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Updated at 4:24 p.m.
An explosive document released Tuesday by an attorney suing President Trump and his personal lawyer could be the most important public evidence in the Russia imbroglio since Donald Trump Jr. released his emails last year.
The "executive summary" of material compiled by investigators working for lawyer Michael Avenatti ties together two threads that had previously appeared separate: Trump's confirmed payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels to buy her silence and the alleged ties between Trump world and powerful Russians.
Avenatti contends those two stories are connected.
Trump's attorney, Michael Cohen, has acknowledged paying Daniels $130,000 just before Election Day in 2016 to keep her quiet about a sexual relationship she says she had with Trump a decade before. Trump said he reimbursed Cohen. But Avenatti now suggests the reimbursement actually may have come from Russian energy baron Viktor Vekselberg.
How precisely Avenatti knows this isn't yet clear — the supporting materials for his "executive summary" aren't public and may not themselves be public documents, raising questions about whether someone in the Treasury Department or elsewhere in officialdom may have given them to him.
The Treasury Department's inspector general's office said on Wednesday it is looking into whether anyone within that agency may have been involved.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders declined to address the Cohen payments on Wednesday. She said the White House briefing room was not an appropriate venue and referred questions to Trump's personal lawyers, who have so far not spoken publicly about the money trail.
The pharma connection
Aspects of Avenatti's file have been independently verified, including relationships it documents between Cohen and big corporate entities — one of which has acknowledged it also has spoken to investigators working for Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.
Swiss pharma giant Novartis, which is named in the Avenatti document, confirmed to NPR that it had hired the same shell company created by Cohen to pay Daniels, Essential Consultants.
Spokeswoman Sofina Mirza-Reid said in a statement that Novartis signed a one-year agreement with Cohen and Essential Consultants in February of 2017, after Trump's inauguration. After one meeting, Mirza-Reid said, Novartis concluded that Cohen could not "provide the services that Novartis had anticipated."
Even so, because the contract "could only be terminated for cause," the pharmaceutical conglomerate continued paying Cohen a total of about $1.2 million. In short, it paid him $100,000 per month over the following year even though he was doing no work.
According to an account in the medicine and pharma trade journal Stat, Novartis company officials feared that if they tried to cancel their payments to Cohen, even though they apparently weren't getting anything from them, that might anger Trump.
The company acknowledged it has given information to Mueller's team.
"Novartis was contacted in November 2017 by lawyers from the special counsel's office regarding the company's agreement with Essential Consultants," Mirza-Reid said. "Novartis cooperated fully with the special counsel's office and provided all the information requested. Novartis considers this matter closed as to itself and is not aware of any outstanding questions regarding the agreement."
Mueller's office also reportedly stopped and questioned Vekselberg on his way into the United States earlier this year as part of its investigation into Russia's attack on the 2016 presidential election.
The special counsel's office is looking into whether anyone in the Trump campaign conspired with that attack; Trump and his aides deny there was any conspiracy.
Avenatti's new claims also were strengthened by telecom giant AT&T's acknowledgement that it paid Cohen after Trump's election to gain "insight" into the new administration.
One big player mentioned in the Avenatti file, however, challenges how its relationship was characterized. Avenatti says that Vekselberg used intermediaries and the U.S. subsidiary of a company he owns to pay Cohen $500,000 — the money Avenatti says might have repaid Cohen after his payment to Daniels.
The firm in question, however, management company Columbus Nova, denied that it had been used as a pass-through by Russians or anyone else for some kind of intrigue with Cohen or Trump. Columbus Nova said it had hired Cohen but not at the behest of anyone overseas.
"The claim that Viktor Vekselberg was involved or provided any funding for Columbus Nova's engagement of Michael Cohen is patently untrue," the company said. "Neither Viktor Vekselberg nor anyone else other than Columbus Nova's owners were involved in the decision to hire Cohen or provided funding for his engagement."
What does it all mean?
There are several important points to take away from Avenatti's allegations.
First, the story undercuts the accounts given by Trump and another of his attorneys, Rudy Giuliani, about the payments to Daniels. Giuliani has said Trump wasn't aware at the time about what his retainer to Cohen was buying — the Daniels agreement or anything else — and didn't learn about it until recently. But Trump said Giuliani didn't have a good grasp of the facts, without substituting any of his own.
It would be a big deal if Trump knew he hadn't reimbursed Cohen or knew that Vekselberg had underwritten the nondisclosure agreement. It would confirm his awareness of a financial relationship between Trump's camp and a Russian oligarch whom the United States included in the list of people hit by economic restrictions earlier this year in retaliation for the election interference.
Second, the story appears to depict a previously unknown influence business that Cohen was running early in the Trump administration, apparently selling his access to corporate clients. Companies including AT&T wanted to know what to make of Trump and his advisers and evidently were paying Cohen to find out.
It's also significant because in October 2016, AT&T announced that it wanted to buy media conglomerate Time Warner, which owns CNN. The cable network is a frequent target of Trump's and vice versa. The Trump administration opposes the putative merger.
AT&T acknowledged "antitrust concerns" were one of the areas about which it sought advice from Cohen when it began paying him, according to an internal email to employees on Wednesday. A copy of the email was obtained by NPR.
"In early 2017, as President Trump was taking office, we hired several consultants to help us understand how the president and his administration might approach a wide range of policy issues ... including regulatory reform at [the Federal Communications Commission] corporate tax reform and antitrust enforcement. Companies often hire consultants for these purposes, especially at the beginning of a new presidential administration, and we have done so in previous administrations, as well. Cohen was one of those consultants."
AT&T said its contract with Cohen expired in December of 2017.
In another case, the payments may have bought simple face time: Trump met with the CEOs of Novartis and Bayer in January when he flew to Switzerland for the World Economic Forum.
Mirza-Reid, the Novartis spokeswoman, said Trump's meeting with Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan "was in no way related" to the payments the company had been making to Cohen for the preceding year. That deal had been established under Narasimhan's predecessor, Mirza-Reid said.
Third, and more broadly, Avenatti's document changes the nature of the Russia imbroglio from a story about potential personal relationships and long-term conspiracy to one about money and payments.
Were powerful Russians other than Vekselberg paying people in the Trump camp? If so, when did those payments begin and what did they buy? How much of the money is traceable?
Avenatti's material suggests the Treasury Department and the special counsel's office have bank and other records documenting wire transfers. There also have been indications, however, that special counsel investigators may be looking into whether powerful Russians have flown cash into the United States for use as part of influence campaigns here.
Trump and supporters dismiss all this. The president cites the clean bill of health he received from the Republican majority on the House intelligence committee that cleared him and his campaign of any wrongdoing. The Senate intelligence committee and Justice Department investigations that continue, he says, are just a "witch hunt."
Trump hasn't alluded directly to the most recent round of reports about Avenatti, Cohen, Daniels and Vekselberg, but he did renew a standing complaint on Wednesday about what he called the blanket unfairness in the coverage he receives.
"The Fake News is working overtime," he wrote on Twitter. "Just reported that, despite the tremendous success we are having with the economy & all things else, 91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake). Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?"
NPR correspondent Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.
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