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- President Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen was able to leverage his proximity to the president in a series of lucrative contracts that were revealed this week.
- Cohen went hard after a number of flat-footed clients after Trump’s electoral victory.
- The previously undisclosed payments could land him in more legal trouble.
Members of President Donald Trump’s campaign had a nickname for his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen.
He was “the ‘says who’ guy,” one former Trump campaign official told Business Insider, a reference to an off-the-rails CNN interview where he questioned polls showing Hillary Clinton ahead of Trump.
An outcast among that realm of Trump World, Cohen was was iced out of a job in the president’s administration following his surprise win in 2016.
But he fancied himself as the president’s chief of staff. And he attempted to capitalize on that. Recently revealed information about his financial dealings following the election has shown that Cohen, the man known as the president’s “fixer,” quickly got to work on cashing in his proximity to Trump, pitching himself to a business world stunned Trump had won – and trying to catch up before he took office.
Multiple people familiar with Cohen’s offers to clients following the election told CNN that he aggressively pitched himself. That helped him land lucrative deals with companies such as telecom giant AT&T, pharma’s Novartis, Korea Aerospace Industries, and the Russian-tied investment firm Columbus Nova, according to documents published by the lawyer for adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and statements from the companies.
The companies, which sought his proximity to and knowledge of Trump, paid Cohen more than $1.2 million through his shell company, Essential Consultants LLC. That is same firm he created to pay the $130,000 hush money payment to Daniels, who has alleged a 2006 affair with Trump. Meanwhile, the law firm Squire Patton Boggs paid Cohen more than $2 million for advice on navigating Trump’s government.
“I don’t know who’s been representing you, but you should fire them all. I’m the guy you should hire,” one GOP strategist described Cohen’s sales pitch to CNN. “I’m closest to the president. I’m his personal lawyer.”
‘I’m crushing it’
Some of the deals did not work out as the clients had hoped. For example, Novartis sought Cohen’s help regarding healthcare policy, but had just one meeting with the lawyer last March. The company then decided he wouldn’t be able to help as they had hoped but still paid out the remainder of their contract to Cohen.
AT&T said Friday it made a “big mistake” paying Cohen, forcing out its top Washington executive over the matter.
But Cohen certainly wasn’t the only person in Trump’s orbit to take to consulting after the election. As one former campaign official told CNN, you didn’t “need access to” Trump to win over clients. You only needed “the perception of access to” the president.
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Even though Cohen clearly had proximity, it was much less clear if he was discussing with the president the ins and outs of the policy areas with which his clients sought his help. One source familiar with Cohen’s relationship with the president said Trump “never” spoke with Cohen about anything of interest to his clients.
“K Street consultants come in all shapes and sizes, but if they don’t offer real expertise in a particular area like public relations, legislative process, or regulatory mechanics, they won’t outlast the politician they rode in on,” one Washington-based consultant told Business Insider.
That lack of expertise didn’t hurt Cohen, at least initially. Retaining the title of “personal attorney” to Trump certainly helped him, as well.
“I’m crushing it,” Cohen said, according to one associate who spoke to The Washington Post.
Where Cohen could get into even more hot water
Over the last several days, Daniels’ lawyer, Michael Avenatti, has released a steady drip of information about Cohen – first the financial arrangements, then emails between Cohen and Keith Davidson, Daniels’ previous lawyer with whom Cohen reached the hush agreement.
How Avenatti has obtained the information is unclear. Avenatti did not return a request for comment from Business Insider. Cohen’s lawyers accused Avenatti of improperly obtaining the bank records in a Wednesday court filing.
But the records provide a snapshot into some of the backroom, swampy dealings behind the scenes of the US government. And Cohen could be in added legal jeopardy as a result of the revelations.
As one expert told Business Insider that if the payments were simply to gain access to the president, they “may well be legal,” pointing to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the corruption case involving former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia.
“Completely unethical, but legally permitted,” Jordan Libowitz, spokesperson for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told Business Insider.
On Thursday, CNN reported that AT&T hired Cohen to advise the company on its merger with Time Warner, Federal Communications Commission regulation, and tax reform. The work was not to include any lobbying, an AT&T source told the outlet.
“If the payments were meant to influence Trump’s official conduct, and if any benefit from them was meant to reach him, that would almost certainly implicate Cohen and possibly others including Trump in federal criminal offenses including bribery,” Libowitz said. “If it were strictly lobbying – something that’s been denied, then it runs into legal issues for not registering and disclosing the lobbying. If the money were for something else, like covering the Stormy Daniels payments, there could be campaign finance violations.”
Since Cohen is not a registered lobbyist and, additionally, didn’t disclose the payments previously, he could be in violation of the Lobbying Disclosure Act for payments from domestic sources or the Foreign Agents Registration Act for foreign sources of such money, experts said.