Michael Avenatti has a unique ability to control a news cycle. On Tuesday night, he revealed the shell company Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen used to pay off Avenatti's client – the adult film actress and alleged ex-Trump paramour, Stormy Daniels – has been collecting sizable payments from multinational corporations during the first year of the Trump administration. His claims have since largely been confirmed by the New York Times, NBC and others. In but a few tweets and with a Dropbox link, Avenatti pushed one of the biggest stories in the world a few steps forward.
Korea Aerospace Industries, a defense contractor bidding on part of a U.S. Air Force project worth up to $16.3 billion, paid $150,000 to Cohen's shell company, Essential Consultants, LLC, in November 2017. AT&T, which is currently awaiting government approval on a $185 billion merger with Time Warner, reportedly paid Cohen's company $600,000. As of now, the largest contributor appears to be Swiss pharmaceuticals manufacturer, Novartis, which signed a one-year $1.2 million contract with Essential Consultants in February 2017.
Perhaps the largest revelation of all: Columbus Nova, a Russian-affiliated investment fund based in New York, made "approximately $500,000 in payments," which were initiated by Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch with an estimated net worth of $13 billion. According to Avenatti's executive summary, "Mr. Vekselberg and his cousin Mr. Andrew Intrater routed eight payments to Mr. Cohen through a company called Columbus Nova LLC ('Columbus') beginning in January 2017 and continuing until at least August 2017." In a separate tweet, he added, "these monies may have reimbursed the $130k payment" Michael Cohen made to Stormy Daniels.
While the companies scrambled to explain themselves, Rolling Stone called Avenatti to hear what it all means for the L.A. attorney's high-profile case.
Getting the obvious question out of the way: How did you get this information that you posted on Twitter yesterday?
Like any good journalist, I'm not divulging my sources. That information is also protected by the work-product privilege.
Are you at all concerned that the White House might use banking regulations to force you to disclose your sources?
Not at this time.
How does the information that you revealed about Essential Consultants' transactions impact your case?
Well, it's highly relevant to our case because it's all part of the continued cover up relating to the payment to my client and the reimbursement of that payment.
What's your strategy from here with this information?
Well, no good lawyer would ever divulge his strategy in advance of carrying it out. I mean Michael Cohen might do something like that.
What, in your view, should Michael Cohen be afraid of?
Michael Cohen should be fearful of a serious criminal indictment charging him with potential money laundering, bank and wire fraud, and other charges, all of which might carry significant potential jail time.
He should also be concerned about being sold out by Mr. Trump.
What do you think the relationship was between these companies and Michael Cohen through Essential Consultants?
Well, we don't know the full extent of the relationship, but it appears to have been a pay to play or a pay to access type of arrangement.
But it also appears to have been a slush fund of sorts, so which in your view is it? Is it a slush fund or a pay to play system?
Well, it may ultimately be proven to have been both.
How do you think these relationships formed? Did Cohen seek out these companies or was it the other way around?
Our understanding is that Michael Cohen actively solicited these clients.
And he solicited them for the purpose of these investments in Essential Consultants, is that correct?
No, I think he solicited them for the purpose of lining his own pocket.
Do you think there will be any more information on outgoing payments from Essential Consultants?
What might they show? What might that information show us?
I'm not going to speculate as to what it shows or might show.
Okay. Do you have that information?
Again, I'm not going to get into details about what I have or don't have.
What's the significance to you that Columbus Nova is an affiliate of a Russian owned company?
I think the significance is pretty obvious. Michael Cohen should not have been taking money from any entity or individual tied to Russia during this time. Period. It was beyond stupid, among other things, and it likely may have been illegal.
All right. Michael, here's the last one. How do you think these bank records change the calculus of the Mueller investigation?
I don't think they really change the calculus of the Mueller investigation. I'm sure that Mr. Mueller is going to do what he's going to do. He's an incredibly able prosecutor.