Cohen to mask a sexual encounter she claims she had with Trump. Subsequent reports from the New York Times and CNN, as well as admissions by the companies themselves to outlets like Bloomberg News, confirmed Avenatti’s summaries.

In keeping with the delicious and tawdry weirdness surrounding the intersection of the porn star, the president, and the president’s personal attorney, all of the corporate payments to Cohen flowed into Essential Consultants, a limited liability company Cohen controlled. Cohen created Essential shortly before the 2016 presidential election to make a $130,000 payment to Daniels; payments to her and payments from Cohen’s corporate clients passed through the same bank accounts.

There’s more to Cohen’s retainers, as well. Beyond echoes of the Gilded Age and Boss Tweed, the payments from Columbus Nova put financial clothing on relationships between Russian interests and one of Trump’s close advisers. Vekselberg, according to CNN, was recently questioned by investigators with the Justice Department’s special counsel, Robert Mueller, about the payments to Cohen.

Mueller’s team also stopped Vekselberg for questioning at a New York-area airport about two months ago, apparently in connection with his attendance at Trump’s presidential inauguration last year, according to the New York Times. Mother Jones has previously reported extensively on Vekselberg’s various connections to Trump’s advisers. Vekselberg was one of seven Russian oligarchs slapped with individual sanctions by the Trump administration in April.

Mueller is, of course, examining whether the Kremlin tried to tilt the 2016 presidential election in favor of Trump, and he has been investigating the Trump Organization’s business dealings as part of that probe. The president has labeled the entire Russia investigation a “witch hunt.” But as the Avenatti revelations show, sometimes witch hunts turn up witches.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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