Michael Cohen, President Trump’s personal attorney, solicited a payment of at least $1 million from the government of Qatar in late 2016, in exchange for access to and advice about the then-incoming administration, according to the recipient of the offer and several others with knowledge of the episode.
The offer, which Qatar declined, came on the margins of a Dec. 12 meeting that year at Trump Tower between the Persian Gulf state’s foreign minister and Michael Flynn, who became Trump’s first national security adviser. Stephen K. Bannon, who became White House chief strategist, also attended.
Cohen did not participate in the official meetings but spoke separately to a member of the Qatari delegation, Ahmed al-Rumaihi, who at the time was head of the investments division of the country’s sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority.
Details emerged last week on how Cohen leveraged his relationship with Trump to receive millions of dollars from companies eager for insight and entree into the new president’s inner circle. They included AT&T, the global pharmaceutical giant Novartis, a Korean defense contractor and Columbus Nova, a New York-based investment firm with ties to a Russian oligarch. All have confirmed payments to Cohen.
But news of the Qatar solicitation marks the first time Cohen is believed to have pitched his influence directly to a foreign government.
Rumaihi said in a telephone interview Wednesday that Cohen first asked for the money, and Rumaihi refused, several days before the Trump Tower meeting, when the two saw each other at the Peninsula Hotel in New York. “He just threw it out there” as a cost of “doing business,” Rumaihi said.
Cohen spoke to him again at Trump Tower when the two men were outside the meeting between Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Thani and Flynn. Neither attended the closed-door session, and “I stood outside in the hall,” Rumaihi said, as the delegation went in. But “it was clear that the deal was not going to happen,” said Ruhaimi, who is no longer part of the Qatari government.
Rumaihi’s account of Cohen’s solicitation was first reported Wednesday by the Intercept. It was confirmed by several people knowledgeable about the episode, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomatic issue.
Cohen and his lawyer did not respond to requests for comment. Qatar’s embassy in Washington declined to comment on the revelations.
The solicitation came during a period when Cohen was bragging to others that he could make millions from consulting on Trump and that foreign governments would be interested in having his expertise. At the time, Cohen was also angling, unsuccessfully, as it turned out, to enter the White House, telling associates that he might become counsel or chief of staff.
As Cohen collected clients, he texted associates articles that described him as Trump’s “fixer” and asked them to spread the articles around.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, which conducted raids last month on Cohen’s New York residence and office, are investigating his activities. Cohen’s attempts to sell access were first publicly alleged last week by Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, an adult-film star who was paid $130,000 by Cohen before the election to keep quiet about details of an alleged sexual encounter with Trump.
Trump, who said last month that he knew nothing about the Daniels payment and did not reimburse Cohen, reported an apparent reimbursement payment to his lawyer on financial disclosure documents released Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Avenatti has expanded his public allegations against Trump and those around him. Early this week, he tweeted a photograph of Cohen and Rumaihi, taken on the day of the December 2016 Trump Tower meeting.
Thani, the foreign minister, was one of a number of senior foreign officials who visited transition headquarters at Trump Tower between the November election and January inauguration. Requested by Qatar, the session followed a meeting between then-candidate Trump and Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, the Qatari ruler, at the U.N. General Assembly in September 2016. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton canceled a separately scheduled meeting with the ruler due to what her campaign said was a scheduling conflict.
Qatar, whose natural gas resources and small population have made it the richest country per capita in the world, is home to the Middle East headquarters of U.S. Central Command and a major U.S. air base where 10,000 American troops are stationed. It is a substantial purchaser of U.S. defense equipment and a major investor in this country. Its government was deeply interested in continuing close relations, and there was, the people knowledgeable about the meeting said, a lot to talk about at the Dec. 12 Trump Tower meeting.
Rumaihi was one of several Qatari officials accompanying the minister. Five days earlier, he had first encountered Cohen at a breakfast fundraiser in New York, where businessmen and transition officials were chatting about the new administration and exchanging contact information. They met later in the week at a restaurant at the Peninsula, where they discussed Trump’s plans to solicit investment in a massive domestic infrastructure program.
Rumaihi told him that Qatar expected to invest in the program, and Cohen offered to help find projects for Qatar to sponsor, in exchange for a $1 million upfront fee.
The day after the Trump Tower meeting, the Qatari government announced in Doha that it would invest $10 billion in the infrastructure program.
Five months later, on the eve of Trump’s first presidential trip abroad to Saudi Arabia, Qatar’s main rival in the Persian Gulf neighborhood, Saudi Arabia announced it would invest $20 billion in the U.S. infrastructure fund.
It was immediately following Trump’s trip to Riyadh in late May that the Saudis, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, said they were severing relations with Qatar and instituting a blockade of its territory. Qatar’s more eclectic and liberal foreign and domestic policies had long irritated its neighbors in the region, and Trump’s visit had apparently convinced the Saudis that he would take their side in a dispute.
Trump tweeted his support for the Saudi-led move, saying he had heard in Riyadh about Qatar’s support for terrorism. It was not until September, just before his meeting with Tamim, that Trump was convinced by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to take a more balanced view of the situation.
Since then, the president has repeatedly called, to no apparent avail, on all parties to the Gulf dispute to settle their differences and focus on uniting to fight the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
But the diplomatic conflict among them persists, with the Saudis, Emiratis and Qataris each spending millions in this country on lobbyists, public relations groups and campaigns to denigrate each other and showcase their close relations with the United States.