The simplest explanation for the recent Michael Cohen revelations is that Cohen was merely cashing in on his relationship to Donald Trump any way he could.
Trumpâ€™s unexpected win left corporations scrambling for someone who could give them insight into how the new administration would operate, and anyone with real or perceived access to Trump had plenty of opportunities to cash in.
â€œEveryone was hiring â€˜Trump whisperersâ€™ in 2017 â€” every single hanger-on in the Trump orbit made a fortune in 2017,â€ one Republican consultantÂ told Politico. â€œAnd not necessarily to influence them, just to try to figure out who are the right people to talk to.â€
â€œThe question was â€˜Who is the real influence?â€™â€ the consultant said. â€œIs it Gary Cohn? Steve Bannon? Wilbur Ross? How do we get to Jared and Ivanka? Does anyone know Dina Powell? Does anyone listen to Steven Mnuchin? Thereâ€™s no point talking to Reince Priebus, right? Every single client we had was trying to figure it out.â€
Cohen portrayed himself as the one person who could answer these questions. One GOP strategistÂ describedÂ his pitch to CNN: â€œI donâ€™t know whoâ€™s been representing you, but you should fire them all. Iâ€™m the guy you should hire. Iâ€™m closest to the president. Iâ€™m his personal lawyer.â€
However, we don’t know where all the money went. And until we do …
Greg Sargent has a taxonomy of possibilities for what went on with Cohen’s “Essential Consultants” shell company.
- Trump didn’t know about “Essential Consultants” and received no benefits from it, except for the payment to Stormy Daniels, which he reimbursed.
- Trump didn’t know about “Essential Consultants” but benefited from it quite a bit. Cohen might have used it to pay off a lot of other people on Trumps behalf, for example.
- Trump knew about “Essential Consultants” and knew he was benefiting from it.
- Trump knew about “Essential Consultants’ and received money directly from it.
Cohen could get into deep trouble under all of these scenarios, but Trump probably wouldn’t for possibilities #1 or #2. And even under #3 and #4 he might not get into trouble unless someone can show there was a direct quid pro quo discussed with these payments.
Consider that none of the companies that paid Cohen can offer explanations for what they paid him for that aren’t downright laughable.Â AsÂ Amy Sorkin points out, Essential Consultants looks a whole lot like a Trump slush fund.
Cohen, in this scenario, was just doing the paperwork and providing a vehicle for payments. If there is anything else the companies that paid him were getting, they need to offer better explanations. To put the matter most bluntly, if Cohen was Trumpâ€™s bagman, was Essential Consultants anything more than the bag?
This returns to the basic who-is-paying-whom question. Trump, at one point, said that he did not know where the money that Cohen used to pay Clifford came from. Perhaps he just let other people take care of the getting-it-back-to-Michael part; using other peopleâ€™s money is a prime Trump business directive. But, again, Cohen took care of Trumpâ€™s problemsâ€”Trumpâ€™s expenses. Thatâ€™s what he was being paid back for, and that is the transaction that the companies that paidÂ himÂ risk being drawn into.
Consider that Trump may have actually baited some companies into giving money to Cohen:
What is important to keep in mind here is that when Trump came into office the pharmaceutical companies were terrified and flying blind as to what would happen under President Trump. There was actuallyÂ an out of the blue statement Trump madeÂ in the second week of January 2017 about cracking down on the Big Phrma that had the big companies terrified. He told a press conference on January 11th that the pharmaceutical companies were â€œgetting away with murder.â€ He had repeatedly talked about reining in drug prices on the campaign trail. But in January he seemed to be upping the ante dramatically. It even crosses my mind, in retrospect, whether this comment wasnâ€™t intended to scare companies into Cohenâ€™s arms.
So they sign up Cohen, based it seems simply on being a friend of the President. Then they meet with Cohen, decide he canâ€™t deliver and have no more communication with him. Notwithstanding this,Â they decide to pay him the entire $1.2 million. â€œAs the contract unfortunately could only be terminated for cause, payments continued to be made until the contract expired by its own terms in February 2018.â€
The story is that Novartis had its first and only meeting with Cohen early in 2017, and at that meeting they realized he was an empty suit who was cashing in. They had no more dealings with him, yet they continued to pay him. Was that because they were afraid if they didn’t pay him they’d piss off Trump?
Plus you’ve got payments from AT&T (which wanted approval for a controversial merger with Time Warner) andÂ Korea Aerospace Industries (looking for defense contracts), etc. Cohen had nothing to offer them except access to Trump.
WaPo also reported today that a Russia-linked company that hired Michael Cohen registered alt-right websites during election.
Columbus Nova, a company whose U.S. chief executive, Andrew Intrater, and Russian investment partner Viktor Vekselberg have both reportedly been interviewed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller IIIâ€™s team, is listed as the registrant behind a handful of domains for websitesÂ named after the alt-right thatÂ were created during the 2016 election.
It is unclear if any of these websites were launched or ever hosted content.
Scratch anything close to Trump, and there’s a Russian.