Trump fixer linked to Russian oligarch
President Trump’s longtime lawyer and “fixer,” Michael Cohen, faced new legal jeopardy this week after a disclosure of financial records showed that Cohen was paid $500,000 by a firm controlled by a Russian oligarch. Michael Avenatti, a lawyer for porn star Stormy Daniels, posted documents online detailing the 2017 payment by New York investment firm Columbus Nova to Cohen’s shell company Essential Consultants—the same shell company used by Cohen to pay Daniels $130,000 to stay silent about an alleged affair with Trump. Columbus Nova’s biggest client is Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, who was interviewed earlier this year by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team as part of the investigation into Russian election meddling. Columbus Nova said it hired Cohen to consult on “potential investments in real estate and other ventures” and that Vekselberg—who attended Trump’s inauguration with Columbus Nova’s CEO—was not involved in the decision to hire Cohen.
Cohen also used Essential Consultants to collect more than $3 million in payments from several corporations with business before the Trump administration. AT&T, whose merger with Time Warner is being challenged by the Justice Department, said it paid Cohen $200,000 “to provide insights” into the new administration. Drug giant Novartis paid him $1.2 million for advice on how Trump “might approach U.S. health-care policy”; the company said it was contacted in November by Mueller’s office and “cooperated fully.” Cohen is reportedly under investigation for bank fraud and election-law violations.
What the columnists said
The possible reasons for Columbus Nova’s payment to Cohen “run from brazenly corrupt to far worse,” said Jonathan Chait in NYMag.com. Like all Russian oligarchs, Vekselberg works in cooperation with the Putin government, and his payments might have given the Kremlin numerous “sources of possible leverage over Cohen and Trump.” Could the $500,000 have been a bribe, “in return for which a favor would be expected”? Or perhaps Russia knew the payment went to a slush fund for silencing Trump’s mistresses, “another source of kompromat.”
It’s no mystery what corporations sought from Cohen, said Timothy O’Brien in Bloomberg.com. Trump and his family “have essentially hung a for-sale sign on the White House” by refusing to meaningfully separate themselves from their own business interests. That fact hasn’t been lost on companies that have dealings with Washington, and Cohen provided a useful—and relatively cheap—way to get close to the president. “In Trump’s swamp, you pay to play.”
This is what a Trump “smoking gun might look like,” said Jed Shugerman in Slate.com. Proving quid pro quo bribery and conspiracy against the U.S. will be extremely difficult. But this new evidence of Russian payments strengthens “the proof for probable cause, which is the standard for warrants and indictments.” And that will pressure alleged co-conspirators such as Cohen to flip. In turn, they may “help a jury, the public, and perhaps Congress find proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”