Every political scandal ultimately turns into a money scandal. The article of impeachment brought against President Richard Nixon included charges that he’d been party to the payment of “substantial” amounts of money to silence or influence potential Watergate witnesses. The Iran-Contra affair sluiced money from illegal arms sales to Iran to finance the Nicaraguan contras. Spiro Agnew resigned from the vice presidency while being investigated for bribery, tax fraud, and extortion.
This week, the Russia scandal vectored in that direction as Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s financial records ripped a pants seam and news of the ill-gotten cash he had deposited in his shell company, Essential Consultants LLC, gushed out. We learned that AT&T gave Cohen $600,000 for his “insights,” that Novartis dropped $1.2 million on him for political advice on “health care policy matters,” and Korea Aerospace Industries chipped in $150,000 for “legal consulting.” The most audacious money drop came from Columbus Nova—a U.S. company reportedly controlled by a Russian company controlled by oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, who was recently sanctioned by the U.S. government. Columbus Nova blew $500,000 on the besieged attorney, calling the payment a “consulting fee.” On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Cohen pitched his consulting services to Ford, but they shut him down. On CNN, former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti guessed that investigators would want to determine whether he had lied about what he could deliver. “If you lie to somebody to get their money, that’s fraud,” Mariotti said.
In an interview with HuffPost, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani asserted that the president had no idea Cohen was raking in influence bucks. “The president had no knowledge of it,” Guiliani said.
Money always leaves a trail. Dirty money leaves a trail of slime that taints everybody it touches. One unanswered question this week is whether all the consultative moolah coursing through Cohen’s LLC and moving through his “shadowy business empire” of real estate, New York City and Chicago taxi medallion holdings, and assorted investment is on the up and up. If proved dirty, will they contaminate his boss, Trump, who traditionally loves using other people’s money? And, if Cohen has committed the money crimes that some suspect of him, will special counsel Robert S. Mueller III convince him to flip on his one-time boss and testify against him? Mueller has already demonstrated his interest in the slosh of Cohen cash and deal-making on behalf of the Trump Organization to Georgia, Kazakhstan and Russia.
Mueller obviously has or will scrutinize the way Cohen used Essential Consultants LLC money to mute a potential series of women carnally linked to the president. Besides adult film actress Stormy Daniels, the LLC paid off an ex-Playboy model who was allegedly impregnated by Republican campaign moneyman Elliott Broidy. She got $1.6 million to go away and be quiet. Cohen earned $250,000 for his labors in arranging her silence. The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson Sorkin speculated this week that the corporate money flowing into Cohen’s Essential Consultant piggybank might have served as a slush fund used repeatedly to buy-off Trump’s paramours. Rudy Giuliani seemed to tacitly endorse this theory when he told the Washington Post “there probably were other things of a personal nature that Michael [Cohen] took care of.” Out-speculating Sorkin was New York magazine’s Paul Campos who drew an elaborate alternative universe portrait of the $1.6 million payout to the ex-Playboy model. What if it was Trump and not Broidy who had the affair with the model? And what if it was his baby, not Broidy’s that she allegedly aborted, and Broidy took the public fall for him? Make sure you’re sitting down when you ingest this theory.
Cohen’s legal nightmare, which commenced last month when the FBI raided his homes and office after a referral from Mueller’s operation, was intensified by the agit-prop freestyling of his legal nemesis—Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti. This week, Avenatti’s release of the documentsthat detailed the flow of corporate money to Cohen’s Essential Consultants launched searches by a hundred investigative reporters eager to determine how much of this interesting money flowed into Trump entities and exactly what sort of influence it purchased. Avenatti, who has brutalized Cohen in scores of news channel appearances, appeared on CNN Thursday to promise more dirt on Cohen. “We haven’t even scratched the surface with this email today and the information that we released earlier in the week,” Avenatti said. “We’ve got emails, we’ve got text messages, we’ve got other financial information, and people better be very careful in the representations that they make.”
Judd Legum of ThinkProgress says this isn’t an empty threat. He surmisesthat the emails that Avenatti has been sharing with the press that document Cohen’s correspondence with attorney Keith Davidson, Daniels’ previous attorney, fell into Avenatti’s possession when Avenatti took over the actress’ case. “If the client decides to seek new representation, the information in the case file is generally deemed to belong to the client, and it’s then forwarded to the new attorney,” Legum writes. Legum assumes that additional materials seized in the Cohen raids will be claimed by Avenatti, U.S. District Court Judge Kimba Wood permitting.
But back to the money. ABC News reported this week that the Mueller probe has gone after the millions of dollars donated to Trump’s inauguration committee last year. Donors with connections to Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have fallen under his scrutiny. Trump friend Thomas Barrack amassed $107 million for the event. Andrew Intrater, the CEO of Columbus Nova, who is cousin to oligarch Vekselberg, gave $250,000 to the inauguration committee. He made additional donations to the Trump Victory fund and the Republican National Committee. Because he’s a U.S. citizen, these transactions were legal. Both Intrater and Vekselberg attended the Trump inauguration (Intrater supplied the tickets). Vekselberg was one of two Russian oligarchs who were stopped and questioned at New York-area airports earlier this year as part of Mueller’s probe, CNN reported. Intrater has also been grilled. Vekselberg, who insists on being the Zelig of this story, was also a guest at the 2015 dinner celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Russian propaganda network RT, also attended by Trump’s future (and short-term) national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
The star of the week’s proceedings was Avenatti, who, as the Daily Beastput it, “has vexed the president’s own legal team, getting them to haphazardly admit that Trump knew about hush money payments” and “has exposed a secretive network of finances that allowed Cohen to both pay off Daniels (and, potentially, other women) as well as recruit business for a shadow-lobbying operation during the Trump administration.”Our easily offended president hasn’t tweeted at Avenatti and the usual Trump surrogates have remained uncharacteristically still in the face of his provocations. This timidity demands an explanation. Perhaps Trump knows that Avenatti knows what’s hidden at the bottom of all that suspicious money and fears riling him.