Who Paid Michael Cohen?

May 12, 2018
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

More questions, and more questions, have been raised this week about the conduct and clients of Michael Cohen, President Trump's longtime personal lawyer and fixer. A memo released by an attorney for adult film actress Stormy Daniels alleges that Cohen was paid large sums of money by major corporations for consulting services - deals that the companies have since confirmed. NPR's justice reporter Ryan Lucas joins us. Ryan, thanks so much for being with us.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: My pleasure.

SIMON: What did we learn about payments from the memo released by Stormy Daniels' attorney this week?

LUCAS: Well, first off, we have to remember that Cohen set up a shell company called Essential Consultants in October of 2016, and he used it to pay Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about what she says was an affair with Trump.

Now Daniels' lawyer this week released the summary report that alleges that Cohen and his shell company received hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from several corporations, including telecom giant AT&T. The lawyer didn't provide any evidence to back up these claims, and Cohen's attorneys have disputed some of them. But the companies have come out and confirmed that they did, indeed, hire Cohen.

SIMON: And what do we know about the contract that AT&T had with Michael Cohen, and what other companies had?

LUCAS: Well, much of the attention is focused on four companies in total - AT&T, Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, Korea Aerospace Industries and a private equity firm called Columbus Nova.

Now Korea Aerospace says it hired Cohen for advice on accounting practices. Columbus Nova attracted a lot of attention because it has links to a Russian oligarch with ties to the Kremlin. It said it hired Cohen for consulting on potential real estate and other investments.

Novartis, for its part, said it hired Cohen for advice on the new administration and U.S. health care policy issues. It said that it was a one-year deal worth $1.2 million. The company says it had one meeting with Cohen, decided he couldn't deliver the anticipated services and didn't meet with him again.

And then we get to AT&T. Now it says Cohen approached them during the transition to offer his insights on the Trump administration. AT&T signed him to a one-year $600,000 contract for consulting on regulatory reform, antitrust enforcement and other issues.

SIMON: I mean, the fact is it's not unusual for companies to pay for access, or what they think is access, to the White House because Washington D.C. otherwise would have only about a thousand people and no four-star restaurants. So was there anything illegal about what Michael Cohen did?

LUCAS: No. It's not clear that there was, indeed, actually anything improper or illegal. This is, for better or worse, you know, as you said, how things in Washington often work. This may, in fact, be more a reflection of how some corporations were really desperate to find somebody who could give them insight into an administration that didn't have Republican establishment figures here.

But that's not to say that there hasn't been any fallout from this. So AT&T's chief executive Randall Stephenson said in an internal message to company employees on Friday that hiring Cohen was a big mistake, acknowledged that it's damaged AT&T's reputation. He also said that the company's top lobbyist, Bob Quinn, would be leaving. Novartis' CEO also said that its relationship with Cohen was a mistake, and also acknowledged that the company has come under criticism for its relationship with him as well.

SIMON: And finally, Ryan, how does this relate to Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia - into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, or does it?

LUCAS: So AT&T and Novartis both say that Mueller's team contacted them late last year about their respective agreements with Cohen. They say that they cooperated with Mueller's team and consider the matter closed. Columbus Nova, of course, has a link to a prominent Russian oligarch. He's been sanctioned by the U.S. government. But Columbus Nova says the oligarch had nothing to do with the hiring or paying of Cohen.

But remember, the FBI raided Cohen's hotel room, his office, his home last month. That's part of an ongoing investigation that they have into his business dealings. That's a separate investigation from Mueller's probe. But Cohen has known Trump for years. He worked as his lawyer. He worked as his fixer. That means he might have information that could be of interest to the special counsel. Cohen hasn't been charged at this point, but he is definitely under a lot of legal pressure.

SIMON: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thanks so much.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.