The past is strange. In 1942 Benny Goodman had a big hit with Mission to Moscow – it does swing – and the next year Warner Brothers released their Mission to Moscow directed by Michael Curtiz – in response to a request from Franklin Roosevelt. That was when presidents could tell Hollywood what movies to make. The past really is strange, but this wasn’t a bad idea. That same year Curtiz had directed Casablanca and this was supposed to be the same sort of thing about our heroic allies. The United States and the Soviets were allies at the time, both fighting Hitler, and Joseph Stalin was good old “Uncle Joe” – a bit strange but a good guy, really. Walter Huston played Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, our man in Moscow, working with Stalin to make the world a better place. Stalin’s “show trials” weren’t evil. Uncle Joe was hammering Nazi sympathizers and saboteurs – a noble thing – and then everyone hated that movie. In the fifties, the House Committee on Un-American Activities said this movie was proof that Hollywood had always been full of communist sympathizers, and actual communists. Ronald Reagan, who was president of the Screen Actors Guild at the time, back when he was a Democrat and the president of a labor union, agreed – but Michael Curtiz was safe. All was forgiven. Humphrey Bogart finally did the right thing in that other movie. In this one, no one was doing the right thing. Max Steiner wrote the score. It didn’t swing.
That doesn’t mean that none of this ever happened. Benny Goodman had his hit. Warner Brothers made that movie. The past is strange, but so is the present. Donald Trump just humiliated France and Germany and Britain by pulling out of the Iran deal. His new sanctions on Iran will hammer their economies. Something is up. Andrew Bacevich argues convincingly that the new center of power is the United States and Israel and Saudi Arabia. Europe just doesn’t matter any longer, and now Russia matters a lot too. For two years everyone has been trying to figure out why Donald Trump loves Vladimir Putin so much, bending over backwards to excuse whatever Putin does. Trump doesn’t call him Uncle Joe, but this does have the feel of that odd 1943 Michael Curtiz movie.
It couldn’t get any stranger:
President Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen was hired last year by the U.S.-based affiliate of a Russian business magnate who attended Trump’s inauguration and was recently subjected to sanctions by the U.S. government, the company said Tuesday.
The New York investment firm Columbus Nova said it retained Cohen as a consultant “regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures.” Though Columbus Nova has been described in federal regulatory filings as an affiliate of the Renova Group, founded by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, the company said Vekselberg was not involved with hiring or paying Cohen.
Vekselberg maintains that this affiliate, run by his cousin, paid Cohen a half a million dollars, for sketchy reasons, but he knew nothing about that, but this is trouble:
The company’s confirmation came after Michael Avenatti, a lawyer for adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, circulated on Twitter a document purporting to show a detailed accounting of wire transfers made to Essential Consultants, a company established by Cohen in October 2016… The payments from Columbus Nova point to a potential new financial tie between the president’s personal lawyer and a U.S. representative of a key Russian figure… Vekselberg, who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, was one of two dozen Russian business executives and government officials sanctioned in April as part of the U.S. response to the poisoning of a former Russian intelligence officer in southern England.
Jennifer Rubin points out the obvious:
It is possible – a full-scale deep dive into Cohen’s finances would be required – this was the quintessential slush fund where monies came in and then were redirected for Trump’s benefit. We simply do not know. Presumably, the federal raid on Cohen’s office, hotel and residence that scooped up Cohen’s records will tell us exactly what was going on.
What is clear is that anyone who definitively declares Cohen and Trump have no Russia connections isn’t paying attention. No objective viewer can deny there is a basis for investigating the money flow between Trump and Cohen and between outside funders and Cohen. We trust that the Southern District of New York’s prosecutors and FBI office, with a wealth of material seized from Cohen, will get to the bottom of this.
Those who suspected the president would be far more anxious about the Cohen investigation than special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller’s probe might be proven right.
And there’s an odd twist to this too:
A company at the center of widening questions involving President Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen is listed as the organization behind a string of websites targeted toward white nationalists and other members of the alt-right.
Columbus Nova, a company whose U.S. chief executive, Andrew Intrater, and Russian investment partner Viktor Vekselberg have both reportedly been interviewed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team, is listed as the registrant behind a handful of domains for websites named after the alt-right that were created during the 2016 election.
