Michael Cohen’s D.C. Consulting Career: Scattershot, With Mixed Success

Michael Cohen’s D.C. Consulting Career

Mr. Cohen talked to associates about building a huge practice. He mused about approaching foreign governments and foreign firms. But a broad review of his Washington dealings since they first surfaced last week shows his efforts were scattershot and met only with mixed success—both for Mr. Cohen and his clients.

His work did have an impact in one way. It dragged some of the world’s largest corporations and other firms into Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation: Novartis, Ford and AT&T have responded to information requests from Mr. Mueller’s office, according to people familiar with the matter.

More fortunate are the dozens of Fortune 100 companies who, when contacted by The Wall Street Journal, said they hadn’t received any overtures from Mr. Cohen or had any contact with him.

Michael Cohen, seen here arriving on Capitol Hill in 2017, sought to use his relationship with the president to build a new consulting business. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

Mr. Cohen’s pitch was blunt. He would tell prospective clients—large corporations worried about their lack of connections to President Donald Trump’s administration—that he didn’t know who was advising them, but that the companies “should fire them all,” a person familiar with Mr. Cohen’s approach said. “I have the best relationship with the president on the outside, and you need to hire me,” Mr. Cohen told them, according to this person.

Mr. Cohen repeatedly pitched Uber, which said no, citing Mr. Cohen’s ownership of New York taxi medallions as a potential conflict of interest with the ride-hailing firm, a person close to the company said. He modified his pitch in response those objections, reminding the company he was “the president’s lawyer,” this person said.

The company, this person said, was “bemused.”

Mr. Cohen approached Uber seeking to sign it up as a client, only to be rebuffed. The ride-sharing company was “bemused” by the pitch. Photo: Eric Risberg/Associated Press

Severe losses on his New York City taxi investments had, in fact, fueled Mr. Cohen’s desire to make money from his ties to the president. A friend described his financial situation as “precarious” and said Mr. Cohen was having trouble maintaining his family’s upscale Manhattan lifestyle.

“I want you to know I’m looking out for deals,” Mr. Cohen told his friend Mark Cuban in April 2017 as he pitched the owner of the Dallas Mavericks on hiring a health-industry firm Mr. Cohen took on as a client, according to Mr. Cuban. “Michael is a hustler,” Mr. Cuban said. “That’s who he is, that’s what he does.”

Lobbying Leaders
Top lobbyists by 2017 spending

Source: Center for Responsive Politics

Mr. Cohen didn’t register as a lobbyist, which wasn’t required provided he only gave companies advice and didn’t seek to influence policy. His clients largely remained quiet about having added him to their payrolls. Lobbyists connected to the companies that hired Mr. Cohen said they were unaware their clients had done so.

His successful consulting deals were made through Essential Consultants LLC, the same company he had used months earlier to arrange a secret payment of $130,000 to former adult film star Stephanie Clifford —professionally known as Stormy Daniels—in exchange for her silence about an alleged sexual encounter with Mr. Trump. He denies the affair.

When contacted by the Journal for this article, Mr. Cohen said in a written statement: “These falsehoods and gross inaccuracies are only being written in the hopes of maligning me for sensationalistic purposes. The truth will prevail and will ultimately be proven in court and not by pundits.” He didn’t respond when asked what he was disputing.

It is common for people close to a new administration to offer their services based on their proximity to power. “The more you can be seen as an intimate of the president, the more important you become to prospective clients,” said Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader and head of a company that provides strategic counsel to large companies and other clients.

Ziad Ojakli, Ford’s head of government affairs, right, was interviewed by the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller over Mr. Cohen’s approach to the auto maker. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

Last month, federal prosecutors raided Mr. Cohen’s properties as part of an investigation into possible bank fraud and campaign-finance violations in his efforts to raise cash and conceal negative information about Mr. Trump during the 2016 campaign, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Cohen has denied wrongdoing.

