Updated at 10:27 p.m. ET
Donald Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, may have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from both corporate clients and potentially a Russian billionaire, according to new allegations from an attorney suing them.
Michael Avenatti, who represents adult film actress Stormy Daniels, described what he called Cohen's suspicious financial relationships in a document released on Tuesday evening.
Avenatti did not release the primary source materials that he used to draft his "executive summary," but at least three companies confirmed to NPR independently that they had hired Cohen or the shell company he formed to make the payment to Daniels that he has acknowledged.
The claims in Avenatti's document would, among other things, undercut accounts that Trump, Cohen and attorney Rudy Giuliani have given about the payments made to Daniels.
The document — if substantiated — describes a previously unknown relationship between Cohen and interests associated with Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. It also depicts what amounted to an influence business in which Cohen may have essentially acted as a lobbyist based on his relationship with Trump.
An attorney for Cohen did not respond to a request for comment. The White House had made no comment on the Avenatti claims on Tuesday evening.
The origins of the money
Avenatti grabbed headlines by saying that it may have been Vekselberg, not Trump, who reimbursed Cohen for a $130,000 payment to Daniels.
Vekselberg, one of Russia's richest men, reportedly has been stopped and questioned on his way into the United States by investigators working for Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, who are conducting an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race and any ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Daniels says Cohen paid her in 2016 just before Election Day for an agreement in which she would not talk about the sexual encounter she says she had with Trump a decade earlier. Daniels hired Avenatti to sue Cohen and Trump to escape that agreement.
Trump denies Daniels' claims about a sexual encounter, but he acknowledged last week that he had reimbursed Cohen for a $130,000 payment to Daniels. Trump's attorney, Giuliani, said on TV that Trump didn't know at the time exactly what his retainer to Cohen was actually paying for, but Trump has since undercut Giuliani's account without giving his own version of events.
Now, Avenatti's "executive summary" asks whether a $500,000 payment allegedly from Vekselberg, described by Avenatti's document as being routed through an American company he controls, might actually have been the way that Cohen was reimbursed for paying Daniels.
Avenatti said on CNN on Tuesday evening that he has a team of investigators working on discovery as part of Daniels' lawsuit and that is how he uncovered the information about the payments to Cohen.
"We're 100 percent confident ... or we would not have released this," he told cable news anchor Anderson Cooper.
The underlying documents — payment records, bank statements or other material — are not public so there was no way to independently verify the allegation. Some news organizations reported on Tuesday they had reviewed the source materials.
Three companies in the Avenatti summary confirmed their relationships with Cohen to NPR, substantiating at least those portions of Avenatti's allegations.
- Private equity firm Columbus Nova, which was alleged to be the conduit for the payment from Vekselberg, said it had hired Cohen but denied it had any relationship to Russian intrigue. "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," the company said.
- Pharmaceutical giant Novartis said its relationship with Cohen had ended before its current chief executive officer had assumed his duties in November.
- And telecommunications titan AT&T also acknowledged that it had hired the same shell company that Cohen used to pay Daniels, seeking lobbyist-like services about the Trump administration. "Essential Consultants was one of several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration," the company said. "They did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017."
That relationship between Cohen's company and AT&T could be significant because in October 2016, AT&T announced that it wanted to buy media conglomerate Time Warner. Time Warner is the parent company of frequent Trump target CNN, and the Trump administration opposes the merger.
The financial relationships alleged in Avenatti's "executive summary" may not be nefarious or illegal, but if all of them were substantiated it would add considerably to the public understanding about the business Cohen has been conducting since Trump's election.
Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York have been pursuing a criminal investigation of Cohen for months, one they say focuses on his business dealings. But Cohen is battling with prosecutors over evidence in that case and the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office has not yet charged Cohen with a crime.
Cohen cited his criminal case when he told another federal judge in California, in the lawsuit that Avenatti has brought there on behalf of Daniels, that he would invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege not to incriminate himself because of the ongoing criminal investigation in New York, and so that judge agreed to freeze that suit until this summer.
