Trump Attorney Cohen May Have Received Russian Payments, New Document Alleges

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Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, may have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from both corporate clients and potentially a Russian billionaire, according to new allegations from an attorney suing them.

Michael Avenatti, who represents porn actress Stormy Daniels, documented what he called Cohen’s suspicious financial relationships in a document released on Tuesday evening.

Avenatti did not release the primary documents that he used to draft his “executive summary,” but at least three companies confirmed to NPR independently that they had hired Cohen or the shell company he formed to make the payment to Daniels that he has acknowledged.

The claims in Avenatti’s document would undercut accounts that Trump, Cohen and attorney Rudy Giuliani have given about the payments made to Daniels.

The document — if substantiated — also describes a previously unknown relationship between Cohen and Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg and what may have amounted to an influence business in which Cohen essentially acted as a lobbyist based on his relationship with Trump.

An attorney for Cohen did not respond to a request for comment. The White House had made no comment on the Avenatti claims on Tuesday evening.

Avenatti grabbed headlines on Tuesday evening by claiming that Vekselberg may have reimbursed Cohen for the $130,000 payment he has acknowledged making to Avenatti’s client, Daniels.

Vekselberg, one of Russia’s richest men, reportedly has been stopped and questioned on his way into the United States by investigators working for Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, who are conducting an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race and any ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Daniels says Cohen paid her in 2016 just before Election Day for an agreement in which she would not talk about the sexual encounter she says she had with Trump a decade earlier. Daniels hired Avenatti to sue Cohen and Trump to escape that agreement.

Trump denies Daniels’ claims about a sexual encounter, but he acknowledged last week that he’d reimbursed Cohen for the $130,000 payment. Trump’s attorney, Giuliani, said on TV that Trump didn’t know at the time exactly what his retainer to Cohen was actually paying for, but Trump has since undercut Giuliani’s account without giving his own version of events.

Now, Avenatti’s “executive summary” asks whether a $500,000 payment allegedly from Vekselberg, described by Avenatti’s document as being routed through an American company he controls, might actually have been the way that Cohen was reimbursed for paying Daniels.

Avenatti said on CNN on Tuesday evening that he has a team of investigators working on discovery as part of Daniels’ lawsuit and that is how he uncovered the information about the payments to Cohen.

“We’re 100 percent confident … or we would not have released this,” he told cable news anchor Anderson Cooper.

The underlying documents — payment records, bank statements or other material — are not public so there was no way to independently verify the claim. Some of the companies in the Avenatti summary, however, did confirm their relationships with Cohen to NPR, substantiating at least those portions of Avenatti’s allegations.

Private equity firm Columbus Nova, which was alleged to be the conduit for the payment from Vekselberg, said it had hired Cohen but denied it had any relationship to Russian intrigue.

“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,” the company said.

Pharmaceutical giant Novartis said its relationship with Cohen had ended before its current chief executive officer had assumed his duties in November.

And telecommunications titan AT&T also acknowledged that it had hired the same shell company that Cohen used to pay Daniels, seeking lobbyist-like services about the Trump administration.

“Essential Consultants was one of several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration,” the company said. “They did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017.”

That relationship could be significant because in October of 2016, AT&T announced that it wanted to buy media conglomerate Time Warner. Time Warner is the parent company of frequent Trump target CNN and the Trump administration opposes the merger.

Unanswered questions

The financial relationships alleged in Avenatti’s “executive summary” may not be nefarious or illegal, but if all of them were substantiated it would add considerably to the public understanding about the business Cohen has been conducting since Trump’s election.

Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York have been pursuing a criminal investigation of Cohen for months, one they say focuses on his business dealings.

Cohen cited that case when he told another federal judge in California, in the lawsuit that Avenatti had brought there on behalf of Daniels, that he would invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege not to incriminate himself because of the ongoing criminal investigation in New York, and so that judge agreed to freeze that suit until this summer.

The material supporting Avenatti’s “executive summary,” if substantiated, could show a direct financial relationship between Cohen and a powerful Russian at a time when Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether the Trump campaign may have conspired with the Russian attack on the 2016 election. Cohen played an important role in that campaign but he has denied vigorously that there was any conspiracy.

Trump also denies there was any collusion between his campaign and Russia’s active measures effort against the 2016 presidential race. The president points to the report of the Republican majority on the House intelligence committee — that cleared Trump and his campaign of any wrongdoing — and says the ongoing Mueller and Senate intelligence committee investigations amount to a “witch hunt.”

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