The Russians were making trouble in the last election, stirring everyone up, and this may be part of that, but this is all trouble:
Avenatti’s disclosures Tuesday about the money purportedly given to Cohen’s shell company, Essential Consultants, by Columbus Nova and other corporations, including some with business before the Trump administration, delivered a jolt to a news cycle as questions continue to swirl about whether the work that Cohen did on behalf of Trump complied with federal and state laws.
But that’s not all:
President Donald Trump’s longtime personal attorney is facing scrutiny for selling his Trump World experience and views at a hefty price to companies seeking “insight” into the new president…
One company, pharmaceutical giant Novartis, has acknowledged it paid Cohen $1.2 million for services, though they ended after a single meeting. Others, including some with major regulatory matters before the Trump administration, acknowledge payments totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars over at least several months.
The corporate ties could suggest Cohen was peddling his influence and profiting from his relationship with Trump. They also raise questions about whether Trump knew about the arrangement.
That has nothing to do with Russia, but Josh Marshall notes this:
Novartis signed Cohen up because they thought he could advise them on US health care policy. Obviously, Cohen doesn’t know the first thing about healthcare policy. He’s just someone who’s close to Trump. What is important to keep in mind here is that when Trump came into office the pharmaceutical companies were terrified and flying blind as to what would happen under President Trump. There was actually an out of the blue statement Trump made in the second week of January 2017 about cracking down on the Big Pharma that had the big companies terrified. He told a press conference on January 11th that the pharmaceutical companies were “getting away with murder.” He had repeatedly talked about reining in drug prices on the campaign trail. But in January he seemed to be upping the ante dramatically. It even crosses my mind, in retrospect, whether this comment wasn’t intended to scare companies into Cohen’s arms.
So they sign up Cohen, based it seems simply on being a friend of the President. Then they meet with Cohen, decide he can’t deliver and have no more communication with him. Notwithstanding this, they decide to pay him the entire $1.2 million. “As the contract unfortunately could only be terminated for cause, payments continued to be made until the contract expired by its own terms in February 2018.”
No, that’s not how it works. Not remotely. If you find out someone is not able to do the job, you don’t pay them for a year. Also, what was it they thought Cohen could do that it turned out he couldn’t? The simplest Google search would tell you that Cohen knows absolutely nothing about health care policy.
Something else was going on, and a CNN team puts that in narrative form:
Michael Cohen served loyally as Donald Trump’s right-hand man for more than a decade, taking care of anything and everything the New York real estate baron needed to get done.
On November 8, 2016, Cohen’s stock suddenly soared: He was now the personal attorney to the President-elect of the United States, with unique understanding of a man that everyone was scrambling to get access to.
Cohen quickly got to work. According to multiple people familiar with Cohen’s conduct following the election, he aggressively pitched himself to potential clients, reminding them of his proximity to the most powerful man in the world. Those efforts landed Cohen lucrative consulting deals. New reporting this week revealed that in the months following the 2016 election, Cohen received hundreds of thousands of dollars from powerful entities based in and outside of the United States.
“I don’t know who’s been representing you, but you should fire them all. I’m the guy you should hire. I’m closest to the President. I’m his personal lawyer,” was how one GOP strategist described Cohen’s sales pitch.
That was the scam:
One company that Cohen immediately sought out was pharmaceutical giant Novartis. “He was shopping himself around,” a source familiar told CNN. Cohen would ultimately land a one-year contract with the firm by promising access to the White House on health care policy.
But that deal quickly soured. According to the source, company officials had one meeting with Cohen in March 2017 and decided that he would not be able to provide the access they desired…
Money was flowing in from other companies, too. Telecommunications conglomerate AT&T publicly acknowledged this week that it hired Cohen for a simple reason: to gain “insights” into the new President and his administration. AT&T paid Cohen at least $200,000 in 2017, according to a source familiar with the matter.
AT&T is seeking government approval for its acquisition of Time Warner, CNN’s parent company.
The idea was simple. Throw some money Trump’s way, even indirectly, and get what you need, but there’s nothing new here:
A former Trump campaign official who worked on the transition said “everybody knew” Cohen had taken on consulting work after the election. It was widespread practice among high-ranking Trump associates who did not go into the administration to provide consulting services after Trump won in November 2016, this person said, noting that Cohen was far from the only person to do so.
“You don’t need access to Trump. All you need is the perception of access to Trump,” the former campaign official said.
That was the scam:
Cohen accepted $150,000 from Korea Aerospace Industries, a South Korean company, in November 2017.
