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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Pay-to-play? Sure. But that can't be the whole story

by digby

My Salon column this morning:

Donald Trump's presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton pretty much consisted of two messages. He claimed she didn't have the "strength and stamina" to be president which was really a straight up sexist and ageist hit on her for being an older woman. The fact that he is older than she is simply wasn't relevant and neither is the fact that we now know he felt the need to dictate his own medical report indicates he wasn't sure enough of his own good health to undergo a real physical. And it turns out that Trump spends more time watching TV, golfing and enjoying "executive time" than any president in modern memory. He's not exactly the energizer bunny

The other main theme, of course, was "crooked Hillary" in which he accused her of being corrupt, traitorous and criminal over and over again.

Recall this ad, which encapsulated that running theme:

Remember that Trump was the one who bragged about buying politicians and who was actually involved in a pay-to-play scheme during the campaign, when he paid off Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to drop the state's suit against Trump University. She did so, became a top Trump supporter and was considered for a job in the Cabinet.

After the revelations this week about Trump's personal lawyer and longtime Trump Organization executive Michael Cohen, it has become clear that pay-to-play was baked into his administration from the beginning. Stormy Daniels' lawyer, Michael Avenatti, released a document detailing a series of suspicious payments made to Cohen's shadowy LLC, Essential Consultants, which was ostensibly created for the purpose of paying hush money to Daniels. The payments came from several companies, including AT&T and the drug company Novartis, which was surprising. What raised the most eyebrows was a payment of nearly half a million dollars from a company associated with one of the richest oligarchs in Russia. Several of these companies have admitted paying Cohen for his "insights" into the Trump administration and vague "consulting services," all of which add up to one thing: pay to play. Michael Cohen is not a guy anyone would ever accuse of having insight into anything.

But he did have a close relationship with the president of the United States, and he was still helping him "fix" problems like Stormy Daniels. Apparently these companies thought he could fix something for them as well.

According to news reports, we are supposed to believe that Michael Cohen cold-called a major drug manufacturer's CEO and pitched his services. The company, Novartis, agreed to pay $1.3 million over the course of a year for his services. Then, when some Novartis executives met with Cohen in person they concluded that "this was a probably a slippery slope to engage him" and decided not to bother asking him to do any work. But they paid him in full anyway because they didn't want to anger the president.

You have to wonder where the Novartis brass got the idea that the president might take out his anger on the company if they canceled a contract with a guy who, at least officially, didn't even work for Trump anymore. Did Cohen "suggest" that? He has certainly made veiled and not-so-veiled threats on Trump's behalf in the past. In fact, that was a big part of his job description.

According to The Washington Post, companies were eager to work with anyone associated with Trump, and Cohen landed a cushy spot with the high-powered law firm of Squire Patton Boggs, which signed him to a $500,000 deal. They showed him off like a prize pony to impress clients with their own Trump insider. It's not as bizarre as it seems that Cohen was able to work this pay-to-play angle with big-name companies, and if it doesn't pass the ethical smell test, it also isn't blatantly illegal.

But why in the world would Cohen accept large wads of cash for access to Trump from a Russian-affiliated company at the same time that the new president was the subject of a counter-intelligence investigation for possible conspiracy with Russia? The story is that Cohen happened to meet up with Andrew Intrater, the company’s American chief executive, at the Trump inauguration. Intrater attended that event with his cousin, Viktor Vekselberg, who is one of the richest men in Russia and a close associate of Vladimir Putin. They claim they just wanted Cohen's consulting expertise, but I think we know by now that's absurd. The question for Special Counsel Robert Mueller is whether or not this was some kind of bribe and whether these guys knew they were sending money to a company that was paying off the president's onetime girlfriend. That would have been a nice little bit of kompromat if they did.

The financial documents released by Avenatti also appear to show the byzantine payment scheme between Cohen and Elliott Broidy, the former Republican National Committee finance chair and major Trump donor. Broidy allegedly used Cohen to pay $1.6 million to his onetime Playboy Playmate mistress who had terminated a pregnancy, with Cohen getting $250,000 on top of that in installments. That one remains a curious case as well.

This analysis by Paul Campos in New York magazine puts together all the publicly available details and speculates convincingly that Broidy was actually fronting for Donald Trump, a man whose relationships with Playboy Playmates are well known. In fact, Broidy has done this sort of thing before:

Maybe the facts will prove that Cohen was simply selling access to the president and foolishly used the same Delaware LLC that he created to pay off Stormy Daniels and later used to pay off Broidy's mistress as well. But that doesn't seem likely, especially since the feds have come down on him like a ton of bricks for some reason. He may have scraped up a few corporate clients who thought it would be a good idea to grease the president's old associate, but this scheme looks like it was really about porn-star payoffs and covering up potential scandal. After all, that's Cohen's real field of expertise.

Those documents also show that there's a lot more cash that passed through Essential Consulting than can be attributed to these clients. The question is, who else was paying and for what? And where is all that money?