Follow the Money

I’m crushing it.” Michael Cohen, summer of 2017.

Michael Cohen

That was then; now, federal officials are squeezing President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer. Federal prosecutors in New York are probing Cohen’s payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels, using information acquired in raids last month on Cohen’s home, hotel room, and office. Agents obtained a search warrant based on information provided by special counsel Robert Mueller from his probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. 

The Cohen investigation in New York involves possible bank fraud, wire fraud, and campaign finance violations. This week, Cohen’s legal jeopardy intensified with the release of a document by Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, indicating that the shell company used by Cohen to pay Daniels’ hush money received payments from a company linked to a Russian oligarch and from several prominent corporations. Cohen may have to choose soon between loyalty to Trump — he once said, “I’m the guy who would take a bullet for the president” — and a long prison sentence as investigators in New York and Washington follow the money trail.

Cohen is not the only one with legal problems. Long before anyone suspected possible Trumpian collusion with Russia, there were questions about the New York realtor’s finances. Trump’s actions fueled questions when he refused to release his tax returns, as had other presidential candidates. Now, the new information about Cohen’s shell company — Essential Consultants, LLC — suggests a link between Trump’s finances and possible campaign collusion with Russia. 

Viktor Vekselberg

The money trail is the nexus of the link. Essential Consultants — thought until now as simply the conduit for hush money — received payments totaling at least $4.4 million. Some of the money came from Columbus Nova, an investment firm whose biggest client is Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The drug giant Novartis paid $1.2 million to Essential Consultants, and AT&T —  currently being sued by the Justice Department over its proposed acquisition of Time Warner — shelled out $600,000 to Cohen’s company. Other companies paid varying amounts.

What were these entities buying? At the very least, advice from the president’s longtime fixer on how to navigate Trump’s Washington. Both Novartis and AT&T issued statements denying wrongdoing. In a memo to employees, the telecommunications giant said, “We hired several consultants to help us understand how the President and his administration might approach a wide range of policy issues important to the company.” A source told CNBC that Cohen did no lobbying or legal work for AT&T. The payments, the source said, were not “for access to the president. It was to pay for an understanding of the inner workings of Trump, his thought process…. And how he thinks about the big issues.” Really? AT&T’s protestations are contrary to what a Novartis official told NBC: The Swiss pharmaceutical firm signed a contract with Cohen in February 2017 after the president’s fixer promised “access” to the new administration. 

Federal investigators will untangle exactly what Cohen did for whom and who he possibly contacted. But, this kind of suspicious money flow lay at the heart of a recent Washington Post report detailing that in 2006 Trump did something unusual for a real estate developer — he stopped borrowing money. The self-proclaimed “King of Debt” either suddenly became more prudent or discovered that his multiple bankruptcies made him persona non grata at reputable banks. So, he spent cash — $400 million — on various projects. 

Eric Trump

From where did that money come? Eric Trump, the president’s son, said other Trump holdings generated the funds. Business experts doubt that explanation, especially because the spending spree coincided with the Great Recession. Besides, Eric’s older brother, Donald Trump, Jr., said in 2008, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets…. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” And, according to golf writer James Dodson, Eric Trump told him in 2013, “Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.”

Cohen also reportedly had Russian connections. According to a recent report in The New York Times, Cohen dealt with Russian mob figures. As late as the 2016 presidential campaign, Cohen discussed plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow with Felix Sater, a felon with ties to Russian mobsters and with whom Trump worked on earlier deals. Cohen also figures in the Michael Flynn saga. In February 2017, when Cohen was “crushing it” the president’s lawyer visited the White House and gave Flynn, then the president’s national security adviser, a plan for lifting sanctions on Russia imposed for Moscow’s attacks on Ukraine. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to federal officials about his Russian contacts.

Robert Mueller, special counsel

Mueller, named special counsel after Trump fired FBI director James Comey, is probing all this, including Cohen’s Russian connections. At&T and Novartis both report Mueller began asking last November about their payments to Essential Consultants. Russia and money have been part of Trump’s world for at least a decade. Now, the money trail is the key to whether his campaign colluded with Russia to undermine American democracy. Many have asked, “What does Putin have on Trump?” Following the money will provide the answer.

Posted May 11, 2018

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