Michael Cohen's consulting company could become a legal headache for President Trump. But it is also politically problematic as those in Trump's orbit are pumping gobs of new muck into the swamp they pledged to drain.
As part of Essential Consulting, a company formed by Cohen weeks before the 2016 election, the president's personal attorney and self-described "fixer" paid $130,000 to adult film star Stormy Daniels in order to keep quiet about her alleged affair with Trump. But it turns out that Cohen's company did a lot more than that, collecting $2.3 million from corporate clients, including a consulting firm tied to a prominent Russian oligarch, drugmaker Novartis, a Korean aerospace company with a contract before the government and AT&T. “I’m crushing it,” Cohen said, according to an associate who spoke to him in the summer of 2017, per some great reporting by my colleagues Michael Kranish, Rosalind S. Helderman, Carolyn Y. Johnson and Josh Dawsey.
They all seemed to want insight, at the least, into a Trump administration that supposedly wasn't beholden to corporate interests or the establishment lobbyists in Washington.
"He contacted us after the new administration was in place," a Novartis official told NBC News on Wednesday. “He was promising access to the new administration.” The pharmaceutical giant then inked a year-long contract with Cohen for $1.2 million — an arrangement that has earned scrutiny from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team. And AT&T paid Cohen $600,000 for work it described in a Wednesday email to employees as helping “understand how the President and his administration might approach a wide range of policy issues important to the company.” In addition to his undisclosed side work, Cohen secured a $500,000 contract with the legal and lobbying giant Squire Patton Boggs, a deal one person familiar described to The Washington Post as a "no-brainer."
Cohen is hardly alone in seeking to profit from moneyed interests desperate to gain a foothold in a new administration stocked with Washington outsiders. Indeed, Trump’s surprise win spawned a boom for confidants and hangers-on pitching access and guidance.
Today, a gusher of money from special interests continues flowing to a cottage industry of figures — some now household names to political junkies, others far more obscure — that have embedded themselves in the influence industry Trump promised to dismantle.
Here’s a look at some of them:
Corey Lewandowski. Trump’s firebrand ex-campaign manager hasn’t registered as a federal lobbyist since 2011. That hasn’t stopped him from signing clients on the promise of access to the commander-in-chief. The month after the election, he hung out a shingle with fellow Trump alum Barry Bennett. “I've never said I'm going to be a registered lobbyist,” Lewandowski said at the time. “What we're going to do is make sure individuals who want to support Trump's agenda will have the opportunity to do that.” Bennett tells The Post the firm had more interest than it could handle: “When we opened our doors, the phone just rang and rang and rang. . . . We turned a lot of business away. My guess is that anybody who was perceived as close to Trump, their phones were ringing like ours. It was like shooting fish in the barrel.”
Lewandowski quit the firm — called Avenue Strategies — last May after a spate of reports questioning his decision not to register “even though his firm appeared to be offering potential foreign and other clients access to top administration officials,” The Post’s Tom Hamburger wrote.
Yet he reportedly kept at it. Last August, Politico reported that Lewandowski pressed Trump for emergency federal assistance to the coal industry on behalf of FirstEnergy, an Ohio electric utility, and Murray Energy, the coal giant. Lewandowski denied even working with the companies, calling it “more fake news.”
Brian Ballard. The veteran Florida moneyman and lobbyist has known Trump since the 1980s, represented him in Florida starting in 2013, and became a top fundraiser nationally for his presidential campaign. He opened a Washington office at the urging of clients after the election and has made a mint since: “They didn’t have someone that was, not necessarily close, but could kind of speak the language,” Ballard told Bloomberg News’s Bill Allison in March. Per Allison, “By the end of 2017, Ballard Partners LP had racked up $9.8 million in federal lobbying fees, the most of any new K Street arrival in the two decades such records have been available.” Ballard’s sprawling client list includes Amazon.com, American Airlines, Prudential Financial, hedge fund Pointstate Capital, and Uber. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Jeff Miller. The former top strategist to now-Energy Secretary Rick Perry aide launched a lobbying operation last spring and hauled in roughly $2 million for the year with an energy-heavy client roster. He’s on pace to double that sum this year, having cleared more than $1 million in the first quarter alone, lobbying records show. That’s thanks to a growing stable of clients that includes Broadcom, Charles Schwab, hedge fund Paulson & Co., and The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. Miller hosted a private dinner benefiting the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action last month at which Trump made a rare evening appearance. “Someone with [Miller’s] connections and ability can command top dollar, so it is not surprising that he is making top dollar,” fellow GOP lobbyist Mike McKenna told E&E News last year.
