There’s a very interesting article published this morning about Michael Cohen in Buzzfeed. Like many articles on Cohen, Trump, Russia and related matters, it’s a bit of a jigsaw piece. There’s a lot of information the full import of which is hard to make sense of without knowing a lot of other information about broader story.
Let’s review a few points.
Michael Cohen seems a lot like another Trump loudmouth lawyer. But he’s actually quite a bit more. Cohen first came to Trump’s attention and interest because of his access to capital from Ukraine and Russia and as well as from emigres from those countries. That brought Cohen – who you might have thought hadn’t the slightest connection to or even a clue about the countries of the former Soviet Union – into the Trump Organization. Cohen is also a very, very wealthy man in his own right. He has extensive real estate holdings in the New York City area – not just apartment units but entire buildings. He is also a major player in the New York City taxi business and appears to have made his first money there. Again, his business partners are emigres from Russia and Ukraine. Without saying specifically what business role Cohen has had in these area of commerce, they are ‘industries’ that are notorious for bringing money from unstable or kleptocratic parts of the world to places where it can be safely stowed.
Cohen also has family from Ukraine and his own business interests there. Cohen is married to a Ukrainian immigrant and his brother Bryan is too. They set up an ethanol business in Ukraine with family about a decade ago – just before Cohen entered the Trump Organization.
Cohen was also the intermediary who met with mafia-linked Trump business partner, Felix Sater and a Ukraine parliamentarian, Andrii Artemenko at the Loews Regency hotel in Manhattan in the first days of the Trump presidency. They were there to discuss Ukraine. Artemenko gave Cohen a sealed packet of documents to hand deliver to Michael Flynn, then still Trump’s National Security Advisor. Cohen did so, though he later claimed that he didn’t.
The dossier purportedly contained a ‘peace plan’ and documents detailing bad acts by the current leadership of the government of Ukraine. (We still do not know what was in that dossier or what became of it, though there is now ample evidence that at just this time members of the Trump entourage were trying to establish secure channels of communication to Russia.) After the meeting was first reported in The New York Times, Artemenko told Ukrainian press that he’d been discussing Ukraine with Cohen since early 2016 or possibly as early as late 2015 and indeed had known Cohen for years since back when Cohen and his family set up the ethanol business in Ukraine (roughly a decade ago).
This is more or less the story as we currently knew it in advance of this new article. Here are some of the new details.
It turns out that back in 2006, Michael Cohen and brother Bryan Cohen were chosen by Bryan Cohen’s father-in-law, Alex Oronov, to seek American investors for an ethanol business that Oronov co-owned with Viktor Topolov, a politician and mid-level Ukraine oligarch with extensive ties to the Ukraine and Russian criminal underworlds. Topolov also seems to have had a one or two steps removed relationship with Russian underworld kingpin Semion Mogilevich, one of the most wanted men in the world. Buzzfeed refers to Oronov as Topolov’s “long-time business partner.” It’s not clear to me if this ethanol business is the same as the one Cohen reportedly set up with family in Ukraine at around the same time (that effort has some footprint in US corporate filings) or not. My best guess is that they are both part of the same larger effort. But I’m not certain about the precise relation. The Cohen brothers brought in Morgan Stanley and others for the pitch. But none of the Americans were interested and the enterprise seems to have been funded from sources inside Ukraine.
Who is Alex Oronov? Again, he’s Bryan Cohen’s father-in-law. He is also the one who reportedly arranged the Cohen, Sater, Artemenko meeting in early February of this year. Oronov died in March, after a long illness, according to Bryan Cohen.
That’s not the only connection. Buzzfeed also reports that Artemenko is a “close associate” of Topolov. Artemenko replaced Topolov as the head of a Ukraine football team, CSKA Kiev, in 1999. Topolov and Artemenko were allegedly both involved in using the football team to launder money. Artemenko spent two years in custody tied to that scheme, although all charges were eventually dismissed because of political pressure.
The Cohen brothers trying to bring in American investors makes sense. From my own reporting, I know that around this time Michael Cohen and/or Bryan Cohen show up as the registrants of various corporate entities in the US: International Ethanol of Ukraine Ltd., Ukrainian Capital Growth Fund, Ukrainian Partners, UKRethanol, et al.
Remember, Artemenko says that he’d been talking to Michael Cohen about a peace plan for Ukraine since early 2016. Specifically, he said he’d been discussing his plans for peace in Ukraine with Cohen and Sater since “the time of the primaries, when no one believed that Trump would even be nominated.” Ukraine of course is at the center of what had been the current deep freeze in relations between Moscow and Washington and they are root of the sanctions regime Russia is now keen to get lifted. Artemenko says he’d known Cohen and Oronov for since Cohen was in Ukraine circa 2006 setting up the family ethanol business. Until now, as far as I know, we’ve never had any way of knowing whether that was true or even plausible. Given the relationships connecting Topolov, Artemenko, Oronov and Cohen, his claim now seems very plausible. That being accurate lends more credence to his claim to have opened a Ukraine peace channel with Sater and Cohen back into early 2016 or perhaps as far back as late 2015 – when “the time of the primaries” means is not entirely clear.
Needless to say there are a lot of bits of information stitched together here. But the essentials are pretty firm. A Ukrainian with reputed ties to organized crime who claims, with some evidence to have known Cohen and his brother’s father-in-law for a decade, says he started a discussion about bringing peace to Ukrainian and ending sanctions with Cohen and Trump business associate Sater early in the presidential campaign. We know that Cohen and Artemenko were closely connected and quite likely worked on the same business projects. Sater is another emigre from Russia convicted for crimes tied to the criminal underworld and with a father who is reputedly part of the Mogilevich crime organization. He also played a key role in Trump building projects which relied on funding from the countries of the former Soviet Union, the best example is Trump Soho.
As regular readers know, I’ve always thought this meeting was a big deal – a bigger deal than most people seem to think, even though it got a lot of attention back in February. We keep getting more information confirming what makes it seem like a big deal. As I wrote a few days ago, the meeting takes on a new significance knowing as we now do that the Trump inner circle was trying to find secure modes of communication with people in Russia at this time. Few things are as secure as hand delivered packets of paper documents. From the Buzzfeed article we now have more information confirming Artemenko’s perhaps injudicious comments about a longterm relationship with Cohen. If we were are looking for channels between the Trump Organization and people in the former Soviet Union in which a collusion may have occurred, it’s not Putin having a secret meeting with Trump at a safe house in New Jersey. It’s far more likely in settings like this. We have dossiers of physical documents, apparently a longterm discussion of the core issue on which the Kremlin wants relief from the US, what has been in the past – through Cohen and Sater – a channel of money from the countries of the former Soviet Union to Donald Trump and the Trump Organization. It seems hard to imagine that the FBI’s/Special Counsel’s Russia probe is not looking at this or, if they’re not now, soon will be.