"Cohen promised access to not just Trump, but also the circle around him. It was almost as if we were hiring him as a lobbyist."
That was how one employee of the Swiss drug giant Novartis described the company's relationship with President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen on Wednesday after leaked financial reports revealed that the pharmaceutical firm paid Cohen $1.2 million between February of 2017 and early 2018.
"Not since Watergate has 'follow the money' felt like such an appropriate mantra for investigators."
—Ryan Bort, Rolling Stone
According to STAT News, which interviewed a Novartis employee on the condition of anonymity, the relationship between Novartis and Cohen began in 2017 when the president's attorney "reached out to Novartis’s then-chief executive officer Joe Jimenez, promising help gaining access to Trump and influential officials in the new administration."
"He reached out to us," the Novartis employee said of Cohen. "With a new administration coming in, basically, all the traditional contacts disappeared and they were all new players. We were trying to find an inroad into the administration."
Noting that the company ultimately agreed to a one-year, $1.2 million contract with Cohen, STAT reported the "employee could not explain why Novartis would have agreed to a deal with a lawyer with no background in healthcare and without deep Washington ties."
The ties between Cohen, Novartis, and a number of other major corporations was first revealed late Tuesday by Michael Avenatti, the lawyer of adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
In a tweet on Tuesday, Avenatti posted apparently leaked financial documents showing that Cohen's shell company Essential Consultants LLC—the same outfit used to pay $130,000 in hush money to Daniels—received over $4 million in payments from AT&T, Korea Aerospace Industries, Columbus Nova, and several other companies.
Discussing the financial documents on MSNBC Wednesday, Avenatti said Cohen "appears to be selling access to the president of the United States." Avenatti repeated this sentiment just hours later, highlighting the account of the anonymous Novartis employee.
WOW. Evidently, the personal attorney to Mr. Trump (NOT a lobbying firm) was actively soliciting clients and trying to sell access to the highest office in the land. Maybe this is why the SDNY case is with the Public Corruption division of the U.S. Attys Office. #basta https://t.co/yEHThVCMLh
— Michael Avenatti (@MichaelAvenatti) May 9, 2018
In an email to supporters on Wednesday, Public Citizen argued "everything" about these payments to Cohen's firm look "shady" and demanded answers to several pressing questions, including:
- How did they know to reach out to Michael Cohen and send funds to a shell company he controlled?
- Who at AT&T and Novartis authorized the deals with Michael Cohen?
- Did Donald Trump know about these payments?
- What services did Cohen actually render?
- Novartis says it concluded — after a first meeting under contract — that Cohen could not provide the advice on health care policy it sought, but why did it enter into a deal in the first place, and why did it not exit the contract if Cohen couldn’t deliver the agreed-upon services?
- Was the money expected to be transferred to one or more third parties?
- How do they justify such payments to their shareholders?
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"Whenever you think the Trump soap opera couldn't get any more bizarre, it does," said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. "But this issue may be much more than weird. Let’s find out."
As Rolling Stone's Ryan Bort concluded in his article on some of the latest developments involving Cohen: "Not since Watergate has 'follow the money' felt like such an appropriate mantra for investigators."