The latest twist to the proposed AT&T – Time Warner merger involves President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen. This is connected to Cohen’s payments to Stormy Daniels, which were through shell company Essential Consultants, a consulting firm he set up. Daniels’ lawyer Michael Avenatti alleged Tuesday that Essential Consultants was paid $200,000 by AT&T, and while declining to comment on the amount, the company confirmed they paid Cohen’s firm in a statement:
Unbelievable. AT&T says they used "Essential Consulting… to provide insights into understanding the new administration."
Essential Consulting appears to have primarily existed to push around Michael Cohen's cash and pay off Stormy Daniels. Unclear anyone else worked there! https://t.co/IFzNsXNbbk
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) May 8, 2018
Breaking: Statement from @ATT about new allegations: “Essential Consulting was one of several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration. They did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017.”
— Michael Cappetta (@MCappetta) May 8, 2018
It’s pretty nice to get that kind of money for “insights,” and that’s maybe especially notable when you consider that that AT&T has a lot of different elements in front of the federal government. Beyond the Time Warner merger, which was challenged by the Justice Department in November (that trial wrapped up in April, with a decision expected by June), they’ve also been involved in the proposed net neutrality repeal (which could benefit them on many different fronts, and perhaps even more so if they’re able to up their content stable by buying Time Warner; they could then make it faster and possibly cheaper for their internet subscribers to access Time Warner properties like CNN and Turner, and tougher to access properties owned by competitors). And while none of this is proof of anything improper in and of itself, it at least raises questions about if AT&T was trying to pay for access to the Trump administration and perhaps even favorable decisions from it.
Another interesting development from Avenatti’s claims involves Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, a supporter of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Avenatti claimed Tuesday that Vekselberg and cousin Andrew Intrater routed eight payments to Cohen through Columbus Nova LLC, a claim buttressed by Noah Shachtman and Kate Briquelet of The Daily Beast. And that has some connections on the sports media front, as Columbus Nova Technology Partners was the first and only outside investor in Gawker Media (including Deadspin) before Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit forced that group to be sold to Fusion and Univision. There’s been no evidence of Vekselberg and Columbus having any sort of influence on content from Gawker, Deadspin et al, but that hasn’t stopped the likes of Jason Whitlock from forming conspiracy theories about them. At any rate, it’s notable to see them pop up in these kinds of discussions.
All of this seems unlikely to have too much of an impact on anything. Even if one presumes AT&T paid Cohen for access and influence, it didn’t work out so well for them, as the Justice Department sued to try and block their merger with Time Warner anyway. And the proposed net neutrality changes are already presumably going their way, and probably would have without any sort of lobbying or influence here. But it’s certainly interesting to see AT&T tied into these kinds of financial maneuverings, especially when that includes dealings with the president’s lawyer at a time where they’re involved in numerous matters with the federal government. And there are going to be many more questions asked about just what business they did with Cohen.