The material supporting Avenatti's "executive summary," if substantiated, could show a direct financial relationship between Cohen and a powerful Russian at a time when Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether the Trump campaign may have conspired with the Russian attack on the 2016 election.
Cohen played an important role in that campaign but has denied vigorously that there was any conspiracy with Russians.
Trump also denies there was any collusion between his campaign and Russia's active measures against the 2016 presidential race. The president points to the report of the Republican majority on the House intelligence committee — that cleared Trump and his campaign of any wrongdoing — and says the ongoing Mueller and Senate intelligence committee investigations amount to a "witch hunt."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And there are new allegations this evening about Donald Trump's embattled longtime lawyer Michael Cohen. Cohen and a shell company he set up accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of payments. That is according to a document released by another attorney, Michael Avenatti, who is suing Trump and Cohen on behalf of the porn actress Stormy Daniels. Avenatti is raising questions about the sources of the money that Cohen has acknowledged paying Stormy Daniels, including whether those sources lead back to Russia. This is a complex story, and joining us to try to walk us through all this is NPR's justice correspondent Ryan Lucas.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hello.
KELLY: Hello. So super complex story - let's start on solid ground with what we know, what we can confirm. And we'll kind of walk forward together from there. Michael Avenatti, as we mentioned, is the lawyer for Stormy Daniels. And remind us. She needs a lawyer because...
LUCAS: So Michael Cohen paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 to agree not to talk about the relationship that she says she had with President Trump around a decade ago.
KELLY: This is the hush money, and President Trump has denied any kind of sexual relationship with her.
KELLY: OK. Go on.
LUCAS: Exactly. And so there was a nondisclosure agreement. Stormy and her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, are suing to get out of that agreement. Trump has acknowledged that Michael Cohen represented him and made the $130,000 payment. What Avenatti is saying is maybe Trump didn't, that maybe the money came from another source, potentially a Russian oligarch with ties to the Kremlin.
KELLY: Which is kind of a giant bomb to drop into the middle of all of this. What evidence is Avenatti putting forward to support this claim?
LUCAS: Well, he didn't put forward any evidence per se. What he did was release a report - an executive summary about the material that he says he has. We haven't seen any of the underlying materials, so we don't know what he is basing these conclusions on.
LUCAS: Obviously a very explosive claim - there is of course a rather large investigation that's going on right now being conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. So obviously if a Russian billionaire was indeed making payments to Trump's attorney in 2017, there could be a perfectly innocent and legal explanation for it. It could be very questionable and very nefarious. We don't know. That's what we're going to have to find out and determine as time goes on.
KELLY: OK, you just started walking toward my next question, which is - I know you've been making calls today. Have you been able to find anything that stands up or shoots down Avenatti's claims?
LUCAS: Well, the claims that he makes are not solely related to the Russian oligarch and a company connected to him. He also says that companies, a number of which have names that you would recognize, also have been hiring and paying Cohen through the shell company that he set up to pay Stormy Daniels. First we've heard from Columbus Nova, which is a private equity firm that is linked to this Russian oligarch. It says that, yes, it did pay Cohen, but it doesn't have - the payments were not related to anything related to Russia or anything improper. It was about real estate consulting.
We've also heard from AT&T, which said it hired Cohen early in 2017 in what sounds like sort of a lobbying relationship. What the company said was it was one of several firms that it engaged to provide insights into understanding the new administration. We've also heard from a big pharmaceutical giant, Novartis. It's said that any agreements that it had have expired.
KELLY: And real quick, what's Michael Cohen saying?
LUCAS: Michael Cohen - I contacted his lawyer or attempted to several times, and we have not heard back.
KELLY: All right - so a lot more questions than answers, dots we're trying to connect, including the president's longtime lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, this alleged $500,000 payment, Stormy Daniels and her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, and maybe a Russian billionaire - NPR's Ryan Lucas trying to sort through all those threads. Come back when you know more.
KELLY: Thank you.
LUCAS: Will do. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.