Michael Cohen made more than $2 million working as a Trump whisperer. But he’s far from the only one.
President Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer is the latest member of the president’s inner circle to cash in on connections by selling insight into how Trump operates. The president’s 2016 victory rattled corporations enough that clients were eager to pay top dollar to anyone who could help them understand the administration in its first months.
Many of those insiders have become lobbyists, joining established Washington firms or starting their own shops. Gotham Government Relations and Communications, a New York law and lobbying firm that orchestrated Trump’s campaign announcement in 2015, opened a Washington office after Trump’s victory. So did Brian Ballard, a Florida lobbyist who had raised millions for Trump’s campaign.
Others, including Cohen and former Trump campaign chief Corey Lewandowski, avoided registering as lobbyists but took on work helping corporate clients understand Trump’s thinking.
“It’s a little bit like Lucy hanging out behind her table and charging people five cents for wisdom,” said Rich Gold, a longtime Democratic lobbyist, referring to the “Peanuts” character.
But Trump has proved difficult to predict or sway.
AT&T has found itself fending off Justice Department opposition to its merger with Time Warner despite inking a deal with Cohen in 2017. The pharmaceutical company Novartis said Wednesday that it determined after signing him that Cohen couldn’t deliver the services he had promised.
Both companies said Wednesday they were contacted by special counsel Robert Mueller about their relationships with Cohen.
“These people who say or look like they’re close to Trump on paper in actuality don’t know what he’s going to do,” said Ivan Adler, a headhunter who specializes in filling lobbying jobs.
In addition to AT&T and Novartis, Korea Aerospace Industries and Columbus Nova, an investment firm, have confirmed they hired Cohen as a consultant after Trump’s election. The admissions came after Michael Avenatti, a lawyer for porn actress Stormy Daniels, accused them on Tuesday of paying Cohen through the same limited-liability company used to pay Daniels. (Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, says she was given $130,000 to keep quiet about an alleged affair with Trump.)
It’s not clear what Cohen did for the companies. Avenatti has suggested Cohen may have lobbied the White House without registering to do so, though there’s no evidence his work met the legal definition of lobbying.
“If Michael Cohen, the personal attorney to the president, was selling access to the highest office in the land, without complying with the appropriate rules and regulations, serious consequences should result,” Avenatti told POLITICO.
Insiders like Cohen offered corporations insight on who in Trump’s orbit was up and who was down at any given moment, one Republican consultant said.
“Everyone was hiring ‘Trump whisperers’ in 2017 — every single hanger-on in the Trump orbit made a fortune in 2017,” one Republican consultant said. “And not necessarily to influence them, just to try to figure out who are the right people to talk to.”
“The question was ‘Who is the real influence?’” the consultant said. “Is it Gary Cohn? Steve Bannon? Wilbur Ross? How do we get to Jared and Ivanka? Does anyone know Dina Powell? Does anyone listen to Steven Mnuchin? There’s no point talking to Reince Priebus, right? Every single client we had was trying to figure it out.”
In a memo to employees on Wednesday, AT&T said that it had “hired several consultants,” including Cohen, after the election “to help us understand how the President and his administration might approach a wide range of policy issues important to the company, including regulatory reform at the FCC, corporate tax reform and antitrust enforcement.” Cohen did no lobbying or legal work for AT&T, the company said.
Novartis agreed to shell out $100,000 a month to Cohen for advice on how to deal with Trump — a substantial amount even for a company that spent more than $8.6 million last year on Washington lobbying, with nearly a dozen lobbying firms on retainer.
After meeting with Cohen in March 2017, though, Novartis determined Cohen “would be unable to provide the services that Novartis had anticipated related to US healthcare policy matters and the decision was taken not to engage further,” Sofina Mirza-Reid, a Novartis spokeswoman, said in a statement on Wednesday. “As the contract unfortunately could only be terminated for cause, payments continued to be made until the contract expired by its own terms in February 2018.”
Presidential confidants making use of their connections — even without formally lobbying — is not unique to the Trump era. Jim Messina, a former top aide in Barack Obama’s White House, started his own consulting firm, the Messina Group, after managing Obama’s reelection campaign. Like Lewandowski, he never registered as a lobbyist.
“I hope you will also mention that Seems [sic] to be the same relationship that Jim Messina had with the Obama WH,” Lewandowski wrote in an email to POLIITICO.
Lewandowski co-founded a lobbying firm, Avenue Strategies, weeks after Trump’s victory but quit last year after several stories raised questions about him cashing in on his access. He now offers insight into the Trump administration through a new firm, Lewandowski Strategic Advisors, doing work that he says doesn’t meet the definition of lobbying.
Other Trump insiders have gone to work for established Washington firms such as Mercury and Holland & Knight.
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and the husband of White House communications official Mercedes Schlapp, is another lobbyist source of Trump intelligence. Schlapp’s firm, Cove Strategies, which represents blue-chip clients such as Comcast, Verizon and Walmart, raked in cash accordingly, with more than $1 million in lobbying revenue last year compared to $630,000 in 2016.
Not every Trump campaign veteran who offered a glimpse into Trump’s decision-making process after the election has been able to command the fees that Cohen has.
Michael Caputo, who served as a senior adviser to the Trump campaign before resigning for sending a tweet celebrating Lewandowski’s firing as campaign manager, sent a letter last year to Washington firms offering to strike up a partnership.
“Understanding how Donald Trump ascended to the White House — and how he will likely operate — will be unique and vital counsel for your clients in the years ahead,” Caputo wrote in the letter.
Caputo has lobbied for a couple of clients since Trump took office and made $7,500 a month offering what he described as insight into “the inputs that go into the president’s decision-making” for another. But he said he’s not in the business of telling clients how the president might approach a particular issue.
“I really think nobody can truly understand how the president thinks,” Caputo said. “He’s a very unique individual.”