The Stormy Daniels saga has been a difficult one to follow given the dramatic number of twists and turns in a short period of time, but Ronan Farrow’s bombshell in The New Yorker last week shed some serious light on the madness, proving that Michael Avenatti’s bluster over Michael Cohen’s bank accounts have real ammo behind them, as his assertions derive from a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) leaked by a law enforcement official to Avenatti. Stormy Daniels’ lawyer has been talking a big game ever since the #denyit post that led to a Trump denial, which was swiftly followed by the FBI taking complete ownership of his lawyer, Michael Cohen (who is still one of the national deputy finance chairmen of the Republican National Committee).
Avenatti dropped another cryptic hint soon thereafter, telling Morning Joe that the $1.6 million payment made by RNC official Elliot Broidy through Cohen was actually connected to the Trump Organization. Yesterday, the Associated Press and The Daily Beast unleashed scoops that further contextualize Broidy’s role in all this. First, per the AP:
After a year spent carefully cultivating two princes from the Arabian Peninsula, Elliott Broidy, a top fundraiser for President Donald Trump, thought he was finally close to nailing more than $1 billion in business.
He had ingratiated himself with crown princes from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who were seeking to alter U.S. foreign policy and punish Qatar, an archrival in the Gulf that he dubbed “the snake.”
To do that, the California businessman had helped spearhead a secret campaign to influence the White House and Congress, flooding Washington with political donations.
Broidy and his business partner, Lebanese-American George Nader, pitched themselves to the crown princes as a backchannel to the White House, passing the princes’ praise — and messaging — straight to the president’s ears.
The Daily Beast expanded on the AP’s findings, as Justin Glawe reported:
The company, a Virginia-based security firm called Circinus LLC, is owned by Broidy and has secured at least $800 million in foreign defense contracts since Trump took office. All of those payouts came after Broidy reportedly worked his contacts in D.C.—including Trump—to advocate for positions favorable to the countries that Circinus now lists as clients.
In addition to its newfound international fortune, Circinus received Defense Department payments totalling more than $4 million in August and September 2017, the largest in the company’s history, a review of available contracts found.
(Two months later, Broidy funneled almost $200,000 into Michael Cohen’s bank accounts to pay off a Playboy model Broidy had impregnated, according to financial documents leaked to The New Yorker last week. The model received $1.6 million for her silence and Broidy resigned from his position with the RNC in the ensuing public relations fallout.)
Now, in light of this new information, let’s revisit Avenatti’s exchange with Morning Joe almost exactly one month ago. Per Raw Story:
“So, Mika, you are familiar with the fact that a week ago, Judge (Kimba) Wood ordered Michael Cohen’s attorneys to disclose all of his clients for the last three years,” Avenatti said, “and there were three clients listed — three clients listed. Do you recall which three?”
Brzezinski listed Trump, Fox News host Sean Hannity and Republican donor Elliott Broidy — but Avenatti said she was making the same mistake everyone else had.
“No, no, no,” he said. “Mr. Trump, the Trump organization and Sean Hannity. Mr. Broidy was not disclosed in open court as one of Michael Cohen’s clients.”
Co-host Joe Scarborough asked the attorney what that meant.
“I think at some point we are going to find out, if in fact, the client in connection with the ($1.6 million) settlement was, in fact, Mr. Broidy. I’m going to leave it at that.”
To recap what we know of this mess:
— Elliot Broidy, a now-former deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, admitted to paying $1.6 million through Michael Cohen to former Playboy model Shera Bechard.
— Both Broidy and Bechard say it was for an abortion she had after Broidy impregnated her, but the Wall Street Journal reported that “the contract states that matters relating to the alleged pregnancy and paternity of the alleged child are excluded from the claims resolved in the agreement” and the contract says that “Ms. Bechard declined to provide proof that she was pregnant with Mr. Broidy’s child.”
— Broidy’s company, Circinus LLC, had received $7,000 in United States defense contracts in the last decade, but received a $4 million contract last year.
— This came after Broidy spent a year cultivating relationships with two princes in the Arabian Peninsula and “In return for pushing anti-Qatar policies at the highest levels of America’s government, Broidy and Nader expected huge consulting contracts from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.” The AP determined all this “based on interviews with more than two dozen people and hundreds of pages of leaked emails between” Broidy and his business partner, George Nader.
— Back in March, the AP also reported that Nader “received millions of dollars from a political adviser to the United Arab Emirates last April, just weeks before he began handing out a series of large political donations to U.S. lawmakers considering legislation targeting Qatar.”
Neither Broidy nor Nader is registered as a lobbyist under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and a violation of this law carries a maximum $10,000 fine or up to five years in prison. Even if you take into account that our judicial system has basically accepted that influence peddling is the law of the land in our nation’s capital, Broidy and Nader are still very much at risk of violating this very clear law—and that’s before you get into the strange fact that a firm who did virtually no business with the Pentagon is all of a sudden securing $4 million in contracts.
Looking at all of this through a journalistic lens, my instincts tell me that it’s still too messy to come to any one conclusion. Michael Avenatti’s #denyit tweet was seemingly proven right by the upheaval in Michael Cohen’s life, and Ronan Farrow’s excellent reporting proved that he had the goods in the form of a SAR (which is not proof of a crime), so his threats towards Michael Cohen should not be taken lightly. However, just because someone has been right in the past doesn’t mean they will be in the future, and while there is a whole lot of smoke surrounding this mess, it isn’t quite clear enough to yell “fire!” just yet.
That said, removing the high burden of proof required to demonstrably state “yes, this happened” and lowering the bar to “this probably happened,” you can’t help but gaze over all these shadow payments and just say “c’mon man, of course this is what it looks like.” Between the shadiness laid out above, AT&T apologizing for leaving a giant sack of money on Michael Cohen’s doorstep, to Novartis’ ridiculous explanation of “we agreed to pay Cohen $1.2 million for insights, except he didn’t bring what we agreed on to the one meeting we had, yet we couldn’t break the contract for cause, and also our top lawyer is retiring in connection with this payment,” a clear and classic scandal is emerging: pay to play.
Pay to play is exactly what it sounds like: you pay powerful people money in order to play on their playground. So, theoretically, AT&T could negotiate a contract “with focus on the FCC” with Trump’s lawyer, and then voila! Net Neutrality is repealed—opening the way for companies like AT&T to sell the internet to you in more profitable, but slower packages. Or Novartis paying $1.2 million for Trump to not follow through on his proclamation to lower drug prices.
I’m saying this theoretically, of course (*wink wink*). We don’t have unequivocal proof that this happened—just that these companies made agreements with the president’s lawyer that they immediately repudiated the moment they became public—and before these revelations came to light, the president pursued (or didn’t pursue) policies that lined up with these companies’ interests. Just like how it’s only theoretical that Trump’s D.C. hotel more than doubling its revenue in the last year has nothing to do with the trappings of the presidency. We live in a corrupt world now under the control of some of the dumbest people alive, and they can’t help but accidentally tell us how business is really done in Washington. Trump isn’t draining the swamp, he’s plugging his bank account into it while shining a light on The Way Things Work in America.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.