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Michael Cohen’s mysterious communiques with a big pharma company, explained

Novartis paid Cohen $1 million. A new Senate report casts doubt on claims the company got nothing from him.

Michael Cohen Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AFP/Getty
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

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It’s easy to forget, but remember that time Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer who finds himself right in the middle of Robert Mueller’s investigation, was paid $1 million by one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world?

Yeah, that happened — and a trove of new documents, released Friday by Senate Democrats, give us a little clearer picture of what exactly was going on with Mr. Cohen and Novartis.

If you really did forget, the story we heard in May was that Novartis paid Cohen $100,000 a month for 12 months to provide some expertise about the new Trump administration, with an incoming president who had made a big show of promising to bring down drug prices.

Novartis claimed, at the time, that they had one meeting with Cohen, found that the Trump attorney didn’t really know anything about health policy, and ended the professional relationship. They said they were obligated under their contract with Cohen to keep paying him, which struck people at the time as a little strange.

And the new communications between Cohen and Novartis revealed in the Senate report ... complicate the picture painted by the company.

There isn’t necessarily any smoking gun of wrongdoing here and we shouldn’t be surprised perhaps that a major drug manufacturer would use every tool at its disposal, including money and influence, to figure out how to advance its interests.

But I think there are at least two important lessons from this new report:

  1. Communications between Cohen and Novartis executives extended beyond the one meeting that the company initially disclosed, after which it said it had decided it no longer wanted Cohen’s services.
  2. Cohen and Novartis’s CEO certainly appeared to discuss Trump’s agenda on drug prices, an agenda that, as we have reviewed at length, always seems to be favorable toward pharma.

These findings add up to a portrait of a major pharmaceutical company having much more contact with one of Trump’s closest associates than previously disclosed, and it would appear that Trump’s drug pricing agenda was on the docket.

I’ve tried to document this in a few different pieces, but it’s worth repeating with these unusually heightened circumstances: The pharma industry has very successfully courted Donald Trump since he took office, and his administration has yet to propose any policies that would seriously take a bite out of drug makers’ bottom line.

Read the full Senate report if you like, but here are the most pertinent details I think:

  • Novartis previously said they held one meeting with Cohen in March 2017, and that was the extent of his services. According to Senate Democrats, Cohen and the company’s CEO were in contact for at least six more months.

Novartis’s CEO at the time, Joseph Jimenez, had two scheduled calls with Cohen in April. There appears to have been another call in late May or early June, Senate investigators found.

Jimenez and Cohen then exchanged a half-dozen emails in June about “drug pricing initiatives.” (We’ll get back to that.) There were still more emails in August, another scheduled call in September, and at least one more email that month. Jimenez announced in September he would step down as CEO come January, which he did.

Senate Democrats said these communications are “plainly inconsistent” with Novartis’s claim that its relationship with Cohen ended in March.

In a new statement, Novartis still maintained that they never asked Cohen to perform any services for them after the March meeting — apparently, the phone calls and emails do not qualify by the company’s definition. They said they “disagreed” with the Senate report’s claim that they had put out a misleading statement.

  • Cohen was shepherding drug pricing policy ideas between Novartis and an unknown third party.

As part of those extended communications, Jimenez sent Cohen in June a list of policy recommendations about how to lower drug prices. Cohen referenced an unknown third party and he later indicated that he was expecting to receive a report soon from that third party and he would then share it with Novartis.

Novartis-Cohen email

Senate Democrats astutely note that these messages were sent around the same time the Trump administration was reportedly developing an executive order to lower drug prices.

Novartis’s proposals were pretty boilerplate: reducing regulations, speeding up generic drug approvals, forcing changes to insurance benefits for drugs. Some of them did end up in the Trump administration’s blueprint for reducing drug costs, though the connection between the end product and the proposals Novartis provided to Cohen is unknown. They are after all standard in pharma’s public positions too.

“Many of the policies in this document were eventually adopted in the administration’s drug pricing plan, although the relationship between the administration’s actions and this document is unclear,” Senate Democrats said.

Novartis told Senate investigators that Cohen said he had a “friend” who was working on pharmaceutical policy ideas to discuss with the Trump administration. The company also said that it never saw the report Cohen had pledged to share with them.

The company also said that Mr. Cohen never identified to who he was speaking, or who was supposedly creating a report, and that Mr. Jimenez and Mr. Cohen never discussed the topic further.

Okay then.

There is other interesting trivia in here. Apparently Cohen pushed Novartis to invest in a smaller pharma firm developing an autism treatment that had some vague links to a Russian oligarch. Senate Democrats also make the case that Novartis could have gotten out of their contract with Cohen if they really wanted to, which of course raises the question about why they didn’t.

Whatever the case, the company — now under new leadership, I should reiterate — is contrite.

”As we have already acknowledged, Novartis made a mistake in entering into the contract with Michael Cohen,” the company said in its statement. “And in hindsight — and certainly knowing everything we know now — we should have tried to terminate the contract with Mr. Cohen regardless of our views at the time of its legal enforceability.”

In the end, this won’t be more than a footnote for Cohen or for Trump’s mostly failed promise to bring down drug prices. But it is an unfettered look into this universe, where money can pay for access, which can get you a foot in the door even as the new president openly accuses your industry of “getting away with murder.”

Cohen’s contract with Novartis certainly isn’t the beginning or the end of pharma’s influence campaign during the Trump administration. But it sure seems like investments like these have paid off.

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