Michael Avenatti makes extraordinary allegation that Cohen received cash from company affiliated with billionaire linked to Vladimir Putin
Jon Swaine in New York
Donald Trump’s attorney and legal fixer, Michael Cohen, was paid half a million dollars by a company affiliated with a Russian oligarch closely linked to Vladimir Putin, according to extraordinary allegations published on Tuesday.
The claim was made in a research document drafted and posted online by Michael Avenatti, a lawyer for Stephanie Clifford, the pornographic film actor known as Stormy Daniels, who alleged she was paid in 2016 in return for agreeing not to disclose that she had sex with Trump.
Cohen was said by Avenatti to have received $500,000 through a US affiliate of the Renova investment group owned by Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian billionaire closely associated with Putin who was placed under sanction by the US government last month. The payments were allegedly made between January and August 2017.
An attorney for the Renova affiliate, Columbus Nova, said it hired Cohen as a business consultant and that Vekselberg had no involvement in the payments. Cohen, his attorney, and the Republican National Committee – for which Cohen is a deputy finance chairman – did not respond to requests for comment.
Avenatti’s document said the money was paid to Essential Consultants, the same company Cohen used to pay a $130,000 settlement to buy Clifford’s silence in October 2016. The document said Essential also received funds from other major companies, some of which had business before the federal government.
AT&T, the telecoms corporation, confirmed it had made payments to Cohen’s firm during 2017 for “insights into understanding the new administration”. Novartis, a Swiss-based pharmaceuticals firm, did not dispute that it paid Cohen.
Vekselberg has reportedly been interviewed by investigators working for Robert Mueller, the special counsel looking into alleged collusion between Russia and Trump’s team during the 2016 election campaign. Vekselberg has not been accused of any wrongdoing. CNN subsequently reported on Tuesday that he was specifically asked by Mueller’s investigators about the alleged payments to Cohen.
The 61-year-old oligarch amassed a fortune through his Renova conglomerate, which spans energy, heavy industry and finance, probably making him Russia’s ninth-richest person. He has remained in the Kremlin’s favour and was last year given a state honour by Putin.
Vekselberg was also a guest at a now notorious December 2015 dinner in Moscow celebrating the RT television channel, which was attended by Putin and Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser.
Columbus Nova is described on its website as “the US investment vehicle for the Renova Group”. The company’s chief executive, Andrew Intrater, contributed $250,000 to Trump’s presidential inauguration fund in January last year and a further $35,000 to Trump’s re-election fund in June last year.
It was not clear from Avenatti’s document whether these contributions were connected to the new allegations. Intrater did not respond to an email asking whether the allegations were accurate.
An attorney for Columbus Nova, Richard Owens, said in an email that the company was owned by Americans and that Vekselberg had no involvement in the payments to Cohen.
“After the inauguration, the firm hired Michael Cohen as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures,” said Owens.
Avenatti asserted that Cohen also collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees from corporate clients. AT&T was said to have paid Cohen’s firm $200,000 in four monthly installments from October 2017. Trump’s administration was at the time considering whether to allow an $85bn merger of AT&T and Time Warner, which it has since rejected.
In an emailed statement, AT&T said: “Essential Consultants was one of several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration. They did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017.”
Avenatti said that a subsidiary of Novartis paid Cohen’s company almost $400,000 “in late 2017 and early 2018”. Novartis’s incoming chief executive, Vas Narasimhan, was one of several businesspeople invited to dinner with Trump at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on 25 January.
A spokesman for Novartis said in an email: “Any agreements with Essential Consultants were entered before our current CEO taking office in February of this year and have expired.”
Avenatti has become one of the most publicly visible foes of Trump and Cohen since being recruited to represent Clifford in the fallout of the payoff and secrecy agreement arranged by Cohen being publicly revealed. Clifford has filed civil lawsuits against Trump and Cohen.
Avenatti told the Guardian last weekend, without offering any new evidence, that he believed Trump would have to resign from the presidency: “I firmly believe there is going to be too much evidence of wrongdoing by him and those around him for him to be able to survive the balance of his term.”