Have you ever binged a TV show with wildly disparate subplots, and wondered how or whether the creators could thread them all together by season’s end? On Trump’s dystopian reality show, for instance, is it even conceivable that his Stormy Daniels sex-and-hush scandal could possibly intersect with his burgeoning Russia scandal?
Why, yes indeed! It happened this week, in the latest episode of “Follow the Money,” hosted by potential jailbird Michael Cohen.
Flashing the skills befitting a graduate of the worst law school in America, Trump’s flunky-fixer reportedly deposited, into his hush-money shell company, half a million dollars from an investment firm closely linked to Putin-connected oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. The eight deposits began in January 2017. This news prompts a slew of questions about Trump’s longstanding financial entanglements with the hostile power that cyber-hacked on his behalf. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we’ve not reached the beginning of the end of the Mueller probe; in all likelihood, we’re merely nearing the end of the beginning.
Frank Bowman, a University of Missouri law professor and astute scandal tracker, says it well: “This presents perhaps the first link a very close Trump associate and a high-level Russian actor where the connection is not merely a meeting or solicitation with debatable objectives and uncertain results. The money is real and undeniable, and not even Russian billionaires pay people half-a-million dollars without some expectation of return on the investment.” And what return on his investment would that be? Perhaps a loosening of sanctions against the nation that worked so hard to get Trump elected?
It’s noteworthy that Trump hasn’t rant-tweeted about this revelation — which was publicized by Stormy lawyer Michael Avenatti (who apparently gained access to Cohen’s bank records), and was quickly confirmed by The New York Times, NBC News, and The Daily Beast. Trump, at this writing, hasn’t even tried to lie about it. Even Rudy Giuliani has remained mostly mute, lamely insisting today (as if he’d know) that Trump knew nothing. Perhaps it’s because the chief executive of Columbus Nova, the investment firm in question, happens to be Viktor Vekselberg’s cousin.
Just for the record, Vekselberg denies everything. But let’s connect the disparate dots. It’s crucial to understanding what’s going on, and it’s easy:
After the Russians did their technological best to help Trump win the election, they had fervent backstage negotiations with the incoming regime, to ease President Obama’s sanctions. Lest we forget, this was in December 2016, when Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner conferred in secret with high-ranking Russian officials. And now we’ve learned that, one month later, on the eve of Trump’s ill-attended inauguration, the Vekselberg-connected payments began flowing into Cohen’s shell company. (Which prompts another question: Cohen set up Essential Consultants to pay off Stormy and other women. How did this obscure LLC become such a popular slush fund — not just for Vekselberg, but for a pharmaceutical company, an aerospace firm, and AT&T? Was Cohen trying to enrich himself by selling pay-to-play access?)
It’s a cinch to explain the Russian connection, because, as we now know, Cohen has been tied to shady Russians since at least 1999. Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, while voicing his disgust the other day for Team Trump’s “unfathomable corruption,” uttered this gem about Cohen: “I’ll give you some analysis from the perspective of someone who grew up in northern New Jersey. This guy is as mobbed up as Morrie the wig-maker in ‘Goodfellas.'” (If you’re not familiar with Morrie, this will help.)
Cohen has been a Trump Organization dealmaker since at least 2007, and that just so happens to have coincided with Trump’s miraculous newfound access to oodles of cash for his worldwide projects. He badly needed the cash, because by that time, no credible American bank would loan him a cent anymore. And where, perchance, did all the cash come from? One of his princelings, Donald Jr., gave us the answer in 2008: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross section of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
That’s the context for the latest Cohen revelation. No wonder Mueller is seeking a presidential interview. No wonder Trump is loath to be under oath.
The noose continues to tighten, albeit oh so incrementally. The office betting pool is whether Trump dumps Cohen before Cohen flips on Trump. And Bowman, the law professor argues: “The more the connections between Trump’s people and Russia are measurable in dollars and cents, the harder it will be for Republicans who retain any measure of intellectual honesty to dismiss the Russia investigation as a ‘witch hunt.'”
Alas, most Republicans have made their peace with mendacity. Take Mike Pence, for instance. Earlier today he said this about the Mueller investigation: “In the interest of the country, I think it’s time to wrap it up.”
Dream on. The subplots are converging, but we’re nowhere close to season’s end.