Below is my column in USA Today on recent disclosure of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, received hundreds of thousands of dollars from companies like AT&T seeking access to Trump. Accounts indicate that Cohen actively sold himself as a conduit to Trump to companies seeking influence. Cohen is only the latest in a long line of sleaze winding its way through Washington.
Caught red-handed in influence peddling, AT&T reportedly fired the Vice President responsible for the Cohen contract and called it a “big mistake.”
Here is the column:
The payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars from AT&T and other companies to Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen is only the latest example of companies “reaching out to touch someone” in Washington. He was not alone.
As Trump pledged to drain the swamp that is Washington, his closest aides were offering virtual swamp tours for companies seeking access. Cohen’s sleazy practices have now ensnared law firms, companies, and the administration itself. It is hardly unique.
The Clinton and Obama administrations yielded millions for insiders cashing in on influence. What is different in this case is that Cohen, who has no appreciable legal skills or particular business acumen, seemed to be selling only access. He is not a lobbyist and barely acknowledged as a lawyer. Like so much of Cohen’s record, it was raw, crude, and unabashedly corrupt. Absent some new evidence, it was also perfectly legal.
Washington’s currency has always been access. Access means influence and influence means profits. The term “lobbyist” comes from favor-seekers who would hang around in the lobby of the Willard Hotel where President Ulysses S. Grant would often conduct meetings. Location, location, location is not just a mantra in real estate.
In politics, where you stand in relation to a president dictates what you are worth. Proximity is power and those with access have long sold their services to the highest bidder. During Clinton’s terms there was even an acronym that meant millions for those who could use it: FOB or Friends of Bill.
Trump ran on ending this corrupt practice in rightfully denouncing the Clintons for tens of millions in speaking fees for themselves and contributions to their foundation in exchange for access. Even The Washington Post concluded “There can be little doubt that Russians who donated to the Clinton Foundation were trying to curry favor with the secretary of State.” Trump promised change in denouncing how “Access and favors were sold for cash. It’s called Pay-For-Play.”
Trump however had not even taken his oath before his closest associates bellied up to the bar to sell their influence. Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Cohen, and others have reportedly raked in millions by immediately cashing in on their relationship to Trump.
As always, Cohen was the bluntest tool. His pitch, described by a Republican strategist, was as subtle as a shakedown: “I don’t know who’s been representing you, but you should fire them all. I’m the guy you should hire. I’m closest to the President. I’m his personal lawyer.”
AT&T and others have business before the government and lined up to line Cohen’s pockets with retainer money. They were not alone. In addition to Columbus Nova, Korea Aerospace Industries, and Novartis, the white-shoe firm Squire Patton Boggs brought Cohen into its New York office. Cohen was well known to have the legal skills of a wombat but this legal and lobbying firm wanted him close. Novartis actually explained its $1.2 million payment to Cohen to get his advice on “health care” despite the lack of any evidence that Cohen’s knowledge of the field went beyond his personal HMO plan.
Of course, Cohen went about cashing in with his signature reckless abandon. He used the same company, Essential Consulting LLC, to collect this money that he used to pay out the hush money to former porn star Stormy Daniels. That has allowed questions to be raised about the possible use of this company as a “slush fund” for Trump and the payments as corrupt efforts to influence Trump, including money from a company associated with Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.
Cohen notably seemed to dispense with the pretense of most for influence peddlers who dress up this corrupt practice as “lobbying.” Cohen was selling his own remaining asset: access to Trump. There is no registration needed for influence peddlers. Of course, if you engage in lobbying, legal problems can arise. However, Cohen was offering his “knowledge” of Trump — a murky area where someone offers insights and framing advice. The assumption is that Trump would know who was taking care of his friend when actual lobbyists from AT&T or Novartis came knocking.
There really is no way to prohibit the selling of knowledge or associations. The law focuses on specific acts like lobbying or lawyering for regulation. Moreover, these companies and law firms will emerge unscathed from this scandal. No one is likely to cancel their AT&T subscription because of the company’s s;eazy tactics — any more than customers responded to AT&T spending huge amounts to kill net neutrality.
Whatever may come out of this scandal, one thing will not emerge: reform.
I have written about influence peddling in Washington for decades. Nothing has changed. Virtually all of the Democrats expressing shock over Cohen’s profiteering were conspicuously silent when the Clintons and their aides gathered hundreds of millions of dollars from the same influence game.
Trying to bar the selling access in Washington is like trying to ban corn sales in Iowa. It is the only indigenous crop of the Beltway. Only two things are certain: first, Cohen is a sleazy influence peddler and, second, he found a perfect home in Washington.
Jonathan Turley, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, where he teaches constitutional and tort law. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanTurley.