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Why did major companies pay Trump’s personal lawyer through a shell company?

Payments totalling more than $4 million were made to a shell company set up by Michael Cohen, President Trump's personal attorney, and included about $500,000 from a U.S. company with ties to a Russian oligarch who is close to Vladimir Putin. That shell company was also used to pay hush money to adult film actress Stephanie Clifford. John Yang talks to Rosalind Helderman of the Washington Post.

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  • William Brangham:

    There are new questions being raised about payments to President Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen.

    The money went to a shell company set up by Cohen. It totaled more than $4 million, including about $500,000 from a U.S. company with ties to a Russian oligarch who is close to Vladimir Putin.

    John Yang breaks down what we know.

  • John Yang:

    William, the payments went to the company that Cohen says he set up to pay the $130,000 hush money to adult film actress Stephanie Clifford. Her attorney, Michael Avenatti, revealed the payments in a document he posted online.

    To help us unpack all of this, here's Rosalind Helderman. She's the Washington Post political investigations reporter.

    Rosalind, thanks so much for joining us.

    Of the payments that you have been able to confirm, who did they come from, and how much money are we talking about?

  • Rosalind Helderman:

    We're talking about, I think it's about $2.5 million that seems to be confirmed at this point.

    And they come from some major U.S. and foreign companies. They include AT&T, Novartis, a pharmaceutical company. They include this company Columbus Nova, which is a U.S.-based affiliate of a company that is owned and founded by a Russian businessman.

    One thing that ties a number of these companies together is that they had major issues pending before the U.S. government. But each of them, in turn, has essentially said that that's not why they hired Mr. Cohen, that they hired him for various reasons, to provide real estate advice, to provide accounting advice, for his general legal knowledge.

  • John Yang:

    And, Rosalind, what — I know there was a filing late today, Michael Cohen challenging some of this information that Michael Avenatti put out.

    What can you tell us about that?

  • Rosalind Helderman:

    Yes, that's right.

    That just came in, I think, within the last 10 minutes or so. This is lawyers for Michael Cohen saying basically two things in court about the Avenatti information. On the one hand, they seem to be conceding that some of it is accurate, because they say it's a sign that Avenatti improperly has access to Michael Cohen's bank records.

    And they're trying to get the court to force Avenatti to say where he's getting this information, so they can assess whether he properly should have access to that information.

    At the same time, they cited some of the details that have not been covered in the media, because I think the media has not been able to confirm them, a few additional details that are sort of on the last page of what Avenatti put out. And they're suggesting that that information might actually be false.

  • John Yang:

    And, in addition, the Treasury Department inspector general has begun an investigation about whether any confidential banking records have been tampered with.

    Why is Avenatti so interested in this? Why is he putting this out?

  • Rosalind Helderman:

    I think that he — what he has said is that it gives you more information about the — the sort of process by which his client, Ms. Clifford, was paid, because Michael Cohen seems to have used this same bank account that he used to pay Stormy Daniels, as she is better known, as he did for all these other transactions.

    He says that his strategy is working. He's on TV a great deal, as your viewers probably know. And, as a result, people are just sending him information that is relevant and helps inform the American public about the activities of Mr. Cohen and President Trump. And he's trying to publicize that.

  • John Yang:

    What else is sort of intriguing about these — where — the source of these payments?

  • Rosalind Helderman:

    Yes.

    I mean, I think one thing that's very interesting is the sort of — the picture you get of the swamp as it exists under Donald Trump. Of course, President Trump ran against the D.C. swamp. And one thing that's been very clear is that people associated with President Trump, with his campaign, with his business, who can argue to major companies that they know this very hard-to-understand world of Trump's Washington suddenly have found themselves with very marketable skills.

    I spoke to several people like that just today who said essentially that their phones were ringing off the hook starting in January of 2017 from companies who wanted to, you know, essentially throw money at them to understand Donald Trump.

  • John Yang:

    And not only understand Donald Trump. You said that some of these companies had business before the government in the past couple of years.

  • Rosalind Helderman:

    Yes, that's right.

    AT&T was — is going through a merger which requires Department of Justice approval. That's an important thing for that company. They say it's unrelated to these payments.

    Novartis, their CEO had a meeting with Donald Trump not long after this payment. They, too, say that that was unrelated.

    But these are companies that have — another one of them, Korean Aerospace, makes aircraft and is competing for a very, very large contract with the U.S. Air Force. They, too, say that's unrelated to these payments.

    But these are companies that had things they were trying to get out of the U.S. government.

  • John Yang:

    And, Rosalind, we should note that another of President Trump's personal attorneys, Rudolph Giuliani, is saying this evening that the president had no knowledge of these payments to Cohen.

    But this story will go on.

    Rosalind Helderman of The Washington Post, thank you so much for joining us.

  • Rosalind Helderman:

    Thank you for having me.

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