A line has now been drawn, however tenuous, between President Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen and a Vladimir Putin-aligned Russian oligarch. Stormy Daniels's lawyer, Michael Avenatti, suggests it means Russia may have “replenished the account” Cohen used to pay off Daniels. For now that seems to be pure speculation.
If nothing else, though, the episode reinforces the remarkable sloppiness of those around Trump when it comes avoiding ties to Russians. And this one might actually be worse than many of its predecessors.
The situation is pretty complicated, but here are the basics: The company that retained Cohen's Essential Consultants LLC shell company, Columbus Nova, insists it was a legitimate real estate-related business arrangement and emphasizes that it is American owned and operated. That's despite its American owner, Andrew Intrater, being the cousin of Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, and Columbus Nova being an affiliate of Vekselberg's Renova Group. Both men have been interviewed by Robert S. Mueller III's investigators, but that in itself is not damning. (Mueller is nothing if not thorough, and he may have been asking the same questions we're now asking.)
The timeline here is key. According to Avenatti, Columbus Nova paid Cohen $500,000 between January 2017 and August 2017. That means the arrangement was forged after the 2016 election — even as Russian election interference was big news and the Russia investigation was getting off the ground.
And it's not like Cohen wouldn't have known Columbus Nova had ties to Russians. The New York Times reports, in fact, that Cohen met with both Intrater and Vekselberg when the two cousins attended Trump's inauguration:
[Intrater] and Mr. Vekselberg attended the event together and met with Mr. Cohen there, according to a person briefed on the matter. Columbus Nova retained him as a consultant soon afterward.
Trump was inaugurated on Jan. 20. Exactly two weeks earlier, the U.S. intelligence community released its big report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Between that release and the inauguration, on Jan. 10, Trump tweeted what would become his refrain about the Russia investigation: That it was a “FAKE NEWS — A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”
That same day, then-attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions was asked (and appeared to falsely deny) whether he or anyone on the Trump campaign had communicated with Russia during the campaign. And a couple days later, the administration was falsely denying incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
We may not have known the scope of the Russia investigation and how much it would eventually close in on Trump, but we knew there were big questions. What's more, people around Trump like Sessions and Flynn were put in the position of denying coordination with the Russians just days before. Against that backdrop, Cohen decided to enter into an arrangement with a company affiliated with a Russian oligarch after having met with that oligarch at Trump's inauguration.
The least nefarious explanation, as it often has been throughout the Russia saga, is that Cohen was being careless and failing to avoid what could be a problematic tie. And he wouldn't be the first to offer the ignorance defense. Sessions says he didn't think to mention his meetings with Russia's ambassador. Flynn quibbled with the definition of “sanctions” after falsely denying he'd discussed them with the ambassador. And Donald Trump Jr. insists he wasn't trying to collude with Russia by taking that meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer — contending he was doing what anyone else would have done in the heat of a campaign.
But even more than in these examples, Cohen should have been going into this arrangement with his eyes pretty wide open when it came to whether it might be problematic. And he did it anyway.