Swiss Pharmaceutical Giant Admits $1 Million in Cohen Payments - Mueller Is Scrutinizing Them

A Swiss pharmaceutical company admitted to paying more than $1 million to Michael Cohen's company, Essential Consultants LLC, in a statement released Wednesday. The one-year contract extended from March 2017 to February 2018—payments special counsel Robert Mueller has been looking into. From the Novartis statement:

With the recent change in administration, Novartis believed that Michael Cohen could advise the company as to how the Trump administration might approach certain US healthcare policy matters, including the Affordable Care Act. 

After the initial meeting in March 2017, Novartis said it quickly “determined that Michael Cohen and Essential Consultants would be unable to provide the services that Novartis had anticipated related to US healthcare policy matters” and decided not to further engage with him. But they said they were already locked into a one-year term.

As the contract unfortunately could only be terminated for cause, payments continued to be made until the contract expired by its own terms in February 2018.

Robert Mueller began questioning the company about the nature of the payments as far back as last November. USA Today's John Fritze writes:

Days after the final payment was made to a company Cohen created called Essential Consultants, Trump met with European business leaders for dinner in Switzerland, including Vasant Narasimhan, the CEO of Novartis International. The meeting, which took place at the World Economic Forum in Davos, was billed as an opportunity for the president to pitch overseas firms on investing in the United States. [...]

“We’re really pleased with the tax reform, but also very pleased with the great progress being made at FDA,” Narasimhan told Trump at the dinner, according to a transcript. “We believe you have a great leadership team there and they’re doing all the right things to accelerate innovation.”

Novartis said on Wednesday that it was contacted by the special counsel’s office in November about its arrangement with Cohen’s firm. The company has declined to answer questions about whether it first contacted Cohen, or vice versa.

The Novartis statement made sure to note the agreement with Cohen “predated Vas Narasimhan becoming Novartis CEO and he was in no way involved with this agreement.”

The revelation that upwards of $4 million has shuttled through Cohen's company since just before the 2016 election and extending through most of Trump’s first term has raised the prospect of a pay-to-play environment. Equally important will be where that money went and, other than the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels, we don't have a lot of information about what happened to the money after it made its way to Essential Consultants. 

No matter what, this is politically horrible for Trump and looks downright "swampy," should we say. But in terms of criminal bribery, the payments themselves are not an open-and-shut case. 

Former federal prosecutor Mimi Rocah told MSNBC Wednesday that federal bribery law is "very narrow" and requires proof demonstrating the company got something in exchange for its payments.

"What you need is to pay to get access and then get that politician or that elected official, rather, to do some kind of official act in exchange. That's how you get a federal bribery charge," she explained. "I'm not saying there aren't other possible charges here."

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