In partnership with US defense giant Lockheed Martin, the company is currently vying for a lucrative contract with the United States Air Force, which plans to buy approximately 350 new training jets. The Air Force is considering buying the T-50 Golden Eagle, which is developed by Korean Aerospace Industries. A decision is reportedly expected this spring.
The company told CNN that it retained Cohen to receive “short term legal advice.”
“Korea Aerospace Industries, LTD. received legal advice on the Cost Accounting Standards regulation from Essential Consultants, LLC through a contracted deal,” a spokesperson said. “The payment was all legal based on the contract. KAI is doing its best to comply with accounting regulations that are up to global standards.”
The spokesperson clarified that the company did not have direct contact with Cohen at the time, and that the “deal was done by someone else.” It was not immediately clear who this “someone else” was.
There is no one else. Cohen was running a one-man operation. Korea Aerospace Industries wanted that Air Force contract. They tossed some money in the general direction of Donald Trump. It might have been chump change, but it couldn’t hurt. It wasn’t chump change to Cohen. He might put in a good word. He might not. This was a wise very small gamble. Novartis and AT&T did the same. Each of them probably spends more on paper clips each year than all of the money they paid Cohen. And all three told Mueller’s team all about this six months ago. He has their accounting records.
Mueller isn’t interested in this rather standard and rather clumsy pay-for-play nonsense. Others can sort that out. His mandate is the Russia stuff. What was that half a million dollars from the Russian fellow all about?
That’s the question here, and last summer, David Corn and Dan Friedman reported this odd tidbit:
In 2014, Vekselberg’s Renova Group became a partner with American billionaire investor Wilbur Ross in the takeover of the Bank of Cyprus, which had held billions in deposits from wealthy Russians – some of it presumably dirty money or funds deposited there to avoid Russian taxation. The bank had failed in 2013. Ross went on to become Trump’s secretary of commerce. During his confirmation hearings in February, Democratic senators sent Ross a list of questions regarding his relationship with Vekselberg. Ross has yet to answer them.
Nancy LeTourneau finds that interesting:
One of the people who is believed to have laundered money through the Bank of Cyprus is Paul Manafort. I point all of that out because this is a perfect example of what happens when you begin digging in to the web of connections between Trump, his associates and Russia. It all becomes a tangled weave of relationships organized around criminal activities.
Donald Trump is up to his eyeballs in that tangled weave and Cohen’s slush fund is the first hard evidence that has been made public that begins to unravel the money trail. We know about this one because, somehow, Michael Avenatti (Stormy Daniel’s attorney) got hold of the evidence.
That is ironic, and there might be a movie there, and Slate’s Jed Shugerman has the screenplay:
Talk of a smoking gun here would be premature. But the new evidence provides a preview of what a smoking gun might look like and a road map for how to find it in the developing case against President Donald Trump. These allegations are not just about a hush payment and campaign finance felonies. This is a significant step toward establishing quid pro quo bribery and conspiracy against the United States.
Bribery and conspiracy are the issues here:
First, Vekselberg recently increased his share to 26.5 percent in the aluminum firm Rusal. That firm was owned by Oleg Deripaska, the Russian billionaire whose ties to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort are under scrutiny by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Two of Vekselberg’s American partners, meanwhile, donated more than $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee and Vekselberg also had business ties to Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross.
Now, Congress has been legislating tougher sanctions against Putin and Russia over the past year by sweeping, close-to-unanimous bipartisan majorities. But the Trump administration has been softening or delaying those sanctions at every turn.
That’s Trump’s Mission to Moscow:
Last month, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control finally implemented congressional sanctions against Deripaska and Rusal, in addition to other Russians. The Treasury Department cited allegations that Deripaska ordered the murder of a businessman and had links to a Russian organized crime group. But on April 23, the Trump administration announced major delays on implementation, “slow-rolling” the sanctions seemingly to give Rusal time to minimize the damage and to appeal the sanctions. Treasury gave Rusal an extension to next October, and Reuters reported the department would “consider lifting [the sanctions] if United Company Rusal PLC’s major shareholder, Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska, ceded control of the company,” which he soon did. “Given the impact on our partners and allies, we are extending the maintenance and wind-down period while we consider RUSAL’s petition,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
Shugerman then states the obvious:
Given the outrageous conduct of Putin and Deripaska, and given the almost unanimous votes in Congress to impose tough sanctions, these accommodations should have been considered stunning. As of Tuesday night, they stink to high heaven.
And they raise questions:
Was there a quid pro quo understanding between Vekselberg and Trump associates in January 2017?
