Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s longtime personal attorney, faced explosive claims about his business dealings on Tuesday, prompting AT&T and a company with ties to a Russian oligarch to acknowledge retaining him after the 2016 election.
The companies disclosed the business relationships after lawyer Michael Avenatti claimed they made payments to Essential Consultants, a company he said was also used to make a hush-money payment to his client, porn actress Stormy Daniels, just weeks before the 2016 presidential election.
In a seven-page document he distributed online, Avenatti claimed that the same Cohen bank account was involved in transactions totaling more than $4.4 million and made from October 2016 through January 2018. Those transactions included $200,000 from AT&T and some $500,000 in deposits from Columbus Nova, a company linked to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, who was sanctioned last month by the U.S. as punishment for Kremlin meddling in the U.S. election. The company on Tuesday said Vekselberg was not involved in the transactions.
POLITICO could not independently confirm all of Avenatti’s allegations, but if they prove true, they could show links between the Daniels affair, which is under investigation by prosecutors in New York, and special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign. They also appear to show businesses seeking intelligence on how to operate under a Trump administration.
“Michael Cohen should turn over all of his bank records,” Avenatti told CNN Tuesday. “Just release them. If there’s nothing to hide, he should release the bank records, and I am sure it will all be sorted out.”
Avenatti did not respond to questions from POLITICO, including a request to identify the source of his information. Cohen’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment, and a spokesman for his bank had no comment. The White House referred questions to outside lawyers for Trump, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The money from AT&T appeared to be unrelated to the investigations but came as the Trump administration announced it would seek to block an $85 billion merger between AT&T and Time Warner.
“Essential Consultants was one of several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration,” AT&T spokeswoman Megan Ketterer said in a statement Tuesday, after Avenatti tweeted a link to the document. “They did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017.”
Cohen also accepted nearly $400,000 from pharmaceutical giant Novartis between October 2017 and January 2018, according to Avenatti. A Novartis spokesman said the company was “still trying to assess the facts” and noted that any contractual agreements were made prior to the current chief executive officer’s tenure.
Avenatti said the same Cohen account at First Republic Bank that received payments from the companies was used to make a $130,000 payment to Daniels in return for her silence about a sexual relationship she says she had with Trump. Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, has argued the hush agreement was invalid and has filed suit against Trump for defamation.
Cohen is seen as one of Trump’s most loyal aides and rose to a level of seniority at the Trump Organization that is rare for someone outside the president’s family. He was involved in making business deals for the organization, and he drew scrutiny when he was mentioned in a controversial dossier that purported to lay out ties between Trump and Russia.
Last month, FBI agents executed a series of search warrants on Cohen’s law office and Park Avenue apartment, seeking information on, among other things, the payment to Daniels. Cohen was also reported to have negotiated a $1.6 million payment on behalf of GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy after a Playboy Playmate said Broidy had impregnated her.
In the report he released Tuesday, Avenatti said that less than three months after the payment to Daniels, Vekselberg “caused substantial funds to be deposited into the bank account from which Mr. Cohen made the payment. It appears that these funds may have replenished the account following the payment to Ms. Clifford.”
Cohen had previously said he used a home equity line of credit to fund the $130,000 payment to Daniels. Earlier this month, Rudy Giuliani, who is representing Trump, said the president had reimbursed Cohen for the payment to Daniels, sending a series of $35,000 payments and additional funds to cover taxes and incidental expenses. Giuliani told the New York Times that the payments had totaled about $460,000 or $470,000.
A lawyer for Columbus Nova, Richard Owens of Latham & Watkins, said the company is owned and controlled by Americans and that it hired Cohen as a consultant. Owens said Vekselberg was not involved in the payments to Cohen.
“After the inauguration, the firm hired Michael Cohen as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures,” Owens said in a statement. “The claim that Viktor Vekselberg was involved or provided any funding for Columbus Nova’s engagement of Michael Cohen is patently untrue.
“Neither Viktor Vekselberg nor anyone else other than Columbus Nova’s owners, were involved in the decision to hire Cohen or provided funding for his engagement.”
Two sources familiar with the Mueller investigation said that while they could not independently confirm the details of Avenatti’s report, it tracks with the investigation. Mueller’s team reportedly questioned Vekselberg this year at a New York-area airport.
“Essentially it becomes foreign bribery, bribery by a foreign country. It is a corrupt payment to a sitting present,” said one person familiar with the Mueller investigation.
Mueller is investigating Russian-American contributions to Trump, including those made to the Trump’s inauguration committee. Investigators believe Vekselberg, 60, was one of several influential Russians who attended inaugural events.
Columbus Nova’s chief executive, Andrew Intrater, reportedly donated $250,000 to Trump’s inaugural fund, according to Mother Jones. Intrater gave $35,000 to the Trump Victory fund and another $29,600 to the Republican National Committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Another Russian-American with reported ties to Vekselberg, Simon Kukes, also made large contributions to Trump Victory in 2016, according to Federal Election Commission data.