The Memo: Cohen storm grows graver for Trump

The growing storm over Michael Cohen, President TrumpDonald John TrumpWSJ: Trump ignored advice to confront Putin over indictments Trump hotel charging Sean Spicer ,000 as book party venue Bernie Sanders: Trump 'so tough' on child separations but not on Putin MORE’s personal attorney, is casting a dark cloud over the White House.

The controversy around Cohen deepened Wednesday when the attorney was reported to have promised access to the Trump administration to one of the corporations that was paying him, drug company Novartis.

That allegation, contained in separate reports from NBC News and Stat News and sourced to unnamed people inside Novartis, capped a fraught 24 hours for the White House. 

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The previous evening, lawyer Michael Avenatti, who represents adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, had delivered a bombshell. 

He asserted that Essential Consultants LLC, a shell company operated by Cohen, had received $500,000 from an investment firm whose biggest client was a company controlled by a Russian oligarch and ally of President Vladimir Putin. About $4.4 million was said to have passed through the previously obscure company, including payments from Novartis, AT&T and Korea Aerospace Industries.

Those allegations were broadly backed up by reporting from The New York Times and NBC News, as well as acknowledgments from some of the companies that they made payments. The investment firm, Columbus Nova, however, insisted that it was false that it had been used as a conduit by the oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg.

Avenatti told The Hill in a phone interview Wednesday that the allegations “appear to reflect a pattern and practice by Michael Cohen of accepting money in return for access to the president.”

There is no suggestion that Trump himself was party to any such agreement, nor has there been any acknowledgment from Cohen’s side that he was engaged in anything unethical.

But, according to Avenatti, the controversy holds serious dangers for both men.

“It’s beyond that it doesn’t look good,” he said. “This is the right-hand attorney of the president. If that attorney is selling access to the president without the requisite disclosures, that is a serious problem.”

The White House, as well as the president’s private legal team, has shown little willingness to engage with the subject. 

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was put on the defensive during Wednesday’s media briefing as she was peppered with questions about Cohen. She refused to be drawn in and suggested reporters direct their inquiries to Trump’s outside counsel.

The two most prominent members of the president’s legal team, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and attorney Jay Sekulow, however, did not respond to calls or texts from The Hill on the matter.

Sanders did say that she was not aware of any actions Trump had taken in office to benefit the corporations that had paid Cohen.

So far, the ethical and political problems for the president seem to exceed any direct legal exposure in the Cohen matter. 

“We need to be a little conservative in crying from the rooftops that there is criminal activity here,” said Caroline Polisi, an attorney and legal commentator. “It seems swampy, but I don’t know if I would use the word ‘criminal.’ ” 

Polisi, who specializes in white-collar and criminal defense with Pierce Bainbridge, added, however: “The optics are horrible. It is certainly unseemly and certainly unethical.”

Trump critics have also seized on the recent reports to make their argument that the administration has broader problems. 

In addition to the issues surrounding Cohen, they highlight the troubled tenure of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Court rejects new effort to stop kids' climate lawsuit | Baltimore is latest city to sue over climate change | EPA staffers worried about toxic chemical in Pruitt's desk Pruitt staffers worried about toxic chemical in his desk Andrew Wheeler must reverse damage to American heartland MORE and controversial recent comments by budget director Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyOn The Money: Trump rips Fed over rate hikes | Dems fume as consumer agency pick refuses to discuss border policy | Senate panel clears Trump IRS nominee Trump pick to head watchdog agency is who consumers need Dems fume as Trump's consumer bureau pick refuses to discuss role in border policy MORE regarding access granted to lobbyists during his time in Congress.

“Washington is still Washington, and it was Washington before Trump got here,” said Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam Smith Top Dem: Hard to see Trump-Putin summit 'as anything other than treason' Ocasio-Cortez draws ire from Democrats: ‘Meteors fizz out’ Overnight Defense: Washington reeling from Trump, Putin press conference MORE, communications director of Every Voice, a liberal advocacy group. “But they have been willing to say the quiet part out loud. Nobody talked about that. One of the differences is that they are just more blatant and open about the corruption.”

Allies of the president have been concerned for some time about the damage that a probe into Cohen’s affairs could inflict. 

Cohen has worked with Trump and the Trump Organization for more than a decade.

When investigators raided Cohen’s home, office and hotel room a month ago, Trump reacted with fury. It has been widely reported that the president’s willingness to submit to a voluntary interview with the team led by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE receded in the aftermath of those raids.

Trump has not yet weighed in on the most recent Cohen allegations. 

But the controversy is set to detract attention from events that the president would much prefer to be talking about. 

Three Americans who had been held in North Korea were released on Wednesday. The three men were set to return to the United States in the company of Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHillicon Valley: Trump's Russia moves demoralize his team | Congress drops effort to block ZTE deal | Rosenstein warns of foreign influence threat | AT&T's latest 5G plans Dem lawmaker calls on Pompeo to keep export restrictions on 3D gun-printing software Questions mount over Trump-Putin discussions MORE in the early hours of Thursday. 

The president said on Twitter that he would be there to greet the men at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

Right now, however, that seems likely to offer only a brief respite from the rising tide of legal and political troubles.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.