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News Brief: Cohen Allegedly Received Russian Payments, Trump Ends Iran Deal


OK. So exactly where did a shell company that President Trump's lawyer use to pay off a porn star get its money?


Well, Stephanie Clifford's lawyer says he knows. The attorney for the actress who's suing the president released information purporting to show the income of the firm called Essential Consultants. Let's take this from the beginning here. So presidential lawyer Michael Cohen says he used this shell company to pay $130,000 for the silence of Stormy Daniels. Afterward, according to the actress's lawyer Michael Avenatti, the company received income, more than $1 million, from corporations that had business before the government and also from a firm with ties to a Russian businessman.

GREENE: OK, a lot to work through here. And let's do that with NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas.

Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hello, there.

GREENE: OK. So this is the president's personal lawyer accepting money through this shell company. What do we know about this money? And what do we know about this company?

LUCAS: Well Daniels' lawyer, Michael Avenatti, released a summary of a report that makes all these claims about the shell company that Cohen set up called Essential Consultants and the hundreds of thousands of dollars of payments that it received. There are several big names among those that paid. AT&T reportedly paid Cohen around $200,000; Novartis Pharmaceuticals, around $400,000; and this private equity company called Columbus Nova, LLC, around half a million dollars. Now, that last company, Columbus Nova - that's the one that's raised a lot of eyebrows because it has links to a Russian oligarch by the name of Viktor Vekselberg who has ties to the Kremlin.

GREENE: OK. One reason a lot of eyebrows being raised - I mean, as Steve mentioned - is these are companies that seem to have had some sort of business...

LUCAS: Right.

GREENE: ...Before the government, which would make this, you know, potentially a significant development as we follow this. Is there evidence here? Does this attorney, Avenatti, back up these allegations?

LUCAS: He did not provide any evidence for these claims. We haven't seen the underlying documents that he's basing all of these allegations on. He did say on CNN last night that he's a hundred percent confident in them for what that's worth. Now, the companies have acknowledged engaging Cohen. AT&T said it hired Essential Consultants for, quote, "insights into understanding the new administration" - said it didn't do any lobbying work, the contract has ended. Novartis said any agreements it entered into have expired. And Columbus Nova said that it hired Cohen as a business consultant, said everything was above board and that none of it was related to Vekselberg at all.

INSKEEP: I want to be clear on this. You're saying that for the details of this, we depend on Avenatti. But the companies themselves have confirmed making payments to Michael Cohen in some fashion. There's no doubt there's something here.

LUCAS: They have confirmed that they engaged and that they hired him, yes.

GREENE: Engaged and hired - so they haven't confirmed everything that we're hearing from Avenatti at least.

LUCAS: No, no. But either way, all of these payments, all of this engagement raises a lot of questions, chief among them - why is the president's personal lawyer receiving large amounts of cash from these companies?

GREENE: Well, fit this in if you can, Ryan, into the whole context of President Trump and all of his ongoing legal battles.

LUCAS: Well, it's certainly not a positive development for the president because of who Cohen is - longtime personal lawyer, fixer.

GREENE: Had his office raided.

LUCAS: Had his office raided by the FBI as part of an ongoing federal investigation into his business dealings. Now, while these dots that are in the Avenatti claims are new to us, they're not necessarily new to federal prosecutors.

GREENE: All right, trying to work through all of these developments with NPR's Ryan Lucas.

We appreciate it, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.


GREENE: All right, so it's now official. President Trump is withdrawing the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers.

INSKEEP: He made that announcement yesterday. And within hours, Iranian lawmakers staged a symbolic burning of paper representing the agreement along with a paper American flag. The other countries in the deal, however, say they're going to keep trying to make it work - as will Iran - despite the coming reimposition of American sanctions.

GREENE: NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Istanbul. He's been following all of this.

Hi, Peter.


GREENE: All right, so one of the big questions after the president's announcement yesterday was how Iran would react. What are we seeing?

KENYON: Well, a number of harsh comments, some aimed at Trump personally. Iran's supreme leader says you've made a mistake, Trump, calling his speech silly and superficial. The Parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, says Trump, quote, "doesn't have the mental capacity to deal with issues." There's been chants of death to America. President Hassan Rouhani went on national TV. And he said all Trump did accomplish was to prove once again that America's word can't be trusted. He said the nuclear deal is multilateral, endorsed by the U.N. Security Council. Trump actually can't end it by himself. And Iran will, for now, continue to comply with it.

He said there'll be talks with Europe, Russia, China - see if Iran can get what it needs despite the coming U.S. sanctions. But if not, he says Iran's nuclear program could be ramped back up. Here's a bit of what he said.


PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) At this juncture, I have also ordered the Atomic Energy Organization to be fully prepared for subsequent measures, if needed, so that we will start our industrial enrichment without limitation.

KENYON: Now, Parliament's introduced a motion basically backing that. The message is Tehran will give this some time, see how much damage the pullout is likely to do and then decide whether or not to keep complying with the deal.

GREENE: But the threat there to start industrial enrichment - I mean, Iran's argument has always been that enrichment is industry related, not weapons related. But saying that they're ready to restart things is significant. Tell me, Peter - I mean, you said that Iran might be talking with Europe, with Russia, with China about the future of the deal. How isolated is President Trump? Does he have support from elsewhere in the world for this decision?

KENYON: Well, Israel and Saudi Arabia both like this decision. They have both hated the nuclear deal from the start, in part because it brought Iran out of the pariah state category somewhat and then especially because it rewarded Tehran with billions of dollars in frozen assets, some of which has gone to its activities in the region, they say. Generally, all other reaction to Trump's decision has been negative. Russia says it's still committed to the deal. France, Britain, Germany and the EU all voiced varying regret and concern responses. They say they're going to meet as early as next week with the Iranians and try to talk about how they might stick with this agreement.

GREENE: Does this fundamentally change U.S.-Iranian relations?

KENYON: Well, it'd be a mistake to think relations were really becoming warm just because of the nuclear deal. But inside Tehran, Trump's move is seen as a real gift to hard-liners. They feel galvanized to attack the president, Hassan Rouhani. The deal was his No. 1 achievement. Question is - what can hard-liners do about it other than push the country closer to a confrontation? On the other hand, nothing's really going to happen for the next 90 days at least, so diplomacy might still continue.

INSKEEP: And after that, you have the awkward specter of the United States imposing nuclear sanctions on Iran for continuing to follow a deal that allows inspections of Iran's nuclear program.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul.

Thanks, Peter.

KENYON: Thank you.


GREENE: All right. Last night, four states held primary elections that might be giving us some clues about how this year's midterms are going to play out.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Republicans are breathing something of a sigh of relief after a West Virginia Senate candidate who was widely seen as unelectable in a general election lost his primary bid as well. Meanwhile, Democrats avoided many contentious primaries. And it was a very good night to be a woman in politics.

GREENE: All right, NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is here.

Hi, Sue.


GREENE: All right, so let's talk about this West Virginia primary. Republican Don Blankenship loses. And the party was really paying a lot of attention to this. Why?

DAVIS: They were paying a lot of attention. It turns out that concern was greatly exaggerated. He ended up only taking about 20 percent in the primary last night. I think the concern was because we've seen this play out before, that the unelectable candidate wins in a primary and takes a seat off the map for Republicans. That did not happen. Incumbent Democratic Senator Joe Manchin's seat is still very much in play. Now he will just face Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in the November election.

GREENE: So a sigh of relief in general for the Republican establishment, or how are they taking in all the results yesterday?

DAVIS: It's interesting because it was - did the establishment win or lose last night? - is always how we sort of see these primary elections. And there was really mixed results. One of the really interesting takeaways, I think, is that it was a bad night to be a Republican congressman. Even in that West Virginia primary, the favored candidate was Congressman Evan Jenkins. He had been endorsed by Mitch McConnell. He got passed over. In Indiana, another important state, two Republican congressmen were battling it out. Both lost to a political newcomer named Mike Braun, who will now be the candidate to take on incumbent Democrat Joe Donnelly.

I think the dynamic that we're learning is that in the Republican primary base, it is still much more compelling to be seen as someone as an outsider who's not from the political establishment. And in these upcoming primaries, I think that that's what the mantle is going to be the fight over - who's the outsider, who's the most Trump-like, and who's going to shake up Washington?

GREENE: So yesterday may be an explanation for why you've seen this larger-than-usual number of sitting Republican members decide that they just don't want to run again.

DAVIS: And it's not really working when they run for higher office.


GREENE: What about the Democratic side of the ticket? I mean, that party has sort of an internal battle for the soul of the party right now as well, doesn't it?

DAVIS: I think that talk of the Democratic civil war has been a little bit exaggerated. We're just not seeing the same level of contentious primaries. And where party favorites are facing progressive challengers, they're easily dispatching them. That makes Democrats in a pretty good position going into the general because they're not spending time and resources on this. One thing I'll leave you with - last night, we saw in almost every open Democratic primary, about 20 races, voters picked a woman to be their nominee. It is still a very good year to be a woman in American politics.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Susan Davis wrapping up the political races yesterday - many more to come as this year goes on.

Sue, thanks.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL FINGERS' "AGRIMONY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.