PIPELINE

Michael Cohen Took Cash From Oligarch-Connected Firm

The Daily Beast can confirm a key part of the claim Michael Avenatti made Tuesday about Donald Trump’s lawyer.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

The Daily Beast can confirm that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen received hundreds of thousands of dollars from a company connected to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.

The allegations were initially made Tuesday by Michael Avenatti, porn actress Stormy Daniels’ lawyer, and confirmed by a source familiar with the matter.

“How the fuck did Avenatti find out?” the source asked The Daily Beast.

According to a dossier published by Avenatti on Tuesday evening, “Vekselberg and his cousin Mr. Andrew Intrater routed eight payments to Mr. Cohen through a company named Columbus Nova LLC beginning in January 2017 and continuing until at least August 2017.”

The funds, Avenatti suggested, may have been used to reimburse Cohen for the $130,000 payment made to Daniels in exchange for her silence about an alleged affair with Trump.

Intrater was also a donor to the Republican National Committee, on which Cohen served as a deputy finance chairman. In June 2017, Intrater donated $35,000 to a joint fundraising committee for the RNC and Trump’s reelection campaign. He also gave a quarter-million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee. (Previously, Intrater gave only to Democrats like Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Ted Kennedy.)

Intrater and Vekselberg have also been active investors in the U.S. technology and media sectors. Columbus Nova Technology Partners was the first and only outside investor in Gawker Media, before the company was felled by a lawsuit funded by Trump ally Peter Thiel. Columbus Nova also backed the record label of former Def Jam boss Lyor Cohen, invested in the streaming-music pioneer Rhapsody, and put money behind a gig-economy site, a “genetic risk” firm, and a company called Tomfoolery Incorporated.

In a statement, Columbus Nova lawyer Richard Owens of Latham & Watkins insisted that Vekselberg did not have an ownership interest in the firm. “Reports today that Viktor Vekselberg used Columbus Nova as a conduit for payments to Michael Cohen are false. The claim that Viktor Vekselberg was involved in or provided any funding for Columbus Nova’s engagement of Michael Cohen is patently untrue,” Owens said. “Neither Viktor Vekselberg nor anyone else outside of Columbus Nova was involved in the decision to hire Cohen or provided funding for his engagement.”

However, up until Tuesday night, Columbus Nova’s own website described the company is “the U.S. investment vehicle for the Renova Group”—Vekselberg’s asset-management firm. The site also noted that Intrater “is a former Director and current Member of the Executive Board of Renova Group.” (That page of the site was suddenly removed early Wednesday morning.)

In addition, Columbus Nova was listed on the website for the Renova Group as one of its “companies” until late last year, as NBC News reported. (That website is currently “under construction.”)

Through Renova, Vekselberg has holdings all over the world—including a 26.2 percent stake in Rusal, the aluminum-producing giant owned by Oleg Deripaska, the Russian oligarch now infamous for bankrolling former Trump campaign boss Paul Manafort. The U.S. government imposed economic sanctions on both Deripaska and Vekselberg in early April. But later that month, the U.S. Treasury Department, in effect, slow-rolled the sanctions, giving companies and individuals until late October to get out of business with Rusal, which is appealing Washington’s ruling. “Given the impact on our partners and allies, we are... extending the maintenance and wind-down period while we consider Rusal’s petition,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

According to The New York Times, Vekselberg was recently questioned by federal agents working with special counsel Robert Mueller. CNN reported that those queries involved the oligarch’s payments to Cohen.

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While Cohen’s lawyers refused to comment on the payments, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani dismissed the news as Avenatti having foreseen the president’s Tuesday withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal—part of “one of the best days of the Trump presidency”—and simply trying to “stink it up as much as possible.”

Cohen and Trump’s lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But this development could put further pressure on the president’s inner circle. If Avenatti’s analysis is correct and the payments violated federal banking law, then Cohen could be in serious legal jeopardy. There are reportedly concerns in the president’s inner circle that Cohen could begin cooperating with investigators. The greater the legal jeopardy he faces, the greater pressure he will face to cooperate. And he wouldn’t be the only one; former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Trump campaign official Rick Gates are already cooperating with Mueller’s investigators.

Meanwhile, Avenatti is making a sport of riding Cohen in the press.

When Cohen appeared in federal court last month, Avenatti and his porn-star client were in the gallery watching. Following the appearance, Daniels crowed to a gaggle of reporters, “For years, Mr. Cohen has acted like he is above the law, he has considered himself and openly referred to himself as Mr. Trump’s fixer. He has played by a different set of rules, or should we say no rules at all.”

“That ends now,” Daniels concluded.

Avenatti also filed a defamation claim against Cohen one day after Daniels’ highly anticipated 60 Minutes appearance.

Days after Cohen won a 90-day stay in Daniels’ lawsuit and said he’d invoke his Fifth Amendment rights in the case, Avenatti filed a defamation claim against the president.

—Additional reporting by Lisa Schwartz and Betsy Woodruff

UPDATE: This story has been updated with a statement from Columbus Nova and additional information on its relationship to Viktor Vekselberg.