The investigation, being led by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, stemmed in part from Mr. Mueller, who is probing Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow.

The president has denied any collusion and Moscow denies meddling. A spokesman for Mr. Mueller’s office declined to comment.

From the campaign days, Mr. Cohen made an effort to establish his reputation as a confidant of Mr. Trump, whom he referred to as “the boss” regardless of whether he was speaking to the president or to others, according to people familiar with the matter.

In the first weeks after the election, Mr. Cohen maintained an office in Trump Tower in New York, close to the transition offices. On Jan. 18, 2017, two days before the inauguration, he announced in a Fox News interview that he was leaving the Trump Organization, where he had worked since 2007, to serve as Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer.

By that time, however, he knew he wouldn’t achieve his biggest goal: a prominent role in the new White House. Mr. Cohen soon began saying he was “going to build up a huge practice” finding investments for clients, said one associate. “He’d use words like, ‘Big guys are going to hire me.’ ”

Mr. Cohen tried to strengthen his relationships with others in Mr. Trump’s orbit, including Donald Trump Jr. , the president’s eldest son who was serving on the transition team, and Elliott Broidy, a top Trump fundraiser who was serving on the inaugural committee, according to people familiar with the matter.

In January, Mr. Cohen signed two of the wealthy donors to the president’s inaugural committee as his clients: AT&T and the investment management firm Columbus Nova. AT&T had donated $2 million to the inauguration; Columbus Nova CEO Andrew Intrater had donated $250,000. Mr. Cohen solicited Mr. Intrater’s donation, according to a person involved in the inauguration.

Columbus Nova’s biggest investor is a company called Renova Group that was founded by Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, Mr. Intrater’s cousin and one of the richest men in Russia, who has close ties to the Kremlin. At Mr. Intrater’s invitation, Mr. Vekselberg attended inauguration festivities, where Mr. Cohen networked with the crowd and spent time with Mr. Intrater, according to people who witnessed his interactions.

He pitched potential clients on what he said was his ability to help them understand the incoming administration, according to people familiar with the strategy. AT&T agreed to pay him $50,000 a month. Columbus Nova paid him $500,000 last year.

“It was never that he could talk to Trump” about a client’s particular policy interests, one person familiar with Mr. Cohen’s pitch said. “It was more that he could decipher what the orbit was thinking because of his long-term relationships and understanding of how the president operates.”

In February 2017, Mr. Cohen began discussing with Mr. Broidy, a venture capitalist who had helped raise money for Mr. Trump during the campaign, the possibility of going into the foreign-consulting business together, and told associates about those plans, according to people familiar with his discussions. A spokesman for Mr. Broidy denied there were any plans to work together.

That partnership didn’t pan out, but Mr. Cohen kept trying, the people said. He proposed pitching foreign governments, including from the Middle East and Asia.

One of his early clients, Swiss drugmaker Novartis, paid Mr. Cohen $100,000 a month for a year, even after a March 2017 meeting in which it determined the attorney’s services wouldn’t be useful. Monthly retainers for such services in Washington typically run from $15,000 to $30,000, lobbyists say.

Less than a month after the inauguration, Felix Sater, who had worked with Mr. Cohen on a failed plan for a Trump-branded tower in Moscow, introduced Mr. Cohen to Robert Armao, a consultant and businessman with connections in Washington and in foreign governments, Mr. Armao recalled.

Mr. Armao had previously discussed with Mr. Sater a deal involving refurbishing Ukrainian nuclear power plants. Mr. Sater also hoped to ship excess energy to former Soviet bloc countries. Mr. Sater had considered bringing in Mr. Cohen because of his connections to the president.

Over coffee at the ’21’ Club in New York, Mr. Armao said, Mr. Sater described Mr. Cohen as a brilliant real-estate attorney who might help him with property investments. No nuclear or real-estate deals resulted.

