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Michael Cohen: Trump’s Fixer or Trump’s Pimp?

May 12, 2018

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Ever since Stormy Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, released a document detailing more than $4 million in corporate payments to the shell company “Essential Consultants LLC” (reportedly set up to pay hush money to Ms Daniels), a narrative has been taking shape which places most, if not all, of the blame on Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer and “fixer”.

The narrative goes something like this: Cohen hyped his close (if receding) relationship with Trump to peddle access to the Trump White House to companies scrambling to get influence over a president they never expected to win, but then Cohen couldn’t actually deliver. Put another way, Cohen was pimping out Trump to rich johns, but he couldn’t produce the bitch for the party.  The companies paid anyway because (a) they didn’t want to risk pissing off Trump, and (b) besides it wasn’t really that much money to them.

This explanation is convenient to Trump and his enablers because it casts Cohen as acting on his own out of personal greed and arguably puts some distance between the White House and a blatant pay-for-play scheme. It also lets the companies that paid the money off by making them look like naïve marks who got played by the venal schemer Cohen–kind of embarrassing but goodness gracious certain nothing illegal here!

Well, not so fast. There are all sorts of elements that don’t fit neatly into that narrative.

For starters, what happened to all the money that poured into Essential Consultants? We now know something about where monies paid to Cohen came from (though perhaps not all of it–there may well have been other payments by other entities that didn’t get caught in Avenatti’s net). But we know nothing about where the money went. Did some or most of it go to Trump? If so, how much? If he did benefit from such payments, isn’t that prima facie evidence of corruption?

Trump’s new loose-lips mouthpiece, Rudy Giuliani, has said that money was “funneled” through Cohen’s shell company to pay off Stormy Daniels and that Cohen was reimbursed by Trump for that payment–all perfectly normal for rich people and their lawyers to get rid of people with false claims about embarrassing behavior. But if money was “funneled” in one direction, what’s to keep it from being “funneled” in the reverse direction, i.e., into the Trump Organization, which remains an opaque black box to the American public. After all, AT&T, Novartis, etc. were paying money into Essential Consultants, not being paid off.

Then there’s the murky status of Cohen’s relationship with Trump. Is he still Trump’s personal attorney, as he was reportedly presenting himself to be as late as last month? Trump himself referred to Cohen as “my attorney” aboard Air Force One on April 5 when he denied knowing anything about the hush money payment. On May 11, Giuliani told Politico that “as far as we know” Cohen is no longer playing an active role in representing Trump. Rudy added that Trump’s legal team has “never really determined” a precise day when Cohen stepped away. Huh? They seriously don’t know?

That’s important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that, according to the New York Times, Cohen entered into a rather nebulous “strategic alliance” in March 2017 with the prominent DC law firm of Squire Patton Boggs (SPB), a major K Street lobbying firm–something that, strangely, has been little remarked upon by major news sources. According to the National Law Journal, Cohen was to be paid $500,000 plus bonuses by SPB, which terminated the relationship after the FBI raid on Cohen’s office, home, and hotel in April. Before that, however, Cohen reportedly referred five “client opportunities” to SPB, including the US Immigration Fund LLC, which according to the Wall Street Journal, supplied Chinese investors to companies run by the family of Trump son-in-law and alleged White House advisor Jared Kushner. That fund is now reported to be among SPB’s top ten lobbying clients this year, and earned SPB $220,000 in 2017.

Now, given the…uh…flexibility of lobbying regulations, perhaps none of this is technically illegal. But at a minimum, it is unseemly for the president’s personal lawyer to be accepting payments from corporate clients who are seeking favorable treatment from that president’s administration, even if those payments actually did remain in Cohen’s pocket and weren’t somehow delivered to the Trump Organization. Moreover, lobbyists are supposed to be registered as such, which apparently Cohen was not. It looks as if Cohen’s arrangement with SPB was carefully crafted to keep him in a gray area, and as we all know, white collar miscreants in gray areas almost never get prosecuted, let alone go to jail. But even SPB seemed a little squeamish about the deal, because according to the NYT, Cohen operated largely independently during his association with SPB, which did not have a key to Cohen’s office (and which was kept locked at all times), and he “used his own computer server which was separate from that of the firm.” Still, it all smells pretty bad.

Then there’s the $500,000 payment to Essential Consultants from Columbus Nova, a wealth management company associated with Viktor Vekselberg, the multibillionaire Russian oligarch and pal of Vladimir Putin. Once the news broke about the payment, the company lawyer (not Cohen) stated: “Columbus Nova is a management company solely owned and controlled by Americans. . . . 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.” However, as The New Yorker pointed out, Columbus Nova is a “family office”, that is a company “technically owned by others but which looks after money owned and controlled in large part—if not entirely—by Vekselberg and his family. (Columbus Nova’s president, Andrew Intrater, is Vekselberg’s cousin.) It’s the kind of clever corporate structure that allows a lawyer, at a crisis moment such as this, to say truthfully that the company is not owned and controlled by the man who owns and controls everything of value within the firm.”

So why did Vekselberg’s “family office” give Cohen a half million dollars? The official explanation the company provided (that it wanted Cohen’s advice on “potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures”) is ludicrous on its face. What companies like AT&T, Novartis, and Korean Aerospace were after seems fairly obvious, but what was the quid for Vekselberg’s quo? Could it have been a payoff? Or maybe just a “donation” for favors to be collected at some future time–you know, an investment in “other ventures”?

Perhaps the larger and more important question is what this all says about the culture of institutionalized corruption that our corporatocracy has engendered.  The 2016 Supreme Court decision in McDonnell v United States, which overturned the conviction of Virginia governor Bob McDonnell and his wife for bribery, has made it much more difficult to prosecute corruption cases unless there is a specific “ask” for which there is an explicit payoff. The ruling read, in part:

“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that. But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute…A more limited interpretation of the term ‘official act’ leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption, while comporting with the text of the statute and the precedent of this Court…Setting up a meeting, calling another public official, or hosting an event does not, standing alone, qualify as an ‘official act.”

That ruling–like the Citizens United ruling–suggests a disturbing naiveté on the part of the Supreme Court about how things actually work in the real world. Setting up meetings, calling other officials, and hosting events is exactly how the green light is given to favor the interests of a company or wealthy individual who has just given money or luxury items to an official in a position to make things happen.

We now have an administration that has gleefully and shamelessly turned government into a mechanism for private enrichment, and there has not been a single instance of serious accountability for any of it. And that’s on top of a pre-existing culture where lobbyists actually draft legislation to favor their own interests and where politicians of all parties are heavily dependent on–and influenced by–unlimited donations from corporations, associations, and wealthy individuals. All of that has become normal and acceptable.

The Mueller team is clearly aware of the payments to Cohen’s shell company and undoubtedly a lot more than that. So maybe something will come of all of this. But I’m not holding my breath.

 

 

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