Tonight we have what I’d say may be the most staggering revelations since the tangle of “Trump/Russia” investigations began almost two years ago. This is not hyperbole.
Late this afternoon Stormy Daniels’ attorney Michael Avenatti posted what he called a “Preliminary Report” on financial transactions of Michael Cohen. The claims were staggering. But this wasn’t a legal filing in which the attorneys in question need to vouch for their accuracy. For all the fancy language it was simply a press release, with no clear explanation of the basis for the various claims. (It’s an example of how TPM is in many ways a much more conservative operation than many mainstream media publications. Bloomberg for instance published basically all the claims even though they were clear that it could not independently verify them. To be clear, this is not necessarily a criticism. These are fact sets for which there is little obvious precedent.) In any case, the key claims are now being confirmed – in most cases to the letter.
The most important ones are that a Russian oligarch paid more than $500,000 into the shell company that Cohen earlier used to make his payment to Stormy Daniels. The money is nominally from the US affiliate of Viktor Vekselberg’s holding company. But this is a direct connection. AT&T made payments totaling $200,000. Novartis, the drug manufacturer, chipped in almost $400,000. In what still must be considered preliminary reporting, The New York Times now says that transactions totaling at least $4.4 million flowed into “Essential Consultants LLC”, the shell company Cohen used as the vehicle to pay Stormy Daniels and then later used to arrange another hush agreement at least nominally for billionaire Elliott Broidy, a then-RNC deputy finance chair who is tied up in the Trump/Russia probe through fixer George Nader. The payments all end in January 2018. That’s when the name “Essential Consultants LLC” was first published by The Wall Street Journal as part of the Stormy Daniels’ story.
In other words, just through this single shell company Cohen was receiving major payments from a Russian oligarch and additional moneys from various Fortune 500 companies looking for access to President Trump. On the US corporate side these are classic off-the-books pay-for-play payments to what appears to have been a slush fund. If you’ve spent any time covering political scandals you can’t look even at these initial details and not think this is the kind of story that sends a bunch of people to prison.
I said above that we didn’t have confirmation of the claims in Avenatti’s document. But over the last three or four hours Columbus Nova (the Vekselberg company), AT&T and Novartis have each confirmed the payments as described. So there’s no question that they happened. And these are only some of the pay-offs. They’ve also confirmed the dollar amounts. So while we still don’t know where or how Avenatti got this information he must have had access to one of Cohen’s ledgers, a bank statement or perhaps an investigative document. The details are simply too specific.
The US corporate payments appear to be just garden variety corruption. In theory, maybe Cohen had an actual consulting firm filing all the requisite forms to do above board lobbying and we didn’t know about it. But I really, really doubt that. These payoffs won’t stand legal scrutiny. But the big revelation is Vekselberg’s money. Remember, we heard recently that he was the one who Mueller’s investigators stopped and questioned when he transited through a US airport. This is money, more or less directly from a top Russian oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin, putting money directly into a shell company controlled by Donald Trump’s bag man and fixer. The collusion is real and high level. We’re finding the money trail.