The stench of Michael Cohen's consulting business grows

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When it was revealed that a U.S. firm with ties to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg had paid Michael Cohen half a million dollars, the firm, Columbus Nova, assured the oligarch had nothing to do with it. “Columbus Nova is an investment management company solely owned and controlled by Americans,” the company assured. “Neither Viktor Vekselberg nor anyone else outside of Columbus Nova was involved in the decision to hire Cohen or provided funding for his engagement.”

We still have no proof that's not the case, but it just got more difficult to believe Vekselberg was a bystander. And it could complicate both Cohen's legal situation and the Russia investigation.

The New York Times and CNN both reported Friday that Vekselberg joined Columbus Nova head Andrew Intrater at a meeting with Cohen at Trump Tower on Jan. 9, 2017 — 11 days before Donald Trump was inaugurated.

Why is that significant? Well, it's actually the second known meeting between the three of them, with the (previously known) first one being on at Trump's inauguration on January 20. And Intrater told the Times there was also a third meeting after the inauguration.

The fact that the inauguration meeting included all three parties could perhaps be understood as a coincidence. Vekselberg, after all, is Intrater's cousin in addition to running an affiliated company, the Renova Group. And the inauguration is an event with many attendees and perhaps some impromptu introductions and meetings. That idea that Cohen may have met Vekselberg there without them forming a relationship and without Vekselberg being involved in Columbus Nova's hiring of Cohen is plausible.

But three meetings involving both Intrater and Vekselberg? That reduces the likelihood that this was just happenstance. The Times reported a couple of days ago that Vekselberg met with Cohen “multiple times.” Now we know the details of the first meeting and that there was a third — which may have even come after Columbus Nova hired Cohen (he was hired in late January, after the inauguration). That's a lot of meetings to have, in relatively proximity, with a third party who had nothing to do with the arrangement between Columbus Nova and Cohen.

Are we to believe Cohen's business relationship with Columbus Nova didn't come up at these meetings? Are we to believe Vekselberg somehow didn't know about it and didn't use it to push for influence over the Trump administration's Russia policy (which was the stated subject matter for the first meeting)? At the very least, having a Russian oligarch in these meetings at a time when the Trump campaign's Russia ties were at-issue would seem to be a bad decision just from a pure public relations perspective. And since then, Vekselberg has featured on a list of oligarchs who have been sanctioned by the Trump administration.

Intrater explained the situation to the Times this way: “Obviously, if I’d known in January 2017 that I was about to hire this high-profile guy who’d wind up in this big mess, I wouldn’t have introduced him to my biggest client, and wouldn’t have hired him at all.” (Side note: It's interesting that he refers to his cousin as his “client.")

This could ultimately amount to nothing, legally speaking — or we could keep learning more about this rather strangely constructed relationship. But it does seem to lend credence to the idea that Cohen was selling access — and that this access was being sold in a roundabout way to a Russian oligarch.