On Tuesday, Trump withdrew the United States from the multi-national Iran nuclear deal. This was a massive story, of critical international importance. It didn't only risk collapsing the protection that the world has against Iran building nuclear weapons...but worse, there is no plan to replace it. Indeed, if the Trump administration wants invoke sanctions again (as they insist is the point) -- not only have we closed our sanctions office, but far more importantly, even if we got them going again we would have to impose those sanctions against OUR ALLIES. That's because governments still part of the Iran deal allow businesses in their countries to trade with Iran. It is a massively horrible action by Trump which further weakens the United States' position in the world. And which likely destroys any hope for a serious deal with North Korea in the upcoming talks -- because, after all, why would they put any faith in a deal with the U.S. knowing that we just broke ours with Iran and after only three years? The Trump move was described as "rattling" our international allies. As well it should. It was a massive story.
But here's the thing --
It wasn't even the The Really Big Story yesterday. Something else entirely was top news story of the day!!! That's how big the top story was.
The top news story yesterday was the release by Michael Avenatti, lawyer for porn actress "Stormy Daniels," of banking information that showed a Russian oligarch and his cousin funneling $500,000 to Michael Cohen's shell company, Essential Consultants. And over $4 million flowing through that one-person company. That's how massive this story was, taking over all news shows once it broke and relegating Trump dropping out of the Iran nuclear to "...and in other news...".
I won't go into all the details of the financial machinations. Even what we know on the surface is convoluted. But the point is that this story risks crushing the Trump presidency. It may not. It may be that the payments from the Russian oligarchs -- and all the other huge payments into Cohen's shell company -- are all perfectly legal and innocent. Absolutely possible, we don't know yet. And it's also possible that the payments are all profoundly illegal and just the tip of the Titanic-like iceberg. Further, as most analysts and former federal prosecutors have noted, the biggest issue is not all this money that has come in to Cohen, even the money from Russian oligarchs, but rather...where it went. That is what is yet to come.
But the money coming in is pretty bad. The funds from Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg were reportedly laundered through a U.S. company, Columbus Nova, which then passed the money on to Cohen. Columbus Nova released a statement that strongly refutes the charges, saying all its owners are U.S. citizens, that those owners are the ones who alone hired Michael Cohen, and he was hired as a business consultant, for half a million dollars. A few pesky realities. One of the owners is Andrew Intrater -- who indeed is a U.S. citizen...as well as a Russian with dual citizenship, along with him being the cousin of Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. Another wee problem. Journalist David Corn of Mother Jones noted yesterday that his magazine did a story on Vekelsberg only last year which reported how the website for this same Columbus Nova explained at that time that they were a subsidiary of Renova -- which (are you ready?) is a holding company owned by...Viktor Vekselberg!!
It's also worth noting that earlier this year, Robert Mueller's team interviewed Viktor Vekselberg at a New York airport when he landed. (Federal prosecutors do this because if you stop a suspect at an airport after they land, they must turn over their mobile phone and, I believe, cannot first request an attorney.) A month ago, Michael Cohen's office, home and hotel room were raided by the FBI. Maybe that's all just coincidence. Could be. Maybe it's cause-and-effect.
There are three possibilities here. 1) That Trump is not remotely involved, and further, this is all innocent and legal. 2) That Trump is not involved, but Michael Cohen is doing something deeply illegal, and 3) this is illegal and both Trump and Cohen are up to their necks in it.
Given the lengths that Michael Cohen has gone to secretly create and hide his shell company, Essential Consultants -- and given all the convoluted explanations coming from him, Trump and now Rudy Giuliani about Cohen's payments to "Stormy Daniels" and (as Giuliani noted) possibly others, it's difficult to see all that as the actions of Nothing to Hide, and therefore difficult to imagine that Possibility #1 is valid.
That's leaves Possibilities #2 and #3 on the table. And both are disastrous for Trump. The problems for Possibility #3 are obvious, since it is based on Trump being guilty as sin. But here's the thing: Possibility #2 is also a horror for Trump, even if he personally is not involved in the shady monies being funneled to Cohen. How so? Keep in mind that that this option #2 presumes Cohen doing something very guilty. And if Cohen is indeed so guilty, then he risks going to prison for a very long time -- unless. Unless he flips and gives prosecutors even bigger information. And anything bigger would be about any illegal dealings he's had with Trump. So, unless the possible but deeply-improbable happens and all this is perfectly swell and legal, it would seem that Trump is in seriously big trouble.
And the biggest challenge here for Republicans is that they can't blame Robert Mueller for this. This story doesn't come from him. Moreover, they can't even blame their stand-by bugaboo Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Neither have nothing to do with it. This comes entirely from a lawsuit by a porn star. That's who they have to respond to. That's whose world they have to get sucked into. And right now they deny that there's even a relationship. (Rudy Giuliani could barely acknowledge that a photo of the two together showed Trump knew the woman.) Which makes it really difficult to respond to. And if it becomes a federal issue (or "when"), it is in the hands of the Southern District of New York. Not the Special Counsel.
Oh, and P.S. The more this story of Russian paying $500,000 to Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen gets investigated and covered, the more Devin Nunes and the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee is going to look disastrous for closing down their investigation of Russia efforts to influence the election by insisting there was nothing for them to look into about money transactions from Russia.
And that's why this was an even bigger deal yesterday than Trump creating an international crisis by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.
That's a big story.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
Feedspot Badge of Honor