Michael Cohen set up Essential Consulting LLC in October 2016, apparently as a way to covertly transfer $130,000 in hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels, but since then at least $4.4 million has passed through the company, The New York Times reports, confirming a report from Daniels attorney Michael Avenatti. Those transactions include $200,000 from AT&T, nearly $400,000 from a U.S. subsidiary of Swiss drugmaker Novartis, $150,000 from Korea Aerospace Industries — all companies with business contingent on President Trump's administration — and most intriguingly, $500,000 from Columbus Nova, a New York investment firm with deep ties to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.
Avenatti suggested Cohen's use of the LLC violated banking laws. It's unclear whether any of the transactions were "improper," the Times said, but "the financial records indicate that at least some of the money that passed through Essential Consultants was from sources and in amounts that were inconsistent with the company's stated purpose."
Vekselberg, one of the richest men in Russia, has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, is under U.S. sanctions (as is his company, Renova Group), has reportedly been interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigators, reportedly met with Cohen at Trump's inauguration, and attended the December 2015 dinner in Moscow where Putin was seated next to Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Columbus Nova, run by Andrew Intrater — Vekselberg's American cousin and "a former director and current member of the executive board of Renova Group," according to Columba Nova's website — said Cohen's payments were business consulting fees, the company was never owned or controlled by Vekselberg, Vekselberg had no role in hiring Cohen, and "reports today that Viktor Vekselberg used Columbus Nova as a conduit for payments to Michael Cohen are false." Until last November, the Renova Group's website listed Columbus Nova as one of its "companies," NBC News reports.
NBC News also "reviewed financial documents that appear to support Avenatti's account of the transactions," and a source told The Daily Beast that Avenatti's assertions about Columbus Nova were accurate, adding: "How the f--k did Avenatti find out?" Avenatti hinted at the answer on CNN Tuesday night, telling Anderson Cooper that "because we're so out front on this, people send us information."
Avenatti responds to the critics of his always-on-TV strategy: "Here's the bottom line, Anderson: It's working. It's working in spades... Because we're so out front on this, people send us information, people want to help our cause..." https://t.co/eKFkSdG7tt
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) May 9, 2018
You can read more details about Cohen's LLC at The New York Times, and The Washington Post has an incomplete chart of its money flow. Peter Weber
FBI Director Christopher Wray affirmed on Wednesday that he is confident in the assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, and said Moscow is still working to sow discord in the United States.
Russia is using propaganda and fake news items to "spin up" Americans, Wray said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, and he brushed off Russian President Vladimir Putin's idea of having his country help U.S. authorities investigate 12 Russian military intelligence officials indicted last week on hacking charges. The offer is "not high on our list of investigative techniques," Wray said. Catherine Garcia
The Interior Department's deputy inspector general notified House Democrats on Wednesday that its internal watchdog has launched an investigation into a real estate deal involving a foundation started by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in Montana and several developers, including Halliburton Chairman David Lesar.
The probe will look into whether Zinke violated conflict of interest laws. The real estate deal involved his wife, Lola Zinke, signing an agreement allowing developers, including Lesar, to build a parking lot for a redevelopment project that could raise the value of land Zinke owned nearby, Politico reports.
Critics say Zinke and his family shouldn't be involved in any business deals with anyone connected to oil and gas, as Zinke is one of the chief regulators overseeing those industries. Catherine Garcia
On Wednesday, the California Supreme Court pulled a measure to split up the state from the November ballot.
Proposition 9 was sponsored by venture capitalist Tim Draper, and called for the division of California into three states: California, Northern California, and Southern California. A conservation group sued, arguing the measure would abolish the state constitution, which cannot be done as a ballot initiative. The court ruled that "significant questions have been raised regarding the proposition's validity" and the "potential harm in permitting the measure to remain on the ballot outweighs the potential harm in delaying the proposition to a future election."
The court agreed to rule on the measure's constitutionality at a later date, but University of Illinois law school dean Vikram Amar told the Los Angeles Times "they would not have removed it from the ballot unless it was their considered judgment that it is very likely not a valid measure that can go to the voters." Catherine Garcia
Before Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) was a member of Congress, he hosted a radio show.
The Jason Lewis Show, which ran from 2009 until 2014, gave Lewis the chance to broadcast all sorts of compelling thoughts. One of his recurring arguments, CNN reported Wednesday, was that people should be allowed to call young women "sluts."
Lewis, whose show dubbed him "America's Mr. Right," said that women who vote based on health care that covers birth control lack "cognitive function," and suggested they were not "human beings." The congressman narrowly won his House seat in 2016, even after the Star Tribune in Minnesota published some of his misogynistic comments.
