A consulting firm owned by Michael Cohen, an attorney for President Donald Trump, reportedly received payments totaling about $500,000 from the U.S. affiliate of a Russian billionaire’s company.
The payments were first reported by porn actress Stormy Daniels’ attorney Michael Avenatti, who said Tuesday that his legal firm had uncovered the transactions. The New York Times later reported on the payments based on interviews and an internal review of financial records. The Daily Beast also said it could confirm Avenatti’s claims, citing an anonymous source.
CNN later reported that special counsel Robert Mueller questioned Viktor Vekselberg, the Russian reportedly behind the payments, about the sums his company’s U.S. affiliate paid to Cohen. As the Times reported last week, Mueller spoke to Vekselberg as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
In a tweet, Avenatti said that money from Columbus Nova, the Vekselberg-tied firm, “may have reimbursed” a $130,000 payment Cohen made to Daniels as hush money to keep her from discussing her alleged 2006 affair with Trump.
According to a seven-page summary of Avenatti’s firm’s claims, the payments were sent “within approximately 75 days” of the payment to Daniels (aka Stephanie Clifford). Avenatti’s documents did not provide any sources as to how he obtained that information, but he told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell on Tuesday night that he had obtained the information after working “diligently for many, many months.”
“We have a lot of tools in our toolbox that we use in connection with our cases,” Avenatti said.
The attorney challenged Cohen to release bank statements related to the payments and accused Cohen’s attorneys of trying to “hide information from the American people.”
“This thing is a pig. They can try to put lipstick on a pig ― tonight, next week, next month ― but it’s still going to be a pig,” Avenatti said. “If there’s nothing to hide here and it’s all aboveboard and it’s all legit, then the documents will prove that out. People lie, documents don’t. Period.”
Avenatti also asked where money that went into Cohen’s consulting firm went, saying in his appearance on MSNBC that he was unsure it would have gone solely to Cohen. He did not specify who else might have been paid.
“We believe that that is really the issue at this point, it’s where did the money go,” he said. “The American people are really smart. This thing stinks.”
Columbus Nova on Tuesday confirmed to The Guardian that it hired Cohen “as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate,” but denied that Vekselberg had anything to do with payments made to the lawyer’s company.
Avenatti’s report also said that Cohen’s company Essential Consulting received payments from AT&T, Novartis and Korea Aerospace Industries LTD in 2017 and 2018. In a statement to HuffPost, AT&T confirmed that it made four payments totaling roughly $200,000 to Essential.
“Essential Consulting was one of several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration. They did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017,” AT&T said in a statement.
Novartis confirmed in a Wednesday statement to CNBC that it made payments to Essential Consulting in accordance with a one-year contract that began in February 2017. The company paid out a total of $1.2 million, it said, not $400,000 as Avenatti reported.
The spending was also for nought: Novartis said that a March 2017 meeting with Cohen revealed he and Essential Consulting “would be unable to provide the services Novartis had anticipated related to US healthcare policy matter and the decision was taken not to engage further.”
An attorney for Cohen, Steve Ryan, told Atlantic reporter Natasha Bertrand that he wouldn’t discuss Avenatti’s claims.
Cohen acknowledged in February that he paid Daniels the $130,000 sum in October 2016, but said Trump had no knowledge of it. Yet Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who recently joined the White House legal team, countered that claim in a Fox News interview earlier this month when he said Trump repaid Cohen.
Giuliani sparked more confusion over what he knows in subsequent interviews, saying he is “not an expert on the facts.”
Trump has continued to deny knowledge of the payment and has said the affair never happened.
Vekselberg, an energy and financial tycoon, is reportedly close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was among the 38 Russian oligarchs, government officials and businesses targeted with a new round of sanctions by the Trump administration in early April.
This article has been updated with statements from Michael Avenatti on Tuesday night and further details about Novartis’ spending.
Nick Visser contributed to this report.