After being nudged to the periphery of the news cycle by President Trump's afternoon announcement that he is withdrawing the United States from the Iran deal, the curious case of the Stormy Daniels payment was brought back into focus Tuesday night. Daniels' lawyer, Michael Avenatti, tweeted a link to an executive summary detailing a series of suspicious payments allegedly made to a shell company created by Michael Cohen. The payments came from a number of companies – including one with with ties to a prominent Russian oligarch – and have brought about a host of pay-to-play accusations while possibly shedding light on the source of the alleged reimbursement for the $130,000 payment Cohen made to Daniels prior to the 2016 election.
On Wednesday morning, Trump redirected his ire from the Witch Hunt to the Fake News.
The Fake News is working overtime. Just reported that, despite the tremendous success we are having with the economy & all things else, 91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake). Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 9, 2018
It’s hard to know whether the tweet was part of the president's typical routine or whether he's a little nervous about the previous night's news regarding his longtime personal attorney. Questions as to the nature of the cashflow between Trump and Cohen have abounded since Rudy Giuliani let slip to Sean Hannity last week that the president repaid Cohen for the Daniels hush money, and the more that comes out, the worse it looks for the president and his legal team.
The report that Avenatti shared details several payments received by Essential Consultants, LLC, the shell company Cohen used to pay off Daniels. Essential Consultants was incorporated only 10 days before the payment to Daniels was made. It’s unclear how Avenatti – who has more than earned his money since taking on the Daniels case – was able to come by this information, but it was later corroborated by the New York Times, and plenty of additional information has come to light in the days since the report's release.
After significant investigation, we have discovered that Mr. Trump’s atty Mr. Cohen received approximately $500,000 in the mos. after the election from a company controlled by a Russian Oligarc with close ties to Mr. Putin. These monies may have reimbursed the $130k payment.— Michael Avenatti (@MichaelAvenatti) May 8, 2018
The most notable of the items detailed came from Columbus Nova, the American affiliate of a company owned by Kremlin-connected Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. Columbus Nova has denied Vekselberg had anything to do with the payments, which occurred from January to August 2017 and totaled $500,000, claiming they were in exchange for Cohen's services as "a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures." Columbus Nova is run by Vekselberg’s cousin, Michael Intrater, who gave $250,000 to Trump's inauguration, which he attended with his Russian kin. Earlier this year, Vekselberg was intercepted by federal investigators after his private jet landed at a New York airport, and, as CNN reported Tuesday, both he and Intrater were questioned by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
As New York magazine's Jonathan Chait points out, if Vekselberg – and, in turn, Putin – knew about the payment, it would have given Russia leverage over the president.
Avenatti's report details several other suspicious payments that were made to Essential Consultants from companies with questionable motives. According to the report, between October 2017 and January 2018 the telecom giant AT&T paid the LLC a total of $200,000, a total that, as The Atlantic points out, is commensurate with what the company gives to lobbying firms. AT&T confirmed the payments, saying they were made to Cohen "to provide insights into understanding the new administration," a phrase destined for the Euphemism Hall of Fame. AT&T denies any lobbying took place, although the payments did occur around the time the company and the Trump administration were butting heads over a proposed merger with Time Warner that is currently being mulled by the Justice Department.
The company’s automated customer service on Twitter has had a tough time processing the blowback.
Hi Star, we are here to help answer your questions. Can you please tell us more about what you mean by pay to play? We look forward to your response. ^TobiO https://t.co/7m6RT3Hk4n— AT&T (@ATT) May 9, 2018
It was later revealed that AT&T actually paid Cohen $600,000 over the course of 2017, and that the company was questioned by Special Counsel Mueller about the payments last year. On Wednesday, Democratic lawmakers pressured the Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate the deal. A day later, the Washington Post reported that the "insights" AT&T contracted Cohen to provide were specifically related to issues pending government approval, including the Time Warner merger Trump had opposed.
That's not all. Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical company, paid Essential Consultants just under $400,000 between October 2017 and January 2018, according to Avenatti's report. That same month, the Novartis CEO was one of 15 business leaders invited to dine with Trump at the World Economic Forum. On Wednesday, it was revealed that Novartis actually paid Cohen $1.2 million in order to gain access to the White House, and that it was the attorney who initially reached out to offer his services. On Thursday morning, Novartis CEO Vasant Narasimhan wrote an email to employees admitting the deal was a mistake.
In November 2017, Korea Aerospace Industries paid $150,000 to the LLC. The company partnered with Lockheed Martin to bid for a multi-billion-dollar jet manufacturing contract that the government will award this year. On Wednesday, KAI released a statement claiming they paid Cohen for “legal consulting concerning accounting standards on production costs." The statement did not explain why a Korean aerospace manufacturer would think Trump's personal attorney is the best person to help with their bookkeeping.
Rudy Giuliani responded on Wednesday by making sure everyone was aware that none of this has anything to do with Trump. "I talked to the president only one time about this and that was the first day it came out and he wasn't aware of that situation that now, I guess, the facts are getting a little contorted," Giuliani said.
Avenatti isn't so sure, and since releasing the report Tuesday night he's been on a mini press tour to continue to stoke suspicion. On Wednesday, he told Rolling Stone he believes Cohen actively solicited the clients named in the report. He has also called on Cohen to open up the books of Essential Consultants.
Avenatti: “Michael Cohen should release the bank statements from this account, from this single account, from October of 16 to April of this year so he can disclose to the American people what money was received of not received.” (via ABC) pic.twitter.com/GrtcM0yvcz— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) May 9, 2018
Not since Watergate has "follow the money" felt like such an appropriate mantra for investigators. In this instance, Cohen seems to have made it easy by keeping it all in one place. Unfortunately, as has been the case with just about every turn in the Stormy Daniels saga, the news of the payments still carries with it more questions than answers.
This post has been updated with the newest facts and figures available.