David Urban. The former aide to the late Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has been a fixture at the American Continental Group, a lobbying firm, for sixteen years. The shop’s annual revenue hovered between $7 million and $8 million over a decade. Then Urban joined the Trump campaign in the early going, serving as a senior adviser with a focus on Pennsylvania, which Trump carried in both the primary and the general election. Urban, now a regular presence on CNN, has been mentioned as a possible White House chief of staff. And now ACG’s business is booming, with the firm signing a raft of new clients and pulling in $12.55 million last year.
David Tamasi. The finance chair for the Trump Victory Fund launched his firm, Chartwell Strategy Group, with a bipartisan handful of others in January. In an interview at the time with Politico’s Influence newsletter, Tamasi said the shop would be a “generalist-type firm.” He said that with the Trump administration, “there are not a lot of people who are credentialed [and] have an understanding or insight in terms of how to approach things ... across the board … We have people who are intuitively skilled at all of those things.” The firm pulled in $310,000 in the first quarter of the year from a client roster that includes LPL Financial, Mainstreet Asset Management and Putnam Investments, lobbying records show.
There are others. ProPublica points to six former administration officials who have returned to lobbying gigs, despite a Trump executive order requiring political appointees to pledge they wouldn’t leave and lobby their former agencies for at least five years. And as the Cohen and Lewandowski cases show, we don’t know what we don't know. The phenomenon of a shadow lobbyist isn’t new. In the last administration, for example, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) faced criticism for insisting he was serving as “strategic counsel” in declining to register as a lobbyist.
But the sui generis qualities of Trump’s presidency have created new opportunities for those with West Wing access looking to cash in. “You have to figure out what the president’s thinking, and nobody can do that except people who have had regular interactions with him,” one Republican lobbyist says. “Those people are getting paid. And there’s a lot of wink-and-nod lobbying that’s happening.”
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— Stocks rally. CNBC's Fred Imbert and Alexandra Gibbs: "Stocks rose on Wednesday as energy shares jumped on the back of a strong rally in oil prices. The move higher follows... Trump's decision to pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal. The S&P 500 closed 0.9 percent higher at 2,697.79, with energy rising 2 percent. Occidental Petroleum was one of the best-performing stocks in the S&P 500, rising 5.4 percent. Technology shares also boosted the broad index, rising 1.4 percent, while industrials, financials and materials also jumped."
— The coming wave of $4 trillion in corporate debt. Bloomberg's Shelly Hagan: "Corporate America partied like never before on cheap money over the past decade, and now comes the hangover. Companies will need to refinance an estimated $4 trillion of bonds over the next five years, about two-thirds of all their outstanding debt, according to Wells Fargo Securities. This has investors concerned because rising rates means it will cost more to pay for unprecedented amounts of borrowing, which could push balance sheets toward a tipping point. And on top of that, many see the economy slowing down at the same time the rollovers are peaking.”
— NAFTA talks bog down. The Post's David Lynch and Damian Paletta: "Negotiations over a new North American trade deal have hit a major snag, leaving White House officials increasingly uncertain of their ability to hit their May 18 deadline for securing congressional approval of a new deal before year’s end. The main stumbling block involves a dispute over determining which automobiles are given duty-free treatment under the agreement, according to five industry and U.S. government sources. After almost nine months of negotiations, the United States and its trading partners , Canada and Mexico, remain far apart on a host of contentious issues, including U.S. demands that the treaty must be renewed every five years...
"Missing next week’s deadline could have significant consequences, given the political calendars in both the United States and Mexico. Depending on what happens in the next 10 days, Trump could opt to pause the negotiations, claim a partial agreement or even withdraw from the existing accord, though that appears unlikely.
— China to offer to buy more U.S. goods. WSJ's Lingling Wei and Bob Davis: China likely will offer to import more U.S. goods during negotiations in Washington next week as the two sides see one of the best ways to avert an all-out trade war is for Beijing to buy American. Sufficient progress was made when a senior U.S. delegation went to Beijing last week, say the two sides, that China is dispatching its chief economic envoy, Liu He, to Washington in the days ahead, though China hasn’t confirmed his arrival date. Mr. Liu is expected to come with a shopping list of sorts, specific ideas for purchases designed to narrow the two country’s vast trade imbalance. Chinese officials expressed willingness to work with the U.S. to reduce the trade gap during last week’s talks."
