Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen was paid half a million dollars by an American investment firm linked to one of Russia’s most high-profile oligarchs: Viktor Vekselberg.
The payments — funneled into the same shell company Cohen used to pay off porn star Stormy Daniels two weeks before the election, Essential Consultants LLC — kicked off the month Trump was sworn into office and continued through August, Daniels’ lawyer said in a statement posted to Twitter on Tuesday.
These cash transfers appear to provide the strongest evidence yet of a financial link between a recently sanctioned Russian oligarch with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a member of Trump’s inner circle.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a smoking gun,” said David Szakonyi, an expert on Russian affairs at George Washington University. “But we’ve waited a long time for evidence of money dealings between Russian oligarchs and the Trump team, and we may finally have some.”
The investment firm, New York-based Columbus Nova, said in a statement that Cohen had been hired as a “business consultant” and denied Vekselberg had any personal role in that decision. Regardless, the payments will likely force Vekselberg, along with his billionaire business partners, into the center of the spiraling investigations into Trump’s activities, analysts said.
Vekselberg, 61, has already crossed paths with the Trump team several times, including when he attended Trump’s inauguration. Questions have also been raised about his investments in a Cyprus bank alongside Wilbur Ross, Trump’s commerce secretary. In April, Vekselberg was slapped with sanctions by the Treasury Department. And he was recently was stopped for questioning at a New York-area airport by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators about the payments to Cohen, according to CNN.
Who is Vekselberg?
The Ukrainian-born Vekselberg built a vast fortune in metals and energy and managed to hold onto it through years of turbulent change in Russia — including the rise of Putin.
During the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Vekselberg forged a metals empire by snapping up newly-privatized aluminum assets with his longtime business partner Len Blavatnik, a naturalized dual U.S.-U.K. citizen who now owns the iconic American recording company Warner Music Group.
Later, the two men combined their holdings with those of a Russian oligarch named Oleg Deripaska to form a towering global aluminum powerhouse called UC Rusal, the world's biggest aluminum producer outside China.
Today, Vekselberg’s stake in Rusal still accounts for a big chunk of his estimated net worth of $13.5 billion.
In April, Vekselberg, Deripaska, Rusal and Renova (the energy giant linked with Columbus Nova) were all slapped with sanctions by the Trump administration in a move that caused Rusal shares to plummet and Russian financial markets to wobble.
The Treasury Department called the move a response to Russia’s aggressive foreign policy, including undermining foreign democratic elections and staging military interventions in Ukraine and Syria.
Vekselberg also controls vast holdings in utilities, construction and communications. And he has marshalled that fortune in support of projects seen as important to the man in the Kremlin: Vladimir Putin.
An airport for Putin, and the Fabergé eggs
In March 2017, just two months after Columbus Nova’s payments to Cohen began, Vekselberg met publicly with Putin to discuss infrastructure projects in Russia that his holding company, Renova Group, was working on. That included an airport in Rostov, one of the Russian cities hosting the 2018 World Cup soccer tournament.
Such a meeting isn't unusual for Vekselberg, who has long overseen big-ticket Russian development initiatives supported by the Kremlin.
Vekselberg established his fortune before Putin took power, but since Putin’s rise he has thrown his financial weight behind projects aimed at elevating Russia and building its economy, including the tech sector — in line with Putin’s goals.
“Vekselberg is involved in some very high-profile infrastructure projects in Russia, which would be impossible to do without solid government connections,” said Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. But, she cautioned, “this does not mean the Kremlin tells him how to donate or spend money abroad.”
Vekselberg also famously splashed out a fortune on returning some well-known Russian cultural artifacts to their homeland: the Fabergé eggs.
In 2004, Vekselberg dropped roughly $100 million buying nine of those intricate fabrications, crafted out of gems and precious metals as royal gifts in Tsarist times.
Upon their return to Russia, Vekselberg’s collection became the second-largest in the world, second only to the 10 housed inside a museum on the grounds of the Kremlin.
The move was seen as an attempt to curry favor with Putin, with whom Vekselberg has not been as tightly connected as some other billionaires in Russia, said Timothy Frye, chair of the political science department at Columbia University and an expert on post-Soviet affairs.
“All oligarchs are close to Putin, Frye said. But “Vekselberg is less close to him than other oligarchs.”
No stranger to Trump
The Cohen payments are far from the first link between Vekselberg and the Trump team.
Vekselberg also had a seat at the 2015 dinner held by Russian state-run news outlet RT in Moscow, attended by Trump’s soon-to-be National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and U.S. Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein.
The billionaire was then spotted by The Washington Post. among the crowd at Trump’s inauguration ceremony in January 2017.
The company that paid Cohen, Columbus Nova, is headed by Vekselberg’s American cousin, Andrew Intrater. Intrater personally helped cover the cost of the inauguration, giving $250,000 to the inauguration fund, according to financial disclosures.
Blavatnik, Vekselberg’s longtime partner in aluminum and energy projects, also chipped in for the inauguration, giving $1 million to the Presidential Inaugural Committee.
Blavatnik had already given at least $5.55 million to Republican groups during the 2016 election cycle, according to a review of public filings carried out by Ruth May, a professor at the University of Dallas, who has long tracked the political donations of Blavatnik and Intrater. (Foreigners are barred from making political donations, but both Blavatnik and Intrater have U.S. citizenship.)
Indeed, two senior administration officials appointed to the Trump administration were once registered as lobbyists for Blavatnik’s New York-based holding company, Access Industries — including Makan Delrahim, who moved to Trump’s Department of Justice from his original position as deputy White House counsel, VICE News reported in April.
Delrahim is now assistant attorney general for the DOJ's Antitrust Division.
In a statement, Columbus Nova insisted the arrangement was pure business.
“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,” the company said on its web site. “The claim that Viktor Vekselberg used Columbus Nova as a conduit for payments to Michael Cohen are false.”
Yet the true purpose of Columbus Nova’s payments to Cohen might have effectively been a form of lobbying intended to win access to the new White House, said Szakonyi, the George Washington University professor.
But Vekselberg’s links to the Kremlin don’t necessarily mean Putin directs the flow of every dollar spent by the billionaire or companies tied to him, Oliker said, and the payments may have been more about business than politics.
“It’s hard to stay extremely wealthy in Russia without some dealings with the Kremlin,” Oliker said. “But I am leery of arguments that suggest that nothing happens in Russia without Putin’s puppet mastery. Lots of things happen in Russia that Putin has nothing to do with.”
Cover image: Renova Group Board Chairman and Skolkovo Foundation President Viktor Vekselberg attends the International Economic Cooperation in New Realities Forum as part of the 2018 Russian Business Week. (Photo by Artyom Geodakyan\TASS via Getty Images)