May 9, 2018
Novartis, AT&T Payments to Trump Personal Attorney Are Nefarious at Best
Statement of Robert Weissman, President, Public Citizen
Note: News broke Tuesday that Essential Consultants, a firm formed by President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen, received $500,000 from an investment fund tied to a Russian oligarch. Now, reports show that AT&T and Novartis also paid money to the firm.
What in the world were Novartis and AT&T doing paying hundreds of thousands into a Michael Cohen-controlled shell company?
Everything about these deals looks shady. The most forgiving explanations seem nefarious. Other possible explanations suggest illegal activity may have occurred. These payments hearken back to the illegal ITT payments made to the Republican Party to obtain Richard Nixon’s intervention in an antitrust review case.
What we know is mind-blowing, but the public needs to know much more before we can understand what the heck was going on.
Today, we are calling on Novartis and AT&T to disclose the full, written agreements they maintained with Michael Cohen’s Essential Consulting, LLC, and to provide a full account of what services, exactly, they hoped to obtain from his operation and what services were in fact provided. We also are asking relevant congressional committees to investigate the matter and to subpoena and make public those agreements if the companies are unwilling to do so.
AT&T insists the payments were not for lobbying but to “provide insights into the new administration.” Novartis says only that its deal with Cohen is over.
It appears there are three scenarios that might account for the payments:
The companies wanted Cohen to lobby for them, to exert influence with the Trump administration. This would almost certainly constitute lobbying, but no lobby registration was filed, so if this is the case, they are in trouble.
They sought “strategic advice” from Cohen. This is more or less what AT&T is saying, but it strains credulity, to say the least. What special insights did Cohen have that were worth these considerable sums but which did not involve him lobbying?
The money was intended to be passed through to other entities or individuals. Such payments might constitute outright bribes.
The shocking revelation of the AT&T and Novartis payments raise an endless list of questions, most of which can be answered by the companies being forthcoming:
How did they know to reach out to Cohen and make payments to a shell company he controlled?
Did any third party instruct or encourage such payments?
What did they expect to get?
What services did he render?
Were the payments expected to be transferred to one or more third parties?
How do they justify such payments to their shareholders?
In addition to questions about the legality of these payments, there is one other huge category of questions that is presumably beyond the purview of Novartis and AT&T: Did other large companies make similar payments to Cohen, his shell companies or others in the Trump orbit?