— Democratic senators ask Icahn for waiver details. Reuters's Jarrett Renshaw: "Six Democratic U.S. senators have asked billionaire investor Carl Icahn and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt to explain how an Icahn-owned refinery secured a valuable EPA exemption from the nation’s biofuels law. The request, made in letters sent late on Tuesday and reviewed by Reuters, adds pressure on the embattled EPA chief over his pro-business policies, as well as on Icahn, whose dual role last year as an investor and presidential adviser is being investigated by the Justice Department. Reuters reported last week that EPA granted a small refinery hardship waiver from the nation’s biofuel laws to an Oklahoma refinery operated by Icahn’s CVR Energy Inc, allowing it to avoid tens of millions of dollars worth of costs related to the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard."
— Bernie's new plan to raise wages. The Post's Danielle Paquette: "Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced a plan Wednesday that he says will lift the nation's lagging wages by restoring power to unions and protecting workers in the gig economy — both top items on the labor movement’s wish list. The Workplace Democracy Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and 10 other Democrats, would make it easier for workers to organize, supporters say. The bill would allow employees to form a union by a majority sign-up process, rather than an election (which proponents say heightens the risk of employer meddling); require companies to negotiate with a new union within 10 days of receiving a request; mandate that workers in every state pay some dues to unions that represent them; and expand the law’s definition of 'employer,' a hotly debated term as the country’s contractor workforce expands."
— Senate edges closer to filling two Fed vacancies. American Banker's Kate Berry: "The Senate Banking Committee will consider the nominations of two nominees to the Federal Reserve next week. Lawmakers will vote on Columbia University Economist Richard Clarida to be the Federal Reserve's vice chairman and Kansas Banking Commissioner Michelle 'Micki' Bowman to join the Fed's board at a meeting on May 15, the panel said Tuesday. Clarida, a managing director at Pacific Investment Management Co., would fill the Fed's No. 2 position that has been vacant since Stanley Fischer retired in October."
— Mulvaney aims at student protection unit. The Post's Danielle Douglas-Gabriel: "The student arm of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is being folded into another office at the agency, a consolidation that some fear will limit its ability to stand up for student loan borrowers. In a memo obtained Wednesday by The Washington Post, Mick Mulvaney, acting director of the CFPB, informed staffers of a reorganization that will tuck the office for students and young consumers into the bureau’s office of financial education. The memo offers no explicit details on how the consolidation will affect employees or their duties... Still, advocacy groups, liberal lawmakers and former employees at the bureau are interpreting the news as an intentional move to dismantle the only unit in the federal government solely dedicated to protecting student loan borrowers from predatory actors in the financial sector."
And he's telling Congress to curb its expenses. Appropriators aren't happy about it. Politico: "The White House budget director and former South Carolina congressman has renewed a past practice of offering guidance on annual spending bills as they make it through the appropriations panel. But one letter in particular dealing with funding Congress’ own operations has rubbed members the wrong way. In a letter sent Monday to Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) and ranking member Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), Mulvaney said Congress should cut $327 million from its $3.8 billion Legislative Branch funding bill."
— Rosenstein suggests easing of corporate penalties. Bloomberg's Tom Schoenberg: "Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein thinks some companies are overpaying for their crimes, and he wants that to stop. Rosenstein, in a speech Wednesday in New York, said companies in highly regulated industries such as banking were too often assessed multiple fines by various agencies and governments for the same misconduct. While large fines are sometimes warranted, Rosenstein said, they shouldn’t be the result of 'piling on' by several enforcement authorities. Such an approach “can deprive a company of the benefits of certainty and finality ordinarily available through a full and final settlement,” Rosenstein told a roomful of white-collar lawyers and prosecutors attending a New York City Bar Association conference."
— Schneiderman's Wall Street cases could live on. NYT's Matthew Goldstein: Former New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman's "big accomplishment in going after Wall Street were the billions of dollars in penalties that he helped secure from big banks that had sold flawed mortgage-backed bonds during the run-up to the financial crisis. He ensured that some of that money went to help communities across the state that were overrun by abandoned houses and foreclosures — often referred to as 'zombie homes.' His legal team was one of the first in the nation to target banks for sponsoring nontransparent trading platforms called 'dark pools,' which allowed high-speed trading firms to take advantage of investors... A spokeswoman said that the office generally avoided providing details about the number of open investigations. But Barbara Underwood, who was named New York’s acting attorney general on Tuesday, said in a statement that the office’s 'work continues without interruption.'”
U.S. states renamed for countries with similar GDP's. pic.twitter.com/BPnTnjA6cl— Justin Wolfers (@JustinWolfers) May 8, 2018
- The Securities and Exchange Commission’s fifth annual conference on financial market regulation begins.
- The Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s Fiscal Summit.
From the New Yorker:
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders deflected several questions about accusations against President Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen:
How world leaders are reacting to Trump's Iran deal withdrawal: