The Strange Case of AT&T's Payments to Michael Cohen

Why did AT&T pay the same company used to funnel hush money to Stormy Daniels?

Michael Cohen
Jeenah Moon / Reuters

Among the details in a document released by Stormy Daniels’s lawyer Michael Avenatti on Tuesday evening is the description of a series of $50,000 payments by AT&T to Essential Consultants, a shell company owned by Michael Cohen.

And although Avenatti would not detail the source of the information in the dossier in an interview with my colleague Natasha Bertrand, AT&T confirmed that it contracted with the company in a statement, and The New York Times says it reviewed documents that support Avenatti’s claims. “Essential Consulting [sic] was one of several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration,” AT&T said. “They did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017.”

Essential Consultants was incorporated in Delaware on October 17, 2016, 10 days after the Access Hollywood tape went public and a couple weeks before the election. It has no other known employees or directors. On October 27, Avenatti alleges, Essential Consultants wired $130,000 to a lawyer working for Stormy Daniels. On November 8, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.

Some months later, the AT&T contract with Essential Consultants began, although Avenatti’s litany of accusations only note four $50,000 payments, three in late 2017 and one in early 2018. This timeline raises a question of whether there could have been more payments, spanning the period from early 2017 to 2018.

If AT&T paid a monthly fee of $50,000, Essential Consultants would have received more money in the year than AT&T’s highest-paid lobbying firms, Mayer Brown and Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer, and Feld, which were paid $420,000 and $400,000 respectively. In 2017, AT&T paid 14 firms at least $200,000 to work Washington for the telecommunications giant. AT&T didn’t immediately respond to a request about the total amount they paid Essential Consultants.

Essential Consultants does not appear in the public disclosures that AT&T filed about who they paid for lobbying, and AT&T says Essential did no lobbying or legal work for the telecom giant—but AT&T certainly had important issues before the government. Not only was net neutrality under reconsideration, but the company has a prospective merger with Time Warner before the Department of Justice’s antitrust division. Net neutrality was repealed in December 2017; the merger has had a rockier path.

Among the more charitable interpretations of AT&T’s payments to Essential Consultants is that they were a pay-for-play scheme to get access to the newly elected president. Less charitable interpretations go well beyond the baseline level of corruption that Americans have come to expect from their government. People know that powerful interests pay for access to American politicians, but they likely do not expect the president’s personal lawyer to commingle the money of corporations, adult-film actresses, and Russian oligarchs.

Maybe there is an explanation for all this. Maybe none of it will actually turn out to be illegal, but that may be the most damning indictment of our system.