|INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS TIMES|
I have long believed that the many shady deals that Donald Trump, his fixer Michael Cohen and their associates made with Russians, Ukrainians and others in the years before he became president are of less importance to Special Counsel Robert Mueller and other investigators than the individuals involved in those deals. That has been borne out in another stunning week of revelations about how profoundly corrupt this crowd is, so stunning that they threatened to push aside Trump's deeply reckless scuttling of the Iran nuclear agreement and North Korean prisoner release dog-and-pony show.
Leading this hit parade is Viktor Vekselberg, a billionaire industrialist who is one of the richest men in Russia, a member of Vladimir Putin's inner circle and guest of honor at Trump's inauguration.
Vekselberg first came to the attention of investigators when a pattern emerged beginning with the 2015-16 election cycle. Emigrees from the former Soviet Union and Russia were making millions of dollars in contributions to the Trump campaign and Republican politicians after becoming American citizens, thereby circumventing a ban on foreigners contributing directly to U.S. political campaigns. Several such U.S. citizens had associations with Vekselberg and Oleg Deripaska, who is another Putin pal and key Russia scandal figure.
Vekselberg was stopped by FBI agents working for Mueller when his private jet landed at a New York area airport in early March and his electronic devices were searched. He and Deripaska were among the seven Russian billionaires and 17 top government officials sanctioned by the Trump administration on April 6 in the most aggressive effort to punish Putin's inner circle for interference in the 2016 election and other Russian aggressions.
The trickle of revelations became a flood on Tuesday night when Stormy Daniels' attorney Michael Avenatti posted what he called a "Preliminary Report" on Cohen's financial transactions.
Long story short, the porn star's bulldog lawyer says that Vekselberg funneled more than $500,000 through Columbus Nova, a U.S. investment firm he controls, into Essential Consultants LLC, the shell company that Cohen had used in late October 2016 -- a few days before the election -- to make his infamous $130,000 hush payment to the porn star and later to arrange another hush agreement for billionaire Elliott Broidy, a then-Republican National Committee (RNC) financial chair who knocked up a Playboy bunny.
Columbus Nova said it retained Cohen as a consultant "regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures."
Meanwhile, it appears that Cohen, finding himself on the outside of the Trump White House looking in early in 2017, cold-called major corporations, which were as surprised and nervous about Trump's ground shaking victory as anyone. Cohen noted that he was still the new president's lawyer and offered them access to him -- for a price.
Swiss drug manufacturer Novartis paid Cohen $1.2 million for work it now says he was "unable" to do, but paid him the full amount anyway because it didn't want to piss off the president. AT&T made payments totaling $600,000 and Korea Aerospace Industries paid $150,000 in what The New York Times preliminarily estimates to be at least $4.4 million in payments to Essential Consultants. The corporations have confirmed the payments and amounts, while Novartis and AT&T said they had been contacted by officials from Mueller's office in November of last year.
In other words, Essential Consultants was used not just to silence uppity women, but took beaucoup bucks from at least one Russian oligarch and several Fortune 500 companies looking for access to President Trump by making off-the-books payments to what has all the earmarks of being a slush fund.
The corporate payments appear to be "just garden variety corruption," as Josh Marshall astutely characterizes these pay-to-play transactions at Talking Points Memo. They also probably explain why Mueller handed off to the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan certain information he had uncovered in the course of his investigation, information that may have led to the raids on Cohen's office, apartment and hotel room early last month.
If that isn't odiferous enough, what stinks to high heaven is the Vekselberg dough, which reveals not just collusion between Trump's bag man and a Russian, but collusion at the highest level.
Vekselberg recently increased his share to 26.5 percent in the aluminum firm Rusal, which was owned by Deripaska, the Russian billionaire whose ties to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort are under scrutiny by Mueller. Columbus Nova's chief U.S. executive is Vekselberg's cousin, Andrew Intrater, a U.S. citizen. Intrater and another of Vekselberg's American partners donated more than $1 million to Trump's inaugural committee, and Vekselberg also has had business ties Trump Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Vekselberg and the corporations trotted out ad hominem statements that Cohen was paid for so-called legitimate services.
AT&T gets extra points for saying that the telecom had contracted with him "to provide insights into understanding the new administration," while not noting it had announced its intention to merge with Time Warner, whose television division includes CNN, the president’s leading cable news adversary, and Novartis gets bonus points for saying it went with Cohen because it thought he could advise them on U.S. health care policy, something about which he knows squat but happens to be thisclose to Trump. Not to be left out of the dumb derby, Korea Aerospace solemnly said it had hired Cohen "to inform reorganization of our internal accounting system."
If everything was so kosher, why then did the oligarch and corporations funnel payments through a shell company created for the sole purpose of hiding financial transactions?
Avenatti says he knows more than he's telling, including where all the dough went after it left the shell company, and it's pretty obvious that he has gained access to bank records, possibly those of First National Bank, where Essential Consultants had an account, or Suspicious Activity Reports filed by the bank with the Treasury Department. The Treasury Department's inspector general obviously is thinking along those lines since it was announced Wednesday afternoon that he is investigating whether confidential banking information related to Essential Consultants may have been leaked.
All of this is not really about Cohen, although he is the primary perp here.
It is all about Trump, who regardless of how much he knew about Cohen's influence pimping after he got shut out of a White House job because he was too toxic even by Trump administration standards, has relied extensively on Cohen to fix, cover-up and intimidate when anyone has threatened the man with the small hands and peculiar hair over the last 12 years.
We also know, thanks to some ace reporting from The Washington Post as the week began, that with Cohen's emergence in 2006 as a conduit for money from Russia and Ukraine, Trump moved dramatically from accumulating enormous bank debt into paying cold cash.
To call the latest bombshell a smoking gun may be premature, but it further confirms what the real smarties have been saying all along -- that it will be the money that brings Trump down, not obstruction of justice or collusion. And begs the question of whether Cohen, who is in scalding hot water, will turn on his master.
The crap and corruption that Donald Trump has visited upon America has produced some fabulous long-form journalism beyond the multiple blockbusters published by The New York Times and The Washington Post.§
Check out "The First Porn President" by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic. It has real bite and is beautifully written.
Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.