May 23, 2018

Michael Cohen, President Trump's personal attorney, was paid at least $400,000 to arrange a talk between Trump and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, BBC reported Wednesday.

Trump and Poroshenko had a brief meet-and-greet at the White House last June, but sources in Kiev told BBC that Ukrainian agents facilitated the meeting with Cohen as part of an effort to establish a "back channel" to Trump. Cohen's role in the arrangement would have legally required him to register as a representative of Ukraine, which he did not do.

Cohen accepted money to fix a meeting between the two leaders that went beyond the brief Oval Office handshake, sources said. Poroshenko reportedly wanted to address allegations against Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who has been charged with a number of crimes related to dealings in Ukraine. Ukrainian officials stopped investigating Manafort soon after the June meeting.

BBC reports that Poroshenko and Trump entered an "understanding" of sorts, with the U.S. selling Ukraine arms, coal, and diesel trains and Poroshenko believing there to be a "non-aggression pact" between the two leaders.

Cohen denied the story, and BBC notes there's no evidence to suggest Trump was aware of any alleged arrangement. Read more at BBC. Summer Meza

May 22, 2018
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One of Michael Cohen's business partners, Evgeny Freidman, is cooperating with federal prosecutors who are probing Cohen's business dealings, The New York Times reports.

Freidman on Tuesday pleaded guilty to tax evasion, but has reportedly agreed to be a witness to avoid jail time. Investigators are looking into Cohen, President Trump's longtime fixer and lawyer, as part of the larger probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Freidman's plea deal could be used to pressure Cohen into cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the Times reports.

Cohen and Freidman were longtime partners in the taxi business; Freidman even earned the nickname "Taxi King" for managing so many cabs and taxi medallions. He was facing up to 25 years in prison for multiple charges of tax fraud, but will instead receive five years of probation if he fulfills his promise to help federal agents. Read more at The New York Times. Summer Meza

May 21, 2018
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Federal investigators in New York City have started poring through the files seized from Michael Cohen, President Trump's personal lawyer, more than a month after FBI agents exercised a search warrant on Cohen's office, residences, and bank deposit box on April 9. At the request of Cohen's legal team, U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood allowed Cohen and a neutral arbiter called a special master to go through the documents first to flag files covered by attorney-client privilege with Cohen's three law clients: Trump, Sean Hannity, and GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy. If the documents are deemed privileged, prosecutors won't be able to see them.

The first batch of documents processed by the special master, Barbara Jones, and Cohen's team included Cohen's paper documents, and Jones said last week that she will give Wood a timeline for processing the much larger collection of electronic files once she gets enough of that material; the government is expected to hand over all electronic files except from one computer by Friday. The office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York is investigating Cohen for possible business fraud, and prosecutors have suggested that little of Cohen's relevant documents will be covered by attorney-client privilege. Peter Weber

May 17, 2018
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"I'm not going to just roll over," Michael Cohen has told friends as he fumes and despairs over the barrage of unflattering headlines about him and his legal woes, Vanity Fair reports. He also confides: "I just can't take this anymore." Wednesday evening brought a slew of new revelations, including reports that two suspicious bank activity reports on Cohen are mysteriously missing, he worked to get a Trump Tower in Moscow built far later than previously disclosed, the FBI is investigating his payments from a South Korean state-owned aerospace firm, and he solicited what appears to be a $1 million bribe from Qatar.

Cohen told Congress last summer that he had given up on the Moscow Trump Tower project in January 2016. But congressional investigators and Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team have obtained text messages and emails showing that Cohen actively pursued the project as late as May 2016, as then-candidate Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, Yahoo News reports.

The texts and emails were provided by Felix Sater, a Russian-born developer and longtime Cohen friend who was partnering on the Trump Tower project. Sater encouraged Cohen to network with Russian officials at a conference in St. Petersburg in mid-June 2016 and wrangled him an invitation, Yahoo says, and Cohen considered going but decided he couldn't travel to Russia until after the Republican convention in July.

Separately, The Washington Post and The Intercept report that Cohen solicited at least $1 million from Qatar for access to Trump and help with U.S. government projects on the sidelines of a Dec. 12, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower. Cohen first asked for the payment a few days earlier when he met Qatari investment fund executive Ahmed al-­Rumaihi at a hotel, Rumaihi told The Washington Post on Wednesday. "He just threw it out there" as a cost of "doing business," he said, and after he refused, Cohen asked again as the two men waited outside a Trump Tower meeting. Peter Weber

May 14, 2018
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Very few parties involved in Michael Cohen's efforts to profit off his relationship to President Trump seem to be satisfied with the arrangement. Cohen told associates he felt he was underpaid by law firm Squire Patton Boggs, which gave him $500,000 a year plus office space in New York and a cut of any fees from clients he referred, The Wall Street Journal reports, and his work for other clients and prospective clients "dragged some of the world's largest corporations and other firms into Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation."

AT&T and Novartis shared information with Mueller's office about their agreements with Cohen and Ford provided information about Cohen's unsuccessful pitch to decipher Trump's inner circle, the Journal says. "More fortunate are the dozens of Fortune 100 companies who ... said they hadn't received any overtures from Mr. Cohen or had any contact with him." Along with Ford, Uber said it turned down Cohen's overtures.

Last week, AT&T ousted Bob Quinn, a senior vice president involved in paying Cohen $600,000 last year, and called the deal "a big mistake" and a "serious misjudgment." Novartis quickly determined that its $50,000-a-month contract with Cohen was useless but kept paying him so as not to anger Trump, a Novartis employee told Stat News.

