Because the news cycle flies by at roughly 100,000 miles per hour these days, let me catch you up on how we got here. As it happens, a whole lot of really important developments have taken place in just the last few days. The tl;dr of the second half of this week is that Stormy Daniels, emoluments and Russia are now all basically the same scandal. On Tuesday, Stormy Daniels’ lawyer, Michael Avenatti, tweeted out an incredibly serious allegation.
Avenatti then posted this Executive Summary (that has since been taken down after some portions were proven to be mistaken with another Michael Cohen) with a litany of allegations all centering around the charge that Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, was essentially running a slush fund out of the bank account that he paid $130,000 to Stormy Daniels from. There was no sourcing in the document, but the subtext was that Avenatti had made this determination based off banking records, and the Treasury inspector general has launched an investigation into how Avenatti may have procured these documents that he's hinting he has. At the time, it was difficult to make heads or tails of what Avenatti alleged, until the companies on his slideshow began to not just confirm, but correct Avenatti so that the situation actually looked worse for them.
AT&T was the first to legitimize this story by confirming that they did indeed pay Cohen for “insights” into the Trump administration—however, it wasn't for $200,000 like Avenatti claimed, but $600,000 for “advice” on the TimeWarner acquisition. This morning, AT&T's CEO took the extraordinary step of apologizing for AT&T's “big mistake” in a memo to the company.
The Washington Post then obtained a copy of the actual agreement between AT&T and Michael Cohen's Essential Consultants LLC, and it describes the scope of Cohen's work on behalf of AT&T as such:
Essential Consultants principal will provide advisory services to the E&LA leadership team. They will work alongside a team of strategic advisors to creatively address political and communications issues facing AT&T. The broader strategic team will be expected to regularly advise on corporate interests at the Legislative and Executive (with focus on the FCC) branches of government as well as broader issues facing the AT&T brand and the telecom/tech industry in the media. They will advise on specific long-term planning initiatives as well as the immediate issues of corporate tax reform and the acquisition, corporate interests at the Legislative and Executive (with focus on the FCC) branches of government as well as broader issues facing the AT&T brand and the telecom/tech industry in the media. The position requires focus on specific long-term planning initiatives as well as the immediate issue of corporate tax reform and the acquisition of Time Warner.
So, what does all that jargon mean? Basically, AT&T very clearly has two (I will argue three in a moment) vitally important initiatives that all necessitate the government's approval, and they wanted Michael Cohen's help in navigating that process from a legislative and regulatory standpoint. AT&T wanted Cohen's “advisory services” on the GOP tax plan and their $85 billion acquisition of TimeWarner that the Department of Justice slammed as one that would raise costs on consumers by more than half a billion dollars per year in additional cable costs.
AT&T is asking us to believe that they paid $600,000 for Michael Cohen's services on two specific matters that the president can influence. You know, Michael Cohen, that guy who has never worked in government but has this specific president's ear. AT&T picked him over the avalanche of white shoe lobbying firms also fighting to push through tax reform, and apparently it had nothing to do with Cohen's proximity to President Trump. I'm sure that there's nothing to worry about, since AT&T assured us that “We didn't ask him to set up any meetings for us with anyone in the Administration and he didn't offer to do so.”
So if that is truly the case, we're supposed to believe that not only did AT&T hire the president's lawyer to not provide access to the president, but their CEO took at least one meeting at Trump Tower without talking to anyone affiliated with the Trump administration (not to mention that AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson is the man to Trump's left in the title photo of this article, taken on June 22 of last year).
Something righteously stinks. AT&T responded to Michael Avenatti's allegations by essentially saying “no no, it's actually worse than you thought.” If they're getting out ahead of the story this quickly, what actually took place? I have a theory, so let's shift the tone of this column from a definite “this did happen” and end with a “this might have happened” proposal.
AT&T's contract with Essential Consultants clearly states that they wanted Cohen to aid them as it pertained to their TimeWarner acquisition and tax reform, but there's a third issue that's still hanging out there, and I believe that the “(with focus on the FCC)” clarifications in the contract reveal what else AT&T wanted: a net neutrality repeal, which was completed by Ajit Pai's FCC this past December and will take effect on June 11th.
By repealing net neutrality, the FCC allowed internet service providers like Comcast and AT&T to mess with internet speeds (laws now require them to provide the same level of access to all websites), and the Trump administration paved the way for ISP's to sell you the internet in packages like they do with cable. Portugal does not have net neutrality, and this is how they pay for the internet.
The near-daily Michael Cohen revelations are inching all the Trump scandals into one big pot. Stormy Daniels was paid out of the same slush fund that Cohen used to accept payments from AT&T, Novartis and a company owned by a Russian oligarch close to Putin (In 2014, FBI Special Agent Lucia Ziboro wrote an extraordinary op-ed in Boston Business Journal warning venture capital firms about Viktor Veselberg’s business, saying “The foundation may be a means for the Russian government to access our nation’s sensitive or classified research, development facilities and dual-use technologies with military and commercial applications. This analysis is supported by reports coming out of Russia itself.”).
Pay to play is how politics works in America (and around the world, we’re not special), and the most powerful among us have a near-unlimited amount of resources to weaponize towards our nation’s capital in order to aggregate more for them and less for the rest of us. This is the story of America, and Trump’s downright comical and hilariously inept corruption has begun to reveal the true nature of How Things Work in America (seriously, what kind of “lawyer” pays off hush agreements from the same bank account that he uses to collect shady payments from companies ranging from AT&T to one backed by a Russian oligarch. We have two options: Michael Cohen is the dumbest person alive not named Donald Trump, or Essential Consultants LLC is far from the only slush fund operated by Trump’s longtime “lawyer.”)
AT&T wants us to believe that they hired the president’s lawyer to help them with issues directly pertaining to the presidency—but didn’t get any access to the presidency. The drug company Novartis has an even more farcical explanation for their checks being found in Cohen’s bank account, basically saying that they agreed to pay the president’s lawyer $1.2 million for one unfruitful meeting that they got nothing out of—yet they couldn’t break the contract for cause (and somehow throughout all this, Trump has not followed through on his campaign promise to lower drug prices. *thinking face emoji*).
All Trump scandals begin and end at the same premise: he’s a crook and has been for quite some time (Trump Taj Mahal paid what was at the time, the largest anti-money laundering violation any casino has ever been hit with by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network at the Treasury). Unfortunately, that’s just how America works. Paul Ryan just flew across the country so he could step out of the room for a moment while Sheldon Adelson cut a $30 million check in return for the GOP’s tax reform gaining his company an extra $670 million in just the first quarter of 2018. AT&T trying to get out ahead of this story is a big, big deal, because if there’s one truth about corporate America, it’s that whenever a massive conglomerate like AT&T admits to blatant legal and/or ethical violations, the truth is far worse.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.