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Opinion writer

Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former “personal lawyer,” has had a remarkable career, by which I mostly mean that it’s remarkable that he hasn’t gone to jail yet. But the law is catching up to him, which may also mean that it’s catching up to the president.

Last night we got some new and tantalizing news, which I’m going to try to put in context.

I think the best way to understand it is this: When someone does business with Cohen, they may not be doing it for legitimate reasons. If you need a lawyer or some real estate advice and it’s all aboveboard, this is not the man you seek out. If you do, there will almost inevitably be something fishy going on. It might or might not be illegal, but it will definitely be sketchy in one way or another. And there are some interesting people doing business with Cohen.

Last night, Michael Avenatti, Stormy Daniels’s lawyer, went public with the results of an investigation he claimed provided details on transactions to and from Essential Consultants, the shell company Cohen set up in Delaware to pay Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about the affair she says she had with President Trump. You’ll recall that Trump first denied that he knew anything about it, but then his lawyer Rudy Giuliani admitted that he reimbursed Cohen for the payoff.

Avenatti’s case has been deemed credible by multiple news organizations. The Post’s Philip Bump summarizes:

On Tuesday, Daniels’s current attorney, Michael Avenatti, released a document detailing a much more complex set of transactions involving the Essential Consultants account with First National Bank. In total, he alleged, more than $4 million passed through the account in 2017 and early this year, including payments from entities associated with major companies such as AT&T and the drug company Novartis. Most explosively, he claimed that Essential Consultants had received $500,000 from a company affiliated with the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.

Last week, the New York Times reported that Vekselberg had been detained and questioned by federal agents related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe earlier this year. Vekselberg attended Trump’s inauguration, as well as a December 2015 dinner in Moscow that was also attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin and former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn.

AT&T and Novartis acknowledged the payments, with the former describing Essential Consultants as being one of a series of firms hired to “provide insights into understanding the new administration.” An attorney for the firm Columbus Nova — the one associated with Vekselberg — told The Washington Post that the payments were for consulting work not related to the Russian or his business, Renova Group.

To my point that when you engage Cohen you’re doing something questionable, let’s begin with AT&T. As it happens, the company was seeking a multibillion-dollar merger with Time Warner that has to be approved by the federal government. Trump opposed the deal as a candidate, and his Justice Department has sued to stop it; the matter is currently before the courts.

AT&T already employs a small army of lawyers and lobbyists, and indeed, the company issued a statement saying Cohen “did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017.” So they paid Cohen a few hundred thousand dollars for nothing but his “insights.” Might it be that the company saw dropping a heap of money on Cohen as a way to get an inside track to the president and win his goodwill?

What insights did Novartis want? Its biggest priority is probably to prevent the government from taking any action to reduce drug prices, as Trump has periodically claimed he wants to do. Novartis, which has been questioned about this by Mueller’s team, says it “entered into a one year agreement with Essential Consultants shortly after the election of President Trump focused on U.S. healthcare policy matters,” for which it paid Cohen a remarkable $1.2 million. Ah yes, it was seeking Cohen’s health-care expertise.

Another company, Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd, which is contending for a large Air Force contract, paid Cohen $150,000. It told The Post that “the payments were to provide legal consulting to assist in the company’s reorganization of its ‘internal accounting system’ and did not involve the Air Force deal or other lobbying.” Sure, that’s believable. Why wouldn’t a large foreign corporation hire Trump’s lawyer, who certainly isn’t an accountant, to help it reorganize its accounting system?

And what about the Russian oligarch? What was he seeking from Cohen? Columbus Nova told the Wall Street Journal that it “hired Michael Cohen as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures.”

Boy, there sure are a lot of people eager to acquire Cohen’s brilliant insights.

The most benign interpretation of all this would be that once Trump got elected, Cohen put out the word that if you wanted to make sure the president heard your case on whatever matters you might have before the government, a good way to do it was to slip his “personal lawyer” a six-figure check. This would have been quite foolish on the corporations’ part, since there’s little evidence that Cohen exercises any influence over Trump now, if he ever did. But Cohen may just have been capitalizing on his newfound renown by taking this corporate money for essentially nothing.

In other words, the best interpretation is that while all this money flowing to Cohen was corrupt in its intentions it might not be technically illegal, depending on what was said and done. But this raises all kinds of questions, and now that prosecutors are giving Cohen and his activities a thorough going-over, they’re going to find a heck of a lot more.

For instance, Cohen says he had three legal clients: Donald Trump, Sean Hannity and Elliott Broidy, a major Republican donor who used Cohen to engineer a $1.6 million payoff to a Playboy model with whom he supposedly had an affair and got pregnant. This story is full of gaping holes, not least of which is the question of why a super-rich guy like Broidy who has used some of the country’s most elite lawyers would turn to a schlub like Cohen to resolve this sensitive situation. Could it be that Broidy — who has his own lucrative matters before the government, and once pleaded guilty to “felony charge of rewarding official misconduct” — was acting as a cutout for the person who really had the affair with the model, a person with a close relationship to Cohen?

Who knows. But we also have to keep in mind that this is likely not the complete story of people sending money to Cohen for any number of reasons. There’s likely a lot more to learn about Michael Cohen’s finances, and some of it may be dirty. We have no idea where that’s all going to intersect with Cohen’s main client.

But to repeat, when you work with Michael Cohen, it’s probably because you’re up to something sketchy. And that applies to Donald Trump, too.