Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's long-time personal attorney, reportedly received $500,000 from a Russian billionaire with close ties to Vladimir Putin.
Michael Avenatti, the lawyer who represents adult film actress Stormy Daniels in her lawsuit against the president, initially made the allegation.
The billionaire oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg, is said to have funneled the money from one of his companies to a bank account that Cohen used to pay hush money to Daniels and other women. Avenatti has described the account as Trump's “extra-marital affair slush fund.”
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, is suing Trump to get out of a non-disclosure agreement she signed in return for a $130,000 payment just days before the 2016 presidential election. Daniels claims she had a sexual relationship with Trump in 2006.
According to Avenatti, the U.S. company Columbus Nova sent the half-million dollars in a series of eight transactions in 2017. The lawyer said Vekselberg, who owns the Russian Renova Group, controls Columbus Nova.
Columbus Nova responded with a statement explaining: “After the inauguration, the firm hired Michael Cohen as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures. Reports that Viktor Vekselberg used Columbus Nova as a conduit for payments to Michael Cohen are false.”
The statement continued: “The claim that Viktor Vekselberg was involved or provided any funding for Columbus Nova's engagement of Michael Cohen is patently untrue. 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.”
CNN reported that special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the federal investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to interfere in the election, has asked Vekselberg about his payments to Cohen's account.
Avenatti said Cohen also accepted financial deposits from the drug company Novartis, as well as AT&T and the government-controlled Korea Aerospace Industries.
A Novartis spokesman, when contacted by The Guardian, did not dispute Avenatti's contention that the company had wired $400,000 to Essential Consultants, a Cohen-owned firm. The spokesman disclosed that Mueller has been looking into the payment.
AT&T explained that it paid Cohen's company about $200,000 for “insights” regarding the Trump administration. “Essential Consulting was one of several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration,” the company told The Huffington Post. “They did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017.”
Avenatti said deposits in Cohen's account from the various firms added up to $4.4 million. “This thing is a pig and they can try to put lipstick on a pig — tonight, next week, next month — but it's still gonna be a pig,” the lawyer told MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell. “This thing's ugly and it's gonna get worse. If there’s nothing to hide here and it’s all above board and it’s all legit, then the documents will prove that out. People lie, documents don’t. Period.”
Until last November, the website for Vekselberg's Renova Group included Columbus Nova in a list of its “companies.” The site is now supposedly “under construction.”
A lawyer representing Columbus Nova acknowledged that the company “has managed assets on behalf of Renova Group companies and other clients … (but) Columbus Nova itself is not now, and has never been, owned by any foreign entity or person.”
NBC News reported that in June 2017, Columbus Nova CEO Andrew Intrater (Vekselberg's cousin) contributed $29,600 to the Republican National Committee and $35,000 to the Trump campaign. He also gave $250,000 to the Trump Inauguration Fund and attended the swearing-in ceremony.
The scandal involving Daniels came to light in February, when Cohen admitted he gave the former porn star $130,000 in October 2016. He claimed that Trump did not know about the arrangement.
However, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who recently joined the president's legal team, recently told Fox News that Trump reimbursed his attorney for the payment.
Vekselberg, who heads energy and financial firms in Russia, reportedly is an adviser to his country's President Putin. The billionaire was one of the 38 Russian oligarchs and officials the Trump administration named when it imposed additional sanctions on Russia last month.
News about the payments to Cohen's account should be of interest to Mueller, who is already known to be looking into a number of Trump's associates that allegedly have connections with Russians.