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We just learned that a Russian oligarch’s company sent $500,000 to Michael Cohen

And Robert Mueller wants to know why.

Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

A Russian oligarch’s company paid Michael Cohen hundreds of thousands of dollars after the 2016 election — and special counsel Robert Mueller wants to know why.

Billionaire Viktor Vekselberg chairs a company called the Renova Group, and a US-based subsidiary of that company sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to Cohen, CNN’s Kara Scannell and Shimon Prokupecz reported Tuesday evening, citing sources familiar with the matter.

The report, which has since been confirmed by the Daily Beast’s Betsy Woodruff, Noah Schachtman, and Kate Briquelet, raises some extremely serious questions about just why this oligarch was paying Donald Trump’s personal lawyer large amounts of money.

Mueller seems to be asking those questions. When Vekselberg traveled to the United States earlier this year, Mueller’s investigators questioned the billionaire at an airport and searched his electronic devices. The CNN team reports that the payments to Cohen were one subject of Mueller’s questioning. According to the New York Times, a lawyer for the company in question “described the money as a consulting fee that had nothing to do with Mr. Vekselberg.”

There’s another twist. Shortly before the new CNN report went live, Michael Avenatti — the high-profile lawyer who represents Stormy Daniels — claimed on Twitter that he has obtained information about Cohen’s finances. In fact, Avenatti was the first to claim that Vekselberg’s company sent $500,000 to an account controlled by Cohen.

The Atlantic’s Natasha Bertrand got in touch with Cohen’s lawyer, Steve Ryan, for comment on Avenatti’s allegation. Bertrand says Ryan disputed her use of the particular word “payment.” However, it does not seem that he made any claims that Avenatti’s information was false.

The money itself came from “Columbus Nova,” the US-based subsidiary of Vekselberg’s company, which is run by his cousin Andrew Intrater. It was also reported last year that Intrater donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration — which raised eyebrows considering that, per a Mother Jones report, he had “no public history as a major political funder.”

Could this money be connected to Russian collusion in some way? Or is it instead some sort of side hustle from Cohen that doesn’t implicate President Trump at all? The implications of all this aren’t entirely clear. But the new reports raise many more questions.

Avenatti also describes many other money transfers he says came to or from Cohen’s accounts

Avenatti’s information doesn’t end there, though. On Tuesday, he posted a seven-page PDF document from what he calls “Project Sunlight,” listing what he claims is other information about transactions from bank accounts controlled by Cohen.

To recap: It’s been well-documented that in October 2016, Cohen set up a shell company called “Essential Consultants LLC,” which he used to send $130,000 in hush money meant for Stormy Daniels.

Now, though, Avenatti says he’s learned more about this and other accounts controlled by Cohen. His major claims include:

1) The Viktor Vekselberg company money: Avenatti says that between January and August 2017, Cohen was sent a total of about $500,000 over eight payments from Columbus Nova LLC, which is the US investment arm of Vekselberg’s company the Renova Group.

2) Novartis money: Avenatti says that between October 2017 and January 2018, Novartis sent $399,920 over four payments to the Essential Consultants account.

3) AT&T money: Avenatti says that AT&T sent Essential Consultants $200,000 over four payments, again between October 2017 and January 2018. (AT&T has confirmed making the payments.)

4) Korea Aerospace Industries money: Avenatti says this company sent Cohen $150,000 in November 2017.

5) Elliott Broidy’s money: Broidy, a former RNC fundraiser close to the White House, sent at least $187,500 to Cohen’s accounts, according to Avenatti. Reports quoting anonymous sources have previously suggested that Cohen was making sex scandal hush money payments on Broidy’s behalf.

Some of these claims are unconfirmed. But it does appear that Avenatti’s information about the Vekselberg company money is accurate, and AT&T has confirmed the claim about its own payments — which raises questions about whether these other companies paid Cohen too, and what they might have hoped to get in return.

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