AT&T Says It Paid Michael Cohen’s Firm for ‘Insights’ Into Trump Administration

Michael Cohen
Seth Wenig/AP/REX/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — AT&T said it retained Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s consulting firm to provide “insights” into the Trump administration in 2017.

The company at the time was seeking approval for its mammoth merger with Time Warner, a deal that Trump publicly opposed at the outset and that the Justice Department ultimately sued to block.

The revelation came after Michael Avenatti, adult film actress Stormy Daniels’ attorney, claimed in a tweet that Cohen’s firm received $200,000 in four separate payments of $50,000 in late 2017 and early 2018 from AT&T.

It was among a number of findings Avenatti disclosed as part of his firm’s investigation of the source of the $130,000 payment that Cohen’s firm, Essential Consultants, made as part of a settlement in which Daniels would agree not to talk about an alleged affair with Trump.

“Essential Consultants was one of several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration,” an AT&T spokeswoman said on Tuesday. “They did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017.”

It’s unclear what exactly Cohen’s firm did for AT&T or what kind of work was performed.

Essential Consultants was retained shortly after the inauguration, and a person familiar with the situation said that Cohen’s firm was hired to “understand the players of the new administration,” and for purposes not specific to the merger.

But after Trump’s election, AT&T-Time Warner faced the prospect of an occupant of the White House opposed to their merger. Trump railed against the deal on the campaign trail, warning of too much concentration of the news media, as AT&T would be buying Time Warner-owned CNN.

At a conference in December, 2016, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said that “anytime the president of the United States comes out and says they’re not in favor of what you’re trying to do, you have to pay attention. But I don’t know what part of the deal he’s referring to. I’ve heard rumors he’s not happy with CNN, so that might have come into it.”

In the weeks and months after the election, the thinking on Wall Street was that the Justice Department ultimately would give the transaction the green light. AT&T had high hopes that, despite Trump’s campaign comments, the Antitrust Division would approve the deal.

Stephenson met with Trump during the presidential transition period in January of 2016, but said that the topics discussed were regulatory reform and tax reform. The company at the time said the merger was not discussed. In June, Stephenson attended a White House meeting on emerging technologies in June of 2017, where Trump publicly praised him.

Trump said little publicly about the merger in the early months of his administration, but he did continue to bash CNN, even retweeting a doctored video where he body slams a man with a network logo superimposed on his head.

In July, a Democratic senator on Capitol Hill queried Attorney General Jeff Sessions on whether the president’s dismay over the network’s coverage was playing any role in the merger’s antitrust review.

By the fall, it became clear to AT&T and Time Warner that the Antitrust Division would not approve the deal without divesting Turner networks, the division that includes CNN, or DirecTV.

The Justice Department sued to block the merger in November of 2017, and following a six-week trial, a federal judge plans to issue a ruling on June 12.

Stephenson said in February that Trump’s dislike of CNN was the “elephant in the room” when it came to the merger review. But Makan Delrahim, the chief of the Antitrust Division, denied in an affidavit that he received “orders, instructions or directions” on the merger from Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other lead officials in White House and Justice Department.

In his tweet, Avenatti also said they have discovered that Cohen received approximately $500,000 in the months after the election from a company controlled by Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, who has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “These monies may have reimbursed the $130k payment,” Avenatti wrote.

Vekselberg is among those who have been questioned by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team in their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to The New York Times.

Avenatti also claimed that Cohen’s firm collected payments from Novartis and Korea Aerospace Industries.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is representing Trump in legal matters related to the Russia investigation, revealed last week that the president reimbursed Cohen for the $130,000 payment. Cohen is under investigation by federal prosecutors in New York.

Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, said on Twitter that the payment raises serious issues of buying influence.

“Not law. Not lobbying. Just a company standing in front of a boy asking him to love her? Make that a company that requires federal approval of a merger standing in front of an attorney for the president-elect who opposes the merger asking him to share ‘insights.’ For cash.” Shaun is now senior director of ethics at the Campaign Legal Center.