Insight or influence? Trump attorney's business scrutinized

By Jeff Horwitz, Catherine Lucey and Jonathan Lemire
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Already under investigation for a payment to a porn star, President Donald Trump’s longtime personal attorney is facing intensifying legal and ethical scrutiny for selling his Trump World experience and views at a hefty price to companies that sought “insight” into the new president.

One company, pharmaceutical giant Novartis, acknowledged Wednesday it paid Michael Cohen $1.2 million for services, though they ended after a single meeting.

Others, including some with major regulatory matters before the new administration, acknowledged payments totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars over at least several months.

The corporate ties could suggest Cohen was peddling his influence and profiting from his relationship with the president. They also raise questions about whether Trump knew about the arrangement.

Cohen’s corporate ties were first revealed in a detailed report released by an attorney for pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels.

The report alleged that Cohen used a company he established weeks before the 2016 election to receive the payments from a variety of businesses — including $500,000 from one associated with a Russian billionaire. Financial documents reviewed by the Associated Press appear to back up much of attorney Michael Avenatti’s report.

Cohen’s lawyers said late Wednesday that much of the information released by Avenatti was “completely inaccurate.” They told a New York judge that Avenatti made statements “in an apparent attempt to prejudice and discredit Mr. Cohen” as he seeks to intervene in a civil case Cohen brought stemming from April 9 raids on his home and office. The raids were carried out by federal agents looking for evidence in a criminal probe.

The lawyers wrote that some of the information Avenatti published Tuesday did appear to come from Cohen’s actual bank records.

Aventti responded on Twitter, saying the attorneys “fail to address, let alone contradict, 99% of the statements in what we released. Among other things, they effectively concede the receipt of the $500,000 from those with Russian ties.”

Asked about the reports of the payments to Cohen Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence said on NBC News that it was a “private matter” and “something I don’t have any knowledge about.”

Three companies confirmed the payments, including Novartis and AT&T, both saying Cohen’s Essential Consultants was hired to help them understand the new president during the early days of the Trump administration. Novartis said in a statement that it paid Cohen $100,000 a month for a yearlong contract, thinking the longtime New York legal “fixer” with few Washington ties could advise on health care matters. After a single meeting they decided “not to engage further.”

Some of the companies that engaged Cohen also had contact with Trump personally. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson met with him during the transition and has visited the White House as the company has sought approval to absorb Time Warner. The current CEO of Novartis attended a dinner with Trump at the World
Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this year, though the company stressed that the agreement with Cohen’s company predated his time as CEO and he was not involved with the deal.

Just what Cohen was selling was a key question Wednesday, particularly given that public records show he is not a registered lobbyist. Cohen could enter these relationships without violating federal lobbying laws if he did not seek to influence Trump on the companies' behalf. But hiring Trump’s personal attorney for advice on how to understand the president would be highly unusual.

Public Citizen President Robert Weissman said Cohen’s consulting work sounds more like pay-to-play lobbying.

“It stretches the imagination that the work was just for advice. There is no reason that he would have any blinding insights,” Weissman said. “Sending money to a shell company, instead of his business, that sets off some alarm bell. Nothing of this seems right.”

Some of the dealings have caught the attention of the special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. A spokesman for Novartis said the company was contacted in November by Robert Mueller’s office regarding its agreement with Essential Consultants, which expired this year.

AT&T also said it was contacted last year by Mueller’s office “regarding Michael Cohen.” The company said it “cooperated fully, providing all information requested in November and December of 2017.” AT&T added that its consulting contract with Cohen expired at the end of the year and it has received no questions since.

Cohen also used the company to pay a $130,000 payment to Daniels just before the 2016 election in exchange for her silence about an alleged sexual encounter with the president. Cohen is under investigation by federal prosecutors in New York, but has not been charged.

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