It is crucial to remember here what was happening in December 2016 and January 2017 in regard to Russia sanctions. The Steele dossier alleged that Russians had made a deal with Trump associates for the Russians to sell Rosneft, the massive state energy company, and use the commissions to give Trump associates payments under the radar, in return for lifting or softening sanctions. The Rosneft sale went through in December 2016, a month after the election, coinciding with Jared Kushner, Michael Flynn, and Carter Page’s various alleged communications with Russians. Just eight days before this oil megadeal, Flynn and Kushner met Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at Trump Tower, and Kushner reportedly proposed a secret communication link with the Kremlin through the Russian embassy. Then, a few days after the Rosneft deal, Kushner met Sergey Gorkov, chairman of Russia’s government-owned VE Bank, or VEB, and Putin’s close confidant.
The plot thickens:
Analysts have described VEB as Putin’s “private slush fund,” a source of money independent from official Russia budgeting. VEB is under strict U.S. sanctions. Gorkov reportedly flew to Japan to meet with Putin practically immediately. On Dec. 29, President Barack Obama ordered new Russian sanctions for election hacking and interference – and Flynn reportedly had five calls with Kislyak. We later learned that they discussed Russian sanctions after Flynn pleaded guilty to lying about this fact to federal investigators. Trump tweeted about Putin the next day, calling him “very smart” for not responding to Obama’s sanctions before Trump has had a chance to transition into office.
We’ve now learned, in the very next month after the Kushner/Flynn back-channel contacts with Russia, the Vekselberg-connected payments to Cohen began. And they occurred, inexplicably enough, after the Steele dossier was published. Again, this is all clearly now a subject of Mueller’s probe. As the New York Times first reported last week, Mueller’s agents questioned Vekselberg when he flew into New York earlier this year. CNN reported on Tuesday that they asked him about these particular payments.
There is a fine movie here – very dramatic – and very dangerous:
What might be the plausible innocent explanation for a Putin-associated Russian oligarch, to use Rudy Giuliani’s phrase, “funneling” money to Trump’s personal lawyer through a fund used to pay hush money to one or more women and as that oligarch was due to benefit from Trump’s sanction policies? Maybe they have an explanation, but it’s hard to imagine it, and it’s hard to imagine how persuasive a jury would find it.
The Avenatti document, meanwhile, suggests a road map for trying to substantiate this hypothetical. The first part of Avenatti’s summary offers more detail for the allegation that Cohen may have committed bank fraud, misrepresenting the reasons for opening his bank account. This is one of several federal and state crimes that Cohen is potentially facing. He is also still on the hook for possible campaign finance felonies, even if one accepts all of Giuliani’s spin about reimbursement. Furthermore, Avenatti suggests that California has jurisdiction over these possible crimes, opening up another set of state and federal prosecutors who could potentially bring charges – which is all just to say, there is more pressure on Cohen to cooperate with Mueller and other prosecutors than ever. If he were to flip, he would presumably have to provide insight into what these payments were for.
This new information about Vekselberg potentially puts pressure on other witnesses as well. Who else in Trump’s orbit had contact with Vekselberg, and might they have more information about the communications and intent behind the payments? Rick Gates, Manafort’s former deputy who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to investigators, was also helping with the transition as these events were unfolding. What has Gates already told Mueller in exchange for a plea deal and what might he have to say now? Vekselberg was also at the Moscow dinner attended by Putin and Michael Flynn. What has Flynn told Mueller? One road to proving any conspiracy now clearly goes through Vekselberg, those who were in contact with him, and those who may have been paid off by him.
But wait, there’s more:
Even if Trump denies that he knew about any of the questionable Cohen payments, he still might not be off the hook. If it can be demonstrated that he found out later about an illegal such payment but sought to cover it up, Trump might have committed one of the following felonies: a) being an accessory after the fact (18 U.S.C. 3) and b) misprision of a felony (18 USC 4, especially by a public official), and c) obstruction of justice.
And then this movie ends in a dramatic courtroom scene:
Any forthcoming indictments and warrants stemming from this line of inquiry will lead to increasing pressure on apparent co-conspirators, like Cohen, who in turn can help a jury, the public, and perhaps Congress, find proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
The movie here is an inside out version of the 1943 Mission to Moscow. Uncle Joe and the Russians aren’t the heroes this time, and Donald Trump is the bad guy. The past is strange, but the present is stranger.