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Trump Attorney Cohen May Have Received Russian Payments, New Document Alleges

Michael Cohen, longtime personal lawyer for President Trump, leaves federal court after his hearing at the United States District Court in the Southern District of New York on April 16.
Yana Paskova
Getty Images
Michael Cohen, longtime personal lawyer for President Trump, leaves federal court after his hearing at the United States District Court in the Southern District of New York on April 16.

Updated at 10:27 p.m. ET

Donald Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, may have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from both corporate clients and potentially a Russian billionaire, according to new allegations from an attorney suing them.

Michael Avenatti, who represents adult film actress Stormy Daniels, described what he called Cohen's suspicious financial relationships in a document released on Tuesday evening.

Avenatti did not release the primary source materials that he used to draft his "executive summary," but at least three companies confirmed to NPR independently that they had hired Cohen or the shell company he formed to make the payment to Daniels that he has acknowledged.

The claims in Avenatti's document would, among other things, undercut accounts that Trump, Cohen and attorney Rudy Giuliani have given about the payments made to Daniels.

The document — if substantiated — describes a previously unknown relationship between Cohen and interests associated with Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. It also depicts what amounted to an influence business in which Cohen may have essentially acted as a lobbyist based on his relationship with Trump.

An attorney for Cohen did not respond to a request for comment. The White House had made no comment on the Avenatti claims on Tuesday evening.

The origins of the money

Avenatti grabbed headlines by saying that it may have been Vekselberg, not Trump, who reimbursed Cohen for a $130,000 payment to Daniels.

Vekselberg, one of Russia's richest men, reportedly has been stopped and questioned on his way into the United States by investigators working for Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, who are conducting an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race and any ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Daniels says Cohen paid her in 2016 just before Election Day for an agreement in which she would not talk about the sexual encounter she says she had with Trump a decade earlier. Daniels hired Avenatti to sue Cohen and Trump to escape that agreement.

Trump denies Daniels' claims about a sexual encounter, but he acknowledged last week that he had reimbursed Cohen for a $130,000 payment to Daniels. Trump's attorney, Giuliani, said on TV that Trump didn't know at the time exactly what his retainer to Cohen was actually paying for, but Trump has since undercut Giuliani's account without giving his own version of events.

Now, Avenatti's "executive summary" asks whether a $500,000 payment allegedly from Vekselberg, described by Avenatti's document as being routed through an American company he controls, might actually have been the way that Cohen was reimbursed for paying Daniels.

Avenatti said on CNN on Tuesday evening that he has a team of investigators working on discovery as part of Daniels' lawsuit and that is how he uncovered the information about the payments to Cohen.

"We're 100 percent confident ... or we would not have released this," he told cable news anchor Anderson Cooper.

The underlying documents — payment records, bank statements or other material — are not public so there was no way to independently verify the allegation. Some news organizations reported on Tuesday they had reviewed the source materials.

Three companies in the Avenatti summary confirmed their relationships with Cohen to NPR, substantiating at least those portions of Avenatti's allegations.

  • Private equity firm Columbus Nova, which was alleged to be the conduit for the payment from Vekselberg, said it had hired Cohen but denied it had any relationship to Russian intrigue. "Neither Viktor Vekselberg nor anyone else other than Columbus Nova's owners were involved in the decision to hire Cohen or provided funding for his engagement," the company said.
  • Pharmaceutical giant Novartis said its relationship with Cohen had ended before its current chief executive officer had assumed his duties in November.
  • And telecommunications titan AT&T also acknowledged that it had hired the same shell company that Cohen used to pay Daniels, seeking lobbyist-like services about the Trump administration. "Essential Consultants was one of several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration," the company said. "They did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017."
  • That relationship between Cohen's company and AT&T could be significant because in October 2016, AT&T announced that it wanted to buy media conglomerate Time Warner. Time Warner is the parent company of frequent Trump target CNN, and the Trump administration opposes the merger.

    Unanswered questions

    The financial relationships alleged in Avenatti's "executive summary" may not be nefarious or illegal, but if all of them were substantiated it would add considerably to the public understanding about the business Cohen has been conducting since Trump's election.

    Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York have been pursuing a criminal investigation of Cohen for months, one they say focuses on his business dealings. But Cohen is battling with prosecutors over evidence in that case and the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office has not yet charged Cohen with a crime.

    Cohen cited his criminal case when he told another federal judge in California, in the lawsuit that Avenatti has brought there on behalf of Daniels, that he would invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege not to incriminate himself because of the ongoing criminal investigation in New York, and so that judge agreed to freeze that suit until this summer.

    The material supporting Avenatti's "executive summary," if substantiated, could show a direct financial relationship between Cohen and a powerful Russian at a time when Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether the Trump campaign may have conspired with the Russian attack on the 2016 election.

    Cohen played an important role in that campaign but has denied vigorously that there was any conspiracy with Russians.

    Trump also denies there was any collusion between his campaign and Russia's active measures against the 2016 presidential race. The president points to the report of the Republican majority on the House intelligence committee — that cleared Trump and his campaign of any wrongdoing — and says the ongoing Mueller and Senate intelligence committee investigations amount to a "witch hunt."

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.
    Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
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