Stormy Daniels' Lawyer Says Russian Oligarch, AT&T Paid Trump Attorney Cohen
Michael Avenatti also notes that hundreds of thousands of dollars streamed into Michael Cohen's account from AT&T, which is seeking government approval for its $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner.
Stormy Daniels' lawyer said Tuesday he has information showing that Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's longtime personal attorney, received $500,000 from a company associated with a Russian billionaire within months of paying hush money to Daniels, a porn star who claims to have had an affair with Trump.
Lawyer Michael Avenatti also said hundreds of thousands of dollars streamed into Cohen's account from companies with U.S. government business interests, including pharmaceutical giant Novartis, AT&T and Korea Aerospace. AT&T confirmed its connection Tuesday evening. At the time of the payments, AT&T was seeking government approval for its $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner.
Avenatti did not reveal the source of his information or release documentation. But in a seven-page memo, the lawyer detailed what he said were wire transfers going into and out of the account Cohen used to pay Daniels $130,000 in October 2016 to stay silent about her alleged affair with the GOP presidential candidate. Trump denies having an affair with Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.
Financial documents reviewed Tuesday by The Associated Press appear to back up Avenatti's report.
The memo, containing highly specific dates and amounts, states that Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian billionaire, and his cousin "routed" eight payments totaling approximately $500,000 to Cohen's company, Essential Consultants, between January and August 2017. The reason for the payments is not known.
Speculating without offering proof, the Avenatti memo says, "It appears these funds may have replenished the account following the payment to Ms. Clifford."
Avenatti's memo says the deposits into the account controlled by Cohen were made by Columbus Nova, an American investment company affiliated with the Renova Group, which is controlled by Vekselberg.
Columbus Nova attorney Richard Owens stressed in a statement that the company is "solely owned and controlled by Americans" and said that, after Trump's inauguration, the firm hired Cohen as a business consultant "regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures," but that it had nothing to do with Vekselberg.
Owens said any suggestion that Vekselberg used Columbus Nova as a conduit for payments to Cohen is false. "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," he said.
Cohen and his attorney did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Cohen is under investigation by federal prosecutors in New York, but hasn't been charged.
At the time of the payments, there was an active FBI counterintelligence investigation — which special counsel Robert Mueller took over in May 2017 — into Russian election interference and any possible coordination with Trump associates.
Vekselberg was targeted for U.S. sanctions by the Trump administration last month. He built his fortune, estimated by Forbes at $14.6 billion, by investing in the aluminum and oil industries. More recently, he has expanded his assets to include industrial equipment and high technology.
Offering confirmation for more of the payments, AT&T said in a statement that Essential Consultants is one of several firms it "engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration."
Avenatti alleges that the company made four $50,000 payments to Cohen totaling $200,000 in late 2017 and early 2018.
AT&T said Cohen's company "did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017." Cohen is not a registered lobbyist, according to public records.
Such a confidential relationship would not violate federal lobbying laws if Cohen did not seek to influence Trump on the companies' behalf. But hiring the president's personal attorney for advice on how to woo Trump would be highly unusual, especially given that Cohen was never formally involved in the campaign or Trump's administration.
Making the arrangement even stranger, the blue-chip companies' payments to Cohen were routed to Essential Consultants LLC — the same company Cohen used to buy Stormy Daniels' silence about her alleged affair with the President.
Trump's Justice Department has sued to block AT&T from an $85 billion merger with Time Warner, saying it would hurt competition and consumers would have to pay more to watch their favorite shows.
Korea Aerospace, which is alleged to have paid Cohen $150,000 in November, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Novartis, a multinational pharmaceutical company, could not confirm or deny the payment, but said any agreements with Essential Consultants were entered before the company's current CEO took over in February of this year and have since expired.
The memo alleges the company paid Cohen $399,920 in late 2017 and early 2018 in four payments — each amounting to $99,980.
Trump had dinner with Novartis' soon-to-be CEO Vasant Narasimhan, along with other European executives, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, shortly after the date of the final payment.
Larry Noble, senior director of the Campaign Legal Center, said there's nothing technically wrong with companies such as Novartis and AT&T hiring people like Cohen to provide insight into the president's thinking. But he said the arrangement described by Avenatti "certainly doesn't look good."
"Why would you go to the president's private fixer?" Noble asked. "He's not known for policy and he's not in the administration. You're going to someone who can get you access and tell you about the person of the president. That's unusual."