Yesterday we learned that Stormy Daniels and Russia are part of the same story.
In the months after the 2016 election, a Russian oligarch, a Korean aerospace company, AT&T, and an American pharmaceutical company named Novartis appear to have paid millions of dollars to a shell company created by Donald Trump’s embattled personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. It’s unclear what these payments were for, but man: A Russian billionaire gave Trump half a million bucks after the election. And perhaps even more alarming, it’s not unlikely that American corporations are paying for privileged access to the president.
This is evidence of what those in the third world might call “endemic corruption.” Let me repeat myself:
Fittingly enough, Michael Avenatti—attorney for the porn star suing the President of the United States, Stormy Daniels, aka Stephanie Clifford—broke the news. The New York Times and NBC News both confirmed the story.
In all, Cohen funneled $4.4 million through the shell company, which in a Herculean effort of vacuousness was the same one Cohen used to buy Daniels’ silence before the election. Most alarmingly, half a million dollars came from a company linked to a prominent Russian oligarch, starting in the weeks before Trump was inaugurated. Hundreds of thousands of dollars came from corporations including AT&T and Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis. A Korean airspace company dropped $150,000. The cash flow began just before the election and continued until this January.
Why was a Russian oligarch, in the months after Trump was elected President, paying Trump’s personal lawyer hundreds of thousands of dollars through what appears to be a big fat slush account that Trump himself also allegedly paid into? And why were AT&T, Novartis, and a company called Korean Aerospace also dumping hundreds of thousands into this account?
Side bar: How could Michael Cohen be stupid enough to use the same LLC for all of this? Especially when he knew the intelligence community was building an investigation of the Trump campaign based in part on allegations that they were taking money from Russia.
Also, those allegations name Cohen specifically as the guy who handled payments to co-conspirators during the campaign.
This might not be as stupid as it seems, though: Cohen might have created many LLCs, and this one, thanks to its shared use for the Daniels payment, is just the first we learn about.
BUT: Why did Cohen withdraw more than a million dollars from the account between July and September of last year—exactly when Trump began tapping the RNC and eventually his own pockets to pay his and his family’s mounting legal bills in the Russia investigation?
The way things appear, this story might explode in a dozen directions over the following days and weeks. Given that the corruption of the office of the President now apparently includes money from least two Fortune 500 companies, this news has the potential to shake what faith in our democracy we have left.
Here’s a quick explainer so we can try to get a handle on what we can while we can.
Who Is Essential Consultants?
This is a shell company that Michael Cohen created to funnel the hush payments to Daniels. Cohen said he put $130,000 of his own money into a company account (from a personal home loan, he said) and sent the money from there to Daniels. Later, Trump denied knowledge of the payment. Then Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani went on national TV and said Trump did pay Cohen and knew about Cohen’s payment to Daniels. Then Trump said he knew about the payments, but also that Giuliani got his facts wrong. Then Giuliani said it wasn’t a payment, but a $35,000/month “retainer,” which is not how retainers work. This is likely a felony violation of campaign finance law on at least one level.
But what does Essential Consultants do?
Unclear. It paid a porn star. It gave Elliot Broidy $1.6 million in hush money to, allegedly, pay a former Playboy playmate he had an affair with that resulted in an abortion.
And yet Essential Consultants also took money from AT&T, which, in a statement, confirmed the payments, saying they were for “insight” into the “new administration.” The administration wasn’t new at the time of payments, but that’s neither here nor there. Right? More on AT&T in a bit, though.
From porn stars to telecom, Essential Consultants does it all. Apparently.
What about the Russian oligarch?
His name is Viktor Vekselberg, and he’s a billionaire, and he’s pals with Putin. He owns a company called Renova that works in the Russian energy sector. Renova owned an American affiliate called Columbus Nova, which is the company that paid Cohen the half a million from January – August 2017.
Vekselberg denies that Columbus Nova had anything to do with him, but Columbus Nova was listed on Renova’s website as a client as recently as November 2017. The payments to Cohen began 11 months earlier. Also, Renova is Columbus Nova’s biggest client.
Also, Columbus Nova’s owner, Andrew Intrater, is Vekselberg’s cousin.
It’s worth noting that Vekselberg and his associate Len Blavatnik own about 16% of a Russian aluminum company called RUSAL, which is majority-owned by Oleg Deripaska, Paul Manafort’s former business partner. RUSAL recently got hit with sanctions, but last month the Trump administration singled RUSAL out for possible sanctions relief.
Also, according to documents from the Panama Papers offshore investment leak, Renova has a financial relationship with VTB, one of Russia’s largest state-owned banks. The month before Vekselberg’s cousin started giving Cohen money, Jared Kushner met secretly with the head of VTB in Trump Tower.
Also, Intrater donated $250,000 to the Trump Inauguration Fund, another $35,000 to the Trump Victory Fund, and in June 2017 he gave $29,600 to the Republican National Committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Also, Vekselberg attended Trump’s inauguration.
Also, according to the NBC report, Columbus Nova has registered several alt-right internet domains, though those sites currently display an error message.
Nothing to see here.
Anyway, Columbus Nova told NBC that its payments to Cohen were related to “real estate.” Robert Mueller’s team has already interviewed both Vikelsberg and Intrater about the payments to Cohen.
What about the Korean airspace company?
Yeah, that’s a head-scratcher, but we can clear it up. The company is called Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI), and they put about $150,000 into Essential Consultants on November 27, 2017.
