Net neutrality, mergers, AT&T, and Michael Cohen: what we know so far

In the past 24 hours, a series of bombshells related to the Stormy Daniels lawsuit and the Michael Cohen investigation have dropped: the president’s lawyer and “fixer” was apparently paid for consulting with AT&T, Novartis, Columbus Nova, and Korea Aerospace Industries after the president took office.

Each of those companies has some kind of a financial interest that the executive branch has influence in (for example, the Justice Department has sued to block the merger of AT&T and Time Warner). Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said in a press conference today that the payments “may well have been used to influence the president of the United States, using Michael Cohen and his shell company as a conduit.”

Some have suggested a connection between the AT&T payment and the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality in December 2017. The idea that there was some kind of a causal connection here is, at this time, pure speculation. And besides that, the Trump administration has also demonstrably acted against AT&T’s financial interests — for instance, by blocking the proposed merger of AT&T and Time Warner.

The story is still developing and since so many companies are involved, it can be confusing. (The Washington Post has a helpful infographic here showing the flow of money, although at this rate it’s beginning to resemble the Mailroom Charlie meme).

We’ve broken down what we know about AT&T, net neutrality, and the Time Warner merger in this scandal. Even if you go full corkboard conspiracy, it’s hard to connect the dots into something damning.

What we’ve learned about the AT&T payments

  • Michael Cohen established a company called Essential Consultants in October 2016.
  • Michael Avenatti (the lawyer for Stephanie Cliffords, also known as Stormy Daniels) has alleged in a new document that AT&T paid Michael Cohen $200,000 through Essential Consultants from October 2017 to January 2018.
  • AT&T has confirmed the payments happened.
  • In fact, AT&T might have paid up to $600,000. We don’t yet have a total.
  • AT&T told the Washington Post that Essential Consultants was contracted “to provide insights into understanding the new administration.”
  • We don’t really know what that means.
  • The payments, AT&T says, ended in December 2017, and Cohen did no lobbying or legal work for them.
  • This apparently contradicts what Avenatti says (he says payments of $50,000 were made for four months starting in October), and this detail has yet to be resolved.

The timeline

  • October 22, 2016: In a campaign speech in Pennsylvania, candidate Donald Trump promises to block a proposed AT&T–Time Warner deal that was announced earlier that day.
  • October 26, 2016: Michael Cohen creates a bank account for Essential Consultants.
  • November 9, 2016: Donald Trump is elected president of the United States.
  • January 20, 2017: Trump takes office.
  • April 27, 2017: The FCC under Ajit Pai puts out a draft proposal for reversing net neutrality.
  • “Mid-2017”: According to Michael Avenatti (the lawyer for Stephanie Cliffords, also known as Stormy Daniels), Cohen withdraws over a million dollars from the Essential Consultants account.
  • October 2017 – January 2018: According to Avenatti, AT&T makes four payments of $50,000 to Essential Consultants.
  • November 11, 2017: President Trump tells reporters on Air Force One that he wasn’t involved in a reported decision to block the AT&T–Time Warner merger.
  • November 20, 2017: The Justice Department officially sues to block the AT&T–Time Warner merger.
  • December 2017: According to AT&T, the last payment is made to Cohen in December (contradicting what Avenatti says).
  • December 14, 2017: After a contentious vote, the FCC kills net neutrality.
  • March 22, 2018: The AT&T–Time Warner trial begins.

For comparison, here’s a little bit about what we know about the other companies.

Korea Aerospace Industries

  • Korea Aerospace Industries (a South Korea-based manufacturer of aircraft components and military jets) says it paid Cohen $150,000 for “legal consulting concerning accounting standards on production costs.”
  • The Washington Post reports that KAI is competing for a multi-billion dollar contract with the US Air Force.


  • Novartis AG (a Swiss pharmaceutical company) says it paid $1.2 million for consulting “focused on U.S. healthcare policy matters,” and that the contract, which ended February 2018, was a “mistake.”
  • President Trump met with incoming Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan at Davos, shortly after the last Novartis payment. (Novartis says Narasimhan “had no involvement whatosever with this arrangement.”)

Columbus Nova

  • Columbus Nova is a New York-based investment firm connected to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. A lawyer for Columbus Nova said that Vekselberg had nothing to do with the payments, which Avenatti says totaled $500,000 from January 2017 to August 2017.
  • The head of Columbus Nova, Andrew Intrater, is Viktor Vekselberg’s cousin.
  • Intrater donated $250,000 to Trump’s inaugural fund and attended Trump’s inauguration.
  • Vekselberg also attended the inauguration as Intrater’s guest.
  • Both Intrater and Vekselberg have been interviewed as part of the Mueller investigation.

For now, the picture is too muddy to draw any conclusions about the AT&T payments and whether they had any effect on the executive branch’s actions in the last year. In comparison, more and more weird details — coincidental or not — keep coming up in connection with the other companies. We’ll keep updating as information about AT&T and Michael Cohen emerges.

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