A surprisingly popular take on the millions in “consulting” fees that Michael Cohen collected from heavy hitters in the telecommunications, aerospace and drug industries is that the payments were unseemly but not illegal.
“Welcome to the reality of Washington,” opened the May 11 edition of “Playbook,” Politico’s daily briefing, which continued: “YES, guys like Michael Cohen routinely get paid amounts like $1.2 million to offer insights about their boss or former boss.” And even if Trump’s personal lawyer “explicitly sold access” to his boss, argues criminal attorney Randall D. Eliason in a recent op-ed, a string of Supreme Court cases has made public corruption cases almost impossible to prosecute.
But anyone who shrugs off the Cohen scandal isn’t looking very carefully at a money trail that grows more complicated every day, and that points to both criminal and national security danger zones. The secret millions that President Trump’s personal lawyer collected through a shell company shed light on the many routes that special interests, including foreign governments, have used to buy access to this administration.
If the Cohen payments were just business as usual, it’s hard to see why the general counsel of Novartis, which paid Cohen $1.2 million through Essential Consultants, a shell company that Cohen established as a limited liability corporation, has just stepped down. AT&T, which paid Cohen $600,000, has also ousted its veteran lobbyist and attorney, Bob Quinn. Both firms have said the payments were for consulting and not lobbying, and have cast their contracts with Cohen as a mistake amid a PR firestorm and calls for an investigation.
“You don’t have to imagine too hard to move this from the realm of sleazy but permissible, to sleazy but improperly reported, to fundamentally criminal,” says Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, which has called on the Justice Department and Congress to investigate whether Cohen violated lobbying disclosure laws.
Senator Ron Wyden, of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, has written Novartis to request details on why the Swiss-based drug company engaged Cohen and what the company was seeking to gain. Wyden’s letter notes that while it was paying Cohen, Novartis was lobbying the FDA for approval of a breakthrough leukemia drug, which it won, and also negotiating how federal health programs would pay for the drug. Novartis paid Cohen four times morethan it paid any actual outside lobbyists during the time of its contract with him.
AT&T also had high-stakes business before the Trump administration while it was paying Cohen. AT&T officials met with Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, shortly after the company started making its payments to Cohen, newly released documents disclose. Pai sided with AT&T on the repeal of net neutrality rules, which he scheduled to take effect on June 11. (The Senate just voted to overturn that repeal.)
“It strains the imagination that those companies believed they were just going to gain insight worth the amount they were paying,” notes Weissman. “They may well have been expecting more than lobbying. It would be a mistake to rule out the possibility that these were attempts at naked bribery.”
Cohen is just one of several Trump cronies who have reaped big rewards as “consultants,” including Corey Lewandowski, the president’s former campaign manager, and Brian Ballard, a longtime Trump associate and fundraiser. The Cohen payments only came to light because Michael Avenatti, the lawyer representing porn actress Stephanie Clifford, AKA Stormy Daniels, got ahold of them and made them public. (Clifford is in a dispute with Cohen over the hush money he paid her, also through Essential Consultants, to keep quiet over an alleged affair with Trump.)
Cohen is also just one of several people close to Trump with disturbingly close ties to foreign interests. His client list included a consulting firm tied to a Russian oligarch, and Korea Aerospace Industries, a South Korean aviation firm that paid Cohen’s shell company $150,000 even as it sought a U.S. government contract.The FBI is now reportedly looking into that payment. He also solicited at least $1 million from the government of Qatar in exchange for advice, an offer that was turned down. One of the things Public Citizen wants federal officials to investigate is whether Cohen should have registered as foreign agent.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller has examined the payments to Cohen as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mueller is also reportedly looking into the millions that helped pay for Trump’s inauguration from donors who had ties to Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, including one with links to Cohen. The Mueller probe has brought to light the national security risks posed lobbyists who represent foreign interests without registering as foreign agents, and Republicans have responded with legislation to tighten up those rules.
It’s anyone’s guess where the recent disclosures involving Cohen and his shell company will lead, but it’s almost certain that money he collected under the table is just the tip of the iceberg. Special interests and foreign governments have had and continue to hold disproportionate sway in this administration, thanks in part to Trump’s failure to divest from his business holdings. That’s not business as usual, and the full story is only now beginning to come to light.