"It used to be that women were held to a little bit of a higher standard," Lewis lamented in a 2012 episode of his show. "We required modesty from women. Now, are we beyond those days where a woman can behave as a slut, but you can't call her a slut?"
He additionally called young female voters "ignorant of the important issues in life," saying "somebody's got to educate them." While discussing the notion that women are "guided by emotion, not reason" later that year, Lewis defended his respect for women by noting, "I'm married to a woman for heaven's sake."
A representative for Lewis defended his comments, telling CNN that "this has all been litigated before ... it was his job to be provocative while on the radio." The congressman is up for re-election in the fall in his competitive district. Read more at CNN. Summer Meza
While it's impossible to know exactly what President Trump discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin in their one-on-one meeting Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said there was "some conversation" about allowing Russia to question U.S. citizens.
Reporter Maggie Haberman of The New York Times asked Sanders on Wednesday whether Trump supported the idea of allowing Russia to question people like Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia. Sanders said Trump would "meet with his team" about the matter and make an announcement later if necessary.
McFaul is reportedly of interest to Putin regarding the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions against Russia. Putin has accused officials like McFaul, British-American financier Bill Browder, and Steele dossier author Christopher Steele of financial crimes, some of which he alleged during Monday's summit. McFaul and Browder have denied the allegations, but Putin said he was interested in interrogating them to be sure.
The former ambassador himself was wondering whether Trump had pushed back on the suggestion, writing on Twitter to call the allegations against him "whacko." Rather than "push back," apparently, Sanders said that Trump had discussed it with Putin, suggesting that the president was considering allowing Russia to question the U.S. citizens. "There wasn't a commitment made on behalf of the United States," said Sanders, without offering any other details about the conversation.
McFaul wrote that he hopes the White House will "correct the record" and denounce the "ridiculous request." Russian state media, meanwhile, published an article titled "Nervous, are we?" taunting McFaul's "defensive" tweets. Summer Meza
House Democrats have a new slogan, and it's no "Where's the beef?"
Actually, that would be a good question for Democrats' midterm election catchphrase, which is actually "For the People." Because it seems to invoke Lincoln-esque memories from 155 years ago, not provide the meat Democrats need to win back the House in a few months.
The tagline was unveiled during a private meeting Wednesday, Politico reports, presumably because Democrats haven't figured out how to explain that they borrowed the title of ABC's new law drama. It's been a journey to get to this point, as Democrats have toyed with "A Better Deal" and some variations of draining the swamp as their slogan since the 2016 presidential loss, Bloomberg's Sahil Kapur pointed out on Twitter.
Still, a series that's already been renewed for a second season makes for a better slogan than a Lady Antebellum song that peaked at nowhere on the charts. That seems to be where Republicans stole their catchphrase, "Better Off Now," which they couldn't even be bothered to buy the domain for.
We'll just have to see who's better off in November. Kathryn Krawczyk
Mark Zuckerberg seems to think Holocaust deniers don't realize they're lying when they spread that hoax on Facebook.
In a wide-ranging interview with Recode founder Kara Swisher published Wednesday, Zuckerberg was questioned about why Facebook doesn't remove objectively false information, like claims that the Holocaust or the Sandy Hook shooting didn't happen. His response? "I don't think that they're intentionally getting it wrong."
Facebook recently came under fire for allowing InfoWars, a consistent spreader of false information and hoaxes, to stay on the site. Swisher asked Zuckerberg why such conspiracy-peddling sources are granted a presence on Facebook. Zuckerberg responded that while Holocaust denial is "abhorrent" and "deeply offensive," it can be hard to "understand the intent" of those who post false statements such as Holocaust denials.
"Everyone gets things wrong, and if we were taking down people's accounts when they got a few things wrong, then that would be a hard world for giving people a voice and saying that you care about that," Zuckerberg said. So when Facebook's fact checkers identify a hoax, the site simply moves them down in users' News Feeds instead of removing them altogether.
Something that would be removed? "Going to someone who is a victim of Sandy Hook and telling them, 'Hey, no, you're a liar' — that is harassment," Zuckerberg explained. Read or listen to the whole interview at Recode. Kathryn Krawczyk
Update 5:04 p.m. ET: Zuckerberg issued a statement to Recode on Wednesday afternoon, attempting to clarify his comments about Holocaust deniers. "I personally find Holocaust denial deeply offensive, and I absolutely didn't intend to defend the intent of people who deny that," Zuckerberg said. Read his full statement at Recode.