There’s a big twist in the Michael Cohen case: Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer received payments of $500,000 after the 2016 presidential election from a firm controlled by a billionaire Russian oligarch.
In the words of the New Yorker’s Adam Davidson: “This is so huge that it makes sense to have some caution.” Here’s what we know.
The payments were initially disclosed by lawyer Michael Avenatti, who represents the adult film star Stormy Daniels, and subsequently confirmed by the Daily Beast, New York Times (paywall), and other news outlets.
Just after the 2016 election, the funds were deposited into the account of Cohen’s shell company—the same one he used to pay $130,000 in hush money to Daniels just before the election—by investment firm Columbus Nova.
Columbus Nova is an affiliate of the Renova Group, which is controlled by Viktor Vekselberg—one of the richest man in Russia, and recently the target of US sanctions.
Columbus Nova told the Washington Post (paywall) it hired Cohen “regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures” in 2017 before severing the agreement later that year, and denied any involvement by Vekselberg.
Cohen’s shell company, Essential Consultants, also received payments from several big corporations, including nearly $400,000 from Swiss pharmaceutical firm Novartis and $200,000 from AT&T.
AT&T, whose $85 billion purchase of Time Warner is under threat from the Trump administration, confirmed the payments (paywall), saying Essential Consulting provided “insights into understanding the new administration. They did no legal or lobbying work for us.”
Cohen, as Trump’s personal lawyer, was a notable outsider in the administration, so it would be interesting to hear what that “insight” entailed. He reaped more than $4 million in total payments through the Essential Consultants account from shortly before the election to January of this year, reported the New York Times (paywall).
“One possible reading of this is that Cohen was doing the thing you never do with a boss like Trump—profiting off his name without sharing the money,” said Davidson of the New Yorker. “Or he was doing the worse thing, which was sharing the money.”
What does this all mean?
Quite a few things, potentially. Here’s a sampling:
Mueller may have tipped off New York-based federal prosecutors about the Columbus Nova payments. His team interviewed Vekselberg earlier this year when the oligarch’s private plane landed at a New York-area airport, asked about the payments to Cohen, and subsequently referred evidence about Cohen to the Feds.
They were never really separate, but Donald Trump’s two most threatening scandals—the Russia investigation, and the federal probe into Michael Cohen—have now been revealed as inextricably related. As the Atlantic noted, Avenatti has connected the dots in a single tweet.
Finally, the Washington Post’s Phillip Bump (paywall) looked at the known inflows to and outflows from Essential Consultants’ bank account, and the math doesn’t add up: “It’s clear from the reported transactions that there was more money flowing into the Essential Consultants account than has been revealed.” Stay tuned.