It adds up. Logically, who else would you call for advice on a multibillion-dollar merger that would reshape America’s telecom industry but noted super-lawyer Michael “Hush Money” Cohen?
It’d be like Wall Street multinationals rolling out a complex new financial instrument and dialing up, say, Hugh Hefner’s lawyer for input. If Hef suddenly found himself in charge of the executive branch of the federal government, that is.
The funniest thing about this is the provision written into Cohen’s contract that he was to do *no* lobbying for AT&T, no sirree. Advice? Sure. Access to major government players? Perhaps, perhaps. But lobbying — the one thing AT&T might understandably want from someone in direct contact with the president? Nope, definitely not that. I wonder why:
The internal AT&T documents show that Cohen was supposed to spend half of his time on “legislative policy development” and the other half on “regulatory policy development.” Payments to Cohen were approved by two executives in AT&T’s public affairs office in Washington.
The documents specified that Cohen, who was not a registered lobbyist, was to spend none of his time engaged in lobbying. They described his work as advising the company, not contacting federal officials.
Under federal rules, individuals must register as lobbyists if they spend 20 percent of their time working for a client on legislative and executive branch issues and if they have had contact with at least two government officials related to that client, according to Larry Noble, a former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission and an expert on lobbying law.
No contact (well, no official contact) with federal officials means Cohen didn’t need to register, which means this all operated under the radar. Per WaPo, “The $600,000 that flowed to Cohen from AT&T was the equivalent of 3.5 percent of the $16.8 million the company spent on lobbying in 2017, according to disclosure forms.” That’s a lot of definitely-not-lobbying money spent on Cohen! I wonder which other Trump 2016 alums did a little definitely-not-lobbying for AT&T on the Time-Warner deal?
Alas for the company, Cohen wasn’t a very effective definitely-not-lobbyist. Trump always disliked the idea of the acquisition, probably because of his vendetta against CNN, but the DOJ ended up disliking it too and filed an antitrust action. This makes twice that a company that shoveled money at Cohen didn’t get their money’s worth: Novartis also didn’t see much upside in dealing with him after their initial meeting, although they *did* keep paying him for a year.
The problem for corporate America, as various reports today have confirmed, is that they were blindsided by Trump’s win in 2016 and couldn’t tell at first which members of the inner circle were truly influential and which weren’t. Cohen, Trump’s “fixer,” was a logical person to gamble on if you didn’t know better. But you wouldn’t have wanted to bet exclusively on him; you’d want to diversify your access purchases by spreading the money around to other Trump cronies. Which is why the cash Cohen got is probably just the tip of the swampy iceberg here. From Politico:
“Everyone was hiring ‘Trump whisperers’ in 2017 — every single hanger-on in the Trump orbit made a fortune in 2017,” one Republican consultant said. “And not necessarily to influence them, just to try to figure out who are the right people to talk to.”
“The question was ‘Who is the real influence?’” the consultant said. “Is it Gary Cohn? Steve Bannon? Wilbur Ross? How do we get to Jared and Ivanka? Does anyone know Dina Powell? Does anyone listen to Steven Mnuchin? There’s no point talking to Reince Priebus, right? Every single client we had was trying to figure it out.”
Swamptastic. A friend of Cohen’s claimed, in WaPo’s words, that “so many potential clients approached the president’s lawyer after the election that he had to turn many down.” Cohen himself allegedly told an associate last summer “I’m crushing it,” which is pretty Michael Cohen even for Michael Cohen.
But here’s the wrinkle. As corporate America surely understands by now, *no one* really has any influence over Trump. He’s a loose cannon. He can’t be aimed. He’ll go along with Gary Cohn’s “globalist” policies for 14 months, then turn on a dime and declare steel and aluminum tariffs seemingly out of the blue. He’ll tell Democrats at a televised meeting that he’s open to all manner of gun-control restrictions and then go back to being a more or less doctrinaire Republican a few days later. He’s already on his second chief of staff in less than a year and a half and will probably soon be on his third. Throwing money at Cohen or Corey Lewandowski or whoever else to try to “influence” him is ultimately throwing it away. No one influences Trump. If you want to buy influence, you’d have to buy it from the president directly. Has anyone … dared to try, knowing the consequences if it was found out? Or is it all being done “above board,” like renting out three floors of the Trump Hotel in D.C. for a week when you have no intention of using any of the rooms?
Actually, now that I think of, “Fox & Friends” seems to have some meaningful influence over Trump. Has anyone tried cutting Steve Doocy or Ainsley Earhardt a check to sneak a little “telecom mergers are good!” chitchat into the morning banter?
One last note from WaPo: Buying and selling access may be legal, albeit extremely swampy, but promising specific government actions is dodgier legally. There’s no proof that Cohen did that, but if you’re wondering how this might transform from run-of-the-mill grifting by a political parasite into something the U.S. Attorney might take an interest in, that would be one way.