DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There are some significant new allegations being leveled at President Trump's longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen. Cohen, of course, has acknowledged paying porn star Stormy Daniels as part of a nondisclosure agreement surrounding an alleged affair with the president. Now Daniels' lawyer says Cohen accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from several companies, including a private equity firm linked to a Russian oligarch with ties to the Kremlin. Here's her lawyer Michael Avenatti on CNN last night.
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MICHAEL AVENATTI: We have yet to hear an explanation from Michael Cohen as to why the personal attorney to the president of the United States, who at the time, at least for a portion of that time was employed by the Trump organization, would be accepting payments from a Russian oligarch to the tune of a half a million dollars.
GREENE: OK. Let's sort through what we know with NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas. Hi, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.
GREENE: OK. Remind us first why Cohen matters here and his relationship with President Trump.
LUCAS: So Cohen was the personal lawyer to Trump for many years, also served kind of in this role of a fixer, and that's the role that he played with the payments made to Daniels. So Cohen set up a shell company called Essential Consultants - this was shortly before the election - and used that company to make that $130,000 payment to Daniels as part of the nondisclosure agreement.
This is where things start to get a little bit tricky, though. Daniels' lawyer Michael Avenatti released a summary of a report that claims that Cohen's shell company received hundreds of thousands of dollars of payments, several big-name companies among those. AT&T reportedly paid around $200,000, Novartis Pharmaceuticals around $400,000. A company called Korea Aerospace Industries paid $150,000, and a private equity company called Columbus Nova, LLC, around half a million dollars. And it's that last company, Columbus Nova, that has generated a lot of interest because it has links to a Russian oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg, who has ties to the Kremlin.
GREENE: OK. Some, if not all, of these companies have business before the government. One, it looks like, some ties to Russia and oligarch and the Kremlin. This is certainly not insignificant if these are companies that are paying money to the president's personal attorney. What evidence is there of this? I mean, a little weird that it's coming from Stormy Daniels' attorney. Like, is he presenting evidence of these payments?
LUCAS: He doesn't. No. And we haven't seen the underlying documents that he has used to make these claims. The companies, however, have acknowledged that they engaged Cohen. AT&T said that it hired essential consultants for, quote, "insights into understanding the new administration."
GREENE: Just being open - they're honest about that that's what they were doing. about that that they were doing.
LUCAS: That's what they were doing. But they said it wasn't legal, wasn't lobbying work. The contract is over. Novartis said any agreements that it entered into have expired. Korea Aerospace told NPR it was a short-term consulting contract regarding rules related to accounting and government procedures, government procurements. Columbus Nova said it hired Cohen as a business consulting regarding potential investments. It also rejected claims that the oligarch Vekselberg was involved in these decisions at all.
GREENE: OK. Then what do we know about the potential Russia connection there?
LUCAS: Well, remember, Trump has acknowledged that Cohen represented him in the Daniels payment. Avenatti, Daniels' lawyer, is suggesting that the funds that Columbus Nova sent Cohen may have been used to reimburse Cohen for the Daniels matter. Now, there's no evidence backing up that that he presented. It's important really to emphasize that point. But either way, all of these payments do raise a lot of questions. Chief among them, why is the president's personal lawyer receiving large amounts of cash from these companies? Now, there could be an innocent explanation. There may also be a less innocent explanation.
GREENE: What does all of this have to do with Stormy Daniels and the nondisclosure agreement and her lawsuit against the president?
LUCAS: Well, lawsuits sometimes have a way of heading down roads that are not exactly expected when they first begin. And sometimes they turn up things that are seemingly unrelated to the original question. The Avenatti claims here obviously are explosive if they are true. They provide a bunch of new dots for us to connect. But remember, while we in the public don't know all of these dots and whether they are indeed - whether they all add up. Remember that federal investigators and FBI agents raided Cohen's offices in New York last month. They are looking into his business dealings. So while we may not know how all of these dots connect, prosecutors may.
GREENE: They might already be connecting some of these dots.
GREENE: NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas. Thanks.
LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.