KAI is South Korea’s only aircraft manufacturer. Its majority owner, however, is the Korea Development Bank, a wholly government-run institution. The Korean Import-Export bank and the American company BlackRock also hold stakes in the company. KAI was in dire financial straits last year, and currently has a bid for a contract with, get this, American military aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin.
Three weeks before the payment came through, Trump was in South Korea on his East Asia trip. He gave a speech threatening North Korea and plugging his golf course. Trump had earlier promised to build up South Korea’s military, and KAI is hoping to secure in the coming months a multibillion-dollar contract to sell trainer jets to the U.S. Air Force.
At this point it’s unclear what kind of expertise Michael Cohen could provide for the South Korean aerospace industry, unless that expertise is in what Donald Trump would like to see happen. KAI refused to comment on the story.
What about the big pharma company?
Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis paid $400,000 to Essential Consultants. The payments, made in four installments, started relatively late, in October of 2017, about a year after the Daniels payout. Novartis spent $10 million lobbying congress that year. One of the cancer treatments Novartis offers costs more than this payment, which raises a few questions about what they might have expected, or what else they might have paid and where. More in a bit!
Like AT&T, Novartis acknowledged the payout. In its statement the company said the payments were related to its former CEO. That CEO was invited to have lunch with Donald Trump at the World Economic Forum this past January.
However, in November of last year, Robert Mueller interviewed Novartis about its payments to Essential Consultants. LAST YEAR. Novartis had been paying them for one month.
This implies Mueller had tied Michael Cohen’s LLC to the Russia investigation several months before any of us knew about Stormy Daniels. He knows other things, too. More thoughts on that in a few paragraphs.
What about AT&T?
AT&T paid Essential Consultants $200,000 in four payments beginning in October 2017, around the same time that Novartis started paying in. What a knowledge base Cohen must have. Aerospace. Big pharma. Telecom. The Russian energy sector. A real renaissance man!
Why oh why would AT&T want to give Trump’s personal lawyer $200,000? The telecom giant, coincidentally enough, has been trying to merge with Time Warner since October 2016 (before the election). In November of 2017, one month after AT&T made its first deposit to Cohen, the Trump administration announced it was suing AT&T to block the merger, and that case is currently before the DOJ. But in the months before the payment, it was already heavily rumored that Trump would block the merger in order to attack CNN specifically.
AT&T said in its statement acknowledging the payment that it was looking for “insight” into the “new administration.” The administration wasn’t new at that point, but its pending legal action against AT&T was. It’s unclear what insight Cohen could offer into the Trump administration.
Wait no it isn’t.
And a related question: How did AT&T know to hire Essential Consultants for its telecom insight? In other words, who could have pointed them to Michael Cohen? One possibility is quite clear…
What does this have to do with Trump?
The most fascinating and potentially explosive part of this (beyond the Russian oligarch of course, which is a story unto itself) is the connection to Trump’s legal expenses. Follow me here.
First, let’s note that Cohen withdrew over a million dollars from the shell company account between July and September 2017. That lines up with this news: In September 2017 we learned that during these months the RNC paid $400,000 in legal bills for Trump and his family.
Those three months are, in financial terms, a defined quarter that ends in September. During that quarter, Trump’s legal fees exceeded one million dollars. Cohen withdrew the one million dollars at the end of that quarter, which was one month before AT&T, Novartis, and KAI put their combined $750,000 into the LLC. And the month after Novartis and AT&T began paying Trump, the president started paying legal expenses out of his own pocket instead of from the RNC. That same month (November 2017), Cohen’s LLC paid its first installment of $387,500 to Elliot Broidy, the deputy chairman of the RNC finance committee. That money went to pay hush money to a former playmate that Broidy had impregnated, and who later had an abortion. Broidy admitted this and subsequently resigned.
But Cohen’s LLC only paid Broidy $387,500. The hush money totaled $1.6 million. This could mean any number of things.
It could, for instance, mean that Cohen has other accounts we don’t know about.
Does Cohen have other accounts we don’t know about?
This is the big question. It would explain a few things, namely why Cohen seems so monumentally stupid to have used the same account for Daniels and these payments. Why didn’t he just create other LLCs to handle these other payments independently? That way if something went wrong he would at least have isolated the problem. As it is, though, a porn star has uncorked a slush fund.
Well, maybe Cohen did create other LLCs, and maybe the only reason we know about the details of this particular shell company is because it relates to the Daniels case. Mueller doesn’t publicize what he’s doing (he interviewed Novartis about the LLC all the way back in November), but Daniels’ lawyer Avenatti sure does.
Consider also the petty amounts of cash. Two hundred thousand dollars is nothing to a company like AT&T. Novartis’ $400,000 is less than a single cancer treatment it sells. And there’s no way only three or four companies in the world would have paid for access to Trump. This might be just the first of a number of front companies. No person with any common sense would believe the payments end here.
So is there more money? Where? Who else got paid? What did they get paid for? Does Russia have financial blackmail on Trump? (Yes.) Is Russia paying Trump’s legal expenses? Avenatti, for instance, insinuates that despite the protests from the oligarch’s company, the money was used in part to reimburse Cohen’s payment to Daniels, and possibly others. “It is completely inaccurate to say that these were not payments,” he told Business Insider.
The Washington Post notes that the money that passed through Essential Consultants was from sources and in amounts “inconsistent with the company’s stated purpose.”
Who has paid for access to the President of the United States? How much have they paid? What have they gotten in return? This is third-world stuff. This is the stuff that defrauds democracies. And yet, here we are. Where will we go?