AT&T Has an Army of DC-Connected Consultants, So Why the Hell Did it Pay Michael Cohen $200,000?

AT&T's explanations for why it paid Donald Trump's personal lawyer at least $200,000 aren't satisfying.
May 9, 2018, 9:21pm
Image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Wednesday, Stormy Daniels lawyer Michael Avenatti dropped a bombshell on Washington in the form of this document. In it, Avenatti alleges that Trump lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen’s dubious financial dealings go much deeper than had been previously reported.

The document alleges Cohen created a shell LLC with zero employees by the name of Essential Consulting. Essential was then used to facilitate transactions not only to pay off Avenenatti’s client Stormy Daniels, but to receive payments from companies including Columbus Nova, owned by Russian millionaire Victor Vekselberg. But the document also claims that Cohen was routinely receiving payments from companies like Korean Aerospace Industries, Novartis, and AT&T, and that he may have violated banking laws when he created the account to do so. Why exactly these companies felt the need to facilitate cash payments to a New York City-based “fixer” for the President isn’t clear, but the excuses they’ve been providing in the wake of the reveal have quickly raised eyebrows. Korean Aerospace Industries, for example, told the Washington Times that it was paying Cohen “to inform reorganization of our internal accounting system.” Pharmaceutical giant Novartis, in contrast, claimed it paid Cohen up to $1.2 million for health-care policy consulting work that the pornstar-paying fixer ultimately proved "unable" to actually accomplish (insiders at Novartis however tell NBC News that the company was promised access to the President by Cohen in the wake of the election.) Meanwhile AT&T, which the document claims paid Cohen $200,000 in four installments from October 2017 to January of this year, issued a statement confirming it did make payments to Cohen's corporation. "Essential Consulting (sic) was one of several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration,” AT&T said in a statement released to the media. “They did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017." It’s unclear what additional “insight” arrived from paying a “fixer’s” dubious shell company that couldn’t be gleaned via more above-board meetings with the administration and Trump regulators (AT&T executives met with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai twice during this time period.) The company has yet to elaborate on precisely what said insights looked like, though CNBC claims AT&T’s payments to Cohen may have topped $600,000. On the surface, this looks like run of the mill graft, and AT&T had numerous reasons to be attempting to curry favor with the administration at the time these payments took place. As the payments were occurring, the Trump FCC was preparing a December vote to roll back net neutrality in arguably the most controversial tech policy decision in internet history. AT&T at the time was also seeking regulatory approval of its $86 billion acquisition of Time Warner, which the Trump DOJ ultimately wound up suing to block anyway. And the telecom giant had also been pressuring the Trump administration to “reform” the NAFTA trade agreement in the hopes it would ease AT&T’s entry into the Mexican wireless market. An AT&T e-mail to employees addressing the scandal claims that the company’s payments to Cohen were part of routine consulting work, and that the company was simply curious how Trump "might approach a wide range of policy issues important to the company, including regulatory reform at the FCC, corporate tax reform, and antitrust enforcement.” Again though, AT&T has an army of lobbyists, private investigators, lawyers, and above board consultants that routinely provide it with an ocean of information into each and every political whim. Why it needed to pay Cohen’s shell LLC for such “insight” will surely be of interest to investigators as they inevitably take a deeper look at Cohen’s finances.

AT&T did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Motherboard.