“It was almost as if we were hiring him as a lobbyist,” said a Novartis employee to Stat about their curious deal with Michael Cohen in 2017. According to the staffer, Cohen approached the company’s CEO after the election promising access not just to Trump but to other influential administration officials. Novartis signed a deal with him, met with him once, found him to be not worth the trouble — but kept on forking over cash, as their contract required, supposedly because they feared the commander-in-chief might hold a grudge if they didn’t.
The obvious question is whether Novartis was the only company Cohen approached or if there were others. The obvious answer, per CNN: Yeah, of course there were others.
Cohen quickly got to work. According to multiple people familiar with Cohen’s conduct following the election, he aggressively pitched himself to potential clients, reminding them of his proximity to the most powerful man in the world. Those efforts landed Cohen lucrative consulting deals. New reporting this week revealed that in the months following the 2016 election, Cohen received hundreds of thousands of dollars from powerful entities based in and outside of the United States.
“I don’t know who’s been representing you, but you should fire them all. I’m the guy you should hire. I’m closest to the President. I’m his personal lawyer,” was how one GOP strategist described Cohen’s sales pitch.
“Everybody knew” about Cohen’s consulting work, said a former Trump campaign official to CNN — but it wasn’t just Cohen. On the contrary, he claimed, “It was widespread practice among high-ranking Trump associates who did not go into the administration to provide consulting services.” Case in point:
One person with ties to the campaign described being approached by a top tier tech company after the election with an offer: They would pay this person $50,000 a month to make introductions to members of Trump’s team. No lobbying necessary.
Another individual with deep ties to the Washington lobbying world put it this way: “Everyone said Trump won’t win. Everyone had all of these Hillary (Clinton) consultants lined up and realized when Trump won, they had nobody.“
That may end up being Cohen’s main defense if and when he drops the charade that these payments were for “consulting” or, gulp, “accounting advice.” The reason he was cold-calling corporate America and rattling his cup isn’t because he was some especially avaricious grifter, it was because corporate America had already effectively bribed or was preparing to bribe Hillary’s cronies for the same sort of access to her that Cohen was promising to Trump. They were caught off-guard when Trump won and needed to scramble to figure out who the right people to bribe on his own team were. I’m no worse than any two-bit Democratic “consultant” parasite, Cohen might say, and he’d be right. And even though this sort of trough-feeding is the polar opposite of Trump’s populist “drain the swamp” shtick, most Republicans will defend him on that partisan ground. Just as concerns about Trump’s fitness for office were eclipsed during the campaign by the point that President Hillary would be worse, Cohen’s ethics will be eclipsed by the same logic. Who would you rather see get rich from influence peddling, Trump’s hangers-on or ClintonWorld’s hangers-on?
Speaking of which, another interesting quote from CNN’s campaign source about what’s required to “consult,” i.e. receive bribes: “You don’t need access to (Trump). All you need is the perception of access to (Trump).” I wonder how much dough a company like Novartis spread among various Trump confidants outside the White House just to make sure its bases were covered. To some extent, because they were flying blind as to who had real influence with the president, it would have made sense to bet on all of them — not just Cohen but, say, someone like Corey Lewandowski, whom you may remember briefly opened his own “consulting” shop literally within a block of the White House. (Corey’s now being lined up to become White House chief of staff, God help us.) Even if you didn’t think Cohen would get you much with Trump, you might decide to pay him anyway just to make sure that he didn’t prove to be an *obstacle* in your efforts to influence the president. Cohen might not be able to drum up business for Novartis in his chitchat with POTUS but conceivably he could have steered Trump away from the company by badmouthing it to him. See why Novartis ultimately decided to fulfill its contract with Cohen even after supposedly losing interest in his services after one meeting? Those “consulting without any consulting” payments were purchasing his continued goodwill, if nothing else.
All this is, functionally, is bribery dressed up as “work.” It’s the swamp distilled to its essence. But it may not be illegal, at least so long as none of the major players are foreigners. CNN notes that if what Cohen did amounted to lobbying for a foreign entity without registering, that would be a problem legally. (Although even that rule wasn’t enforced until Robert Mueller came along and used it against Paul Manafort and Mike Flynn.) It would also be a big, big problem legally, needless to say, if Trump himself received any money. The “consulting” racket is premised on the idea that it’s fine to bribe an officeholder’s private-sector chums for access but not the officeholder himself. There’s no evidence that POTUS saw any of this money. But if it’s true, per CNN’s source, that “everybody knew” Trump 2016 alumni like Cohen were making bank off their connections, presumably Trump knew too. Did he try to stop to it, reasoning that it was completely antithetical to the stated purpose of his campaign? Or is “drain the swamp” really just code for “take over the swamp”?
Exit question: Forget Cohen. How much trouble is Michael Avenatti in? There are nagging ethical questions about how he obtained and disclosed the details of the transactions into Cohen’s account, as “Caroline Court” notes at the Federalist:
It was reported today by The Washington Post that the U.S. Treasury inspector has launched an investigation as to whether suspicious activity reports of Cohen’s banking transactions were “improperly disseminated.” While it may not be a crime to receive such information, shouldn’t lawyers hold themselves to a higher standard and not further disseminate what they know is illegally disclosed information?
I am a staunch advocate for my clients, but I am pretty sure I would not cross this line. My moral compass probably wouldn’t permit it. I also can’t think of a single attorney who would use illegally disclosed information in the manner in which Avenatti seems to be. I guess I am lucky to be surrounded by some of the best lawyers, who act professionally and wouldn’t pull such punches.
Avenatti recently said the source of the information in his executive summary is “nobody’s business.” Sorry, I don’t think that’s going to fly with the Treasury Department, Michael.
Cohen’s lawyers sent a letter to Judge Kimba Wood this afternoon flagging the fact that Avenatti is in possession of bank records which, as far as anyone can tell, could only have been given to him illegally by someone not authorized to disclose them.