In April 2017, Mr. Cohen signed a consulting contract with 4C Health Solutions, a Virginia-based startup. David Adams, the chief executive of 4C, previously told the Journal he met Mr. Cohen through another consultant. Mr. Adams said last month that the company, which agreed to pay Mr. Cohen 5% of business he generated, hadn’t paid Mr. Cohen in connection with the contract because he hadn’t brought in any business.

Mr. Cohen’s deal with law and lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs was for $500,000 a year, and gave him a cut of any fees the law firm collected from clients he referred. Among the five clients he delivered to the firm was U.S. Immigration Fund LLC, a company with ties to Mr. Kushner. The Florida company connects businesses with foreign investors through a U.S. visa program.

A friend of Mr. Cohen said that Squire Patton Boggs worked “hand in hand” with Mr. Cohen, and the firm’s leaders “paraded him around like a model” for many of their clients.

Mr. Cohen had an office in the firm’s Rockefeller Center space in New York. He exchanged pleasantries with other lawyers in the hallway, but his office door was closed about 90% of the time, said one person close to the firm. At Mr. Cohen’s request, Squire Patton Boggs installed a lock on his door for which only he had the key, the person said.

About his relationship with the president, he told lawyers at the firm he could call “the boss at any time,” the person said.

People close to the White House say there was little contact between the two and, unlike other longstanding advisers to the president who wandered in and out of the White House in the early weeks, Mr. Cohen was more often found at the bar and restaurant of the new Trump International Hotel in Washington.

Over time, Mr. Cohen became frustrated with the relationship, telling one associate he believed he deserved more money because Squire Patton Boggs was capitalizing on his ties to the president to sell clients on the firm.

“Every one of these motherf—ers is going around the world and using my relationship in order to acquire clients, but I’m not being fairly compensated,” the associate recalled Mr. Cohen saying.

The firm declined to comment on Mr. Cohen remarks.

He told associates he wanted to seek partnerships with other consulting and lobbying firms, including Baker Botts and FTI Consulting , both international firms, according to people familiar with the matter. Both firms said they weren’t aware of talks with Mr. Cohen and never entered partnerships with him.

As 2017 passed, Mr. Cohen grew frustrated with his lack of access to the administration. In calls with associates of the president, Mr. Cohen often asked: “Have you heard from the boss?” One person who saw Mr. Cohen at a restaurant over the winter said Mr. Cohen voiced unhappiness about the state of his relationship with Mr. Trump, complaining that the president was “not calling him and not helping him,” this person said.

In November, he landed another client, Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd. , which said it hired him to provide“legal consulting concerning accounting standards on production costs.” Mr. Cohen also proposed to associates pitching foreign governments and companies with a big U.S. presence, including Samsung Electronics Co. Samsung says it wasn’t approached.

Robert Quinn, senior vice president at AT&T, left, seen here with Chief Executive Randall Stephenson, was ousted last week after news broke that the firm had hired Mr. Cohen. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Toward the end of the year, Mr. Cohen’s Washington efforts started to unravel. AT&T and Novartis have since called hiring him a mistake.

In March, Mr. Cohen confided in friends he felt undervalued by Mr. Trump and questioned whether he should continue his work as lawyer for the president, said a person familiar with the matter. About a week later, Mr. Cohen’s ambivalence seemed to have vanished. He called associates seeking contributions for a legal-defense fund for White House aides who had been subpoenaed by investigators, the person said. A person familiar with the fund said Mr. Cohen was never asked to raise money for it, and didn’t do so.

Less than a month later, the FBI raided his home, a hotel room where he and his family were staying temporarily and his office at Squire Patton Boggs. The law firm, which had notified Mr. Cohen earlier in March that it was terminating his contract, announced the split that day.

—Michael C Bender, Drew FitzGerald and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

Write to Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com, Peter Nicholas at peter.nicholas@wsj.com, Michael Rothfeld at michael.rothfeld@wsj.com and Joe Palazzolo at joe.palazzolo@wsj.com

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