Cohen had big plans after Trump's election, partly spurred by heavy losses in his taxi medallion business that left his upscale Manhattan lifestyle on what a friend called "precarious" footing, the Journal reports. After it became clear Trump wouldn't install him in the White House, Cohen began telling friends and associates that he was "going to build up a huge practice," one associate told the Journal. By last winter, Cohen was complaining to friends that Trump was "not calling him and not helping him," the Journal says, and by March he was considering whether he should quit as Trump's personal lawyer. You can read more about Cohen's hit-and-miss 2017 at The Wall Street Journal. Peter Weber

May 11, 2018
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Michael Avenatti, Stormy Daniels' lawyer, was wrong: AT&T did not pay Michael Cohen, a personal lawyer for President Trump, $200,000 last year, as Avenatti said on Tuesday; the company paid Cohen $600,000, or $50,000 a month, for, among other things, "specific long-term planning initiatives as well as the immediate issue of corporate tax reform and the acquisition of Time Warner," according to a "scope of work" contract obtained by The Washington Post. AT&T is trying to complete an $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner, and Trump had vowed to block the deal during the campaign; the Justice Department filed suit to thwart the merger in November.

AT&T is one of several corporations that paid Cohen at least $2.95 million through a shell company, Essential Consultants LLC, that he had set up to secretly pay Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about an affair she said she had with Trump in 2006. Like other companies, AT&T said it hired Cohen and other "consultants" last year to give it an insight into the new administration. Along with the $600,000 to Cohen, AT&T donated $2 million to Trump's inaugural committee plus $80,000 in telecommunications equipment.

The Cohen contract represents about 3.5 percent of the $16.8 million AT&T reported spending on lobbying in 2017, though Cohen was explicitly hired for policy intitatives, not to lobby. "It is unclear what insight Cohen — a longtime real estate attorney and former taxicab operator — could have provided AT&T on complex telecom matters," the Post notes, adding that Cohen was also paid for health-care policy, accounting practices, and real estate. Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said Wednesday that Trump was unaware of Cohen's lucrative consulting work. Novartis CEO Vasant Narasimhan told employees Thursday that "we made a mistake in entering into this engagement" with Cohen and its disclosure "was not a good day for Novartis." Peter Weber

May 10, 2018

The Treasury Department inspector general's office has opened up an investigation into whether confidential banking documents for Essential Consultants LLC, Michael Cohen's shell company, were leaked, spokesman Rich Delmar said Wednesday. On Tuesday, Michael Avenatti, a lawyer for porn star Stormy Daniels, released a seven-page dossier listing payments to Essential Consultants from several companies, including the U.S. subsidiary of Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg's Renova Group, AT&T, Novartis, and Korea Aerospace Group.

The New York Times confirmed the gist of Avenatti's research, and the companies acknowledged they that had paid Cohen, President Trump's personal lawyer, purportedly for consulting advice on health care, real estate, and "insights" into the Trump White House. Delmar said Inspector General Eric Thorson's investigation, which will look for violations of the Bank Secrecy Act, was sparked by the New York Times report. On Wednesday, Cohen's legal team contested some of Avenatti's findings and said it appears Avenatti has access to Cohen's bank records, and Cohen "has no reason to believe that Avenatti is in lawful possession of those records."

Experts say Avenatti's language suggests he had access to confidential Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) that banks file when they see an unusual or suspicious transaction. "This has the appearance of a leak," former Treasury deputy general counsel Daniel Stipano told The Washington Post. He said hundreds or thousands of law enforcement and government officials have access to a database of SARs.

On MSNBC Wednesday night, Avenatti wouldn't tell Rachel Maddow where he got his information, but he argued that the Treasury Department should just release the three SARs filed on Essential Consultants. "Normally SARs are confidential, and the reason why they're confidential is because you don't want to tip off the target of the SAR," he said, but when The Wall Street Journal spilled the beans in March, "Michael Cohen became aware that at least one SAR had been filed." Watch below. Peter Weber

May 10, 2018
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In what it describes as a coincidence, Columbus Nova, the Russian-linked New York investment firm that paid $500,000 to President Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen last year for unspecified investment consulting, also hired Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz to represent it in a commercial lawsuit, ProPublica reports. A Kasowitz spokesman told ProPublica that Kasowitz and his partners represented Columbus Nova in a lawsuit from 2010 until early 2017, and said Cohen's brief time working in Kasowitz's Manhattan offices in February 2017 had no connection to the Columbus Nova work.

Columbus Nova, which used to call itself "the U.S. investment vehicle for the Renova Group” but now refers to Renova as a client, is led by CEO Andrew Intrater, a cousin of Renova owner Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch. A spokesman told ProPublica that Kasowitz did not introduce Columbus Nova to Cohen. Columbus Nova, like several other companies, paid Cohen through Essential Consultants LLC, a shell company he set up in October 2016 to secretly pay porn star Stormy Daniels to keep silent about her purported extramarital affair with Trump. The shell company's existence wasn't known publicly until The Wall Street Journal revealed it in January.

Oddly, Columbus Nova is also listed as the organization behind a strange collection of website domains registered two days after Hillary Clinton gave a high-profile speech denouncing the alt-right, The Washington Post reports. The websites — which include alt-right.co, alternate-right.com, alt-rite.com, and other alt-right iterations plus CNNjournal.com and 1-800getalife.com — are not operational, and they were registered under the name Frederick Intrater, Andrew Intrater's brother and a design manager at Columbus Nova. A Columbus Nova spokesman said Frederick Intrater did not register the sites on behalf of the company, the Post says, "even though he had used his company email address and listed the organization."

"Perhaps Frederick Intrater is just a savvy domain squatter!" says Gizmodo's Tom McKay. But this is a super weird plot twist in an already bizarre story. Peter Weber