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Robert Quinn, AT&T’s head lobbyist, should count himself unlucky. He was forced out last week for having paid $600,000 to Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, who is embroiled in a larger federal investigation. Among other things, Mr Cohen is under scrutiny for his role in paying porn star Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about an alleged affair with Mr Trump. AT&T’s departing chief lobbyist was caught in the crossfire. Mr Quinn could not have known AT&T cash would be paid to the same company — Essential Consultants — Mr Cohen used to pay Ms Daniels to uphold a non-disclosure agreement about her relationship with Mr Trump. Such are the entanglements of the Trump-era Washington swamp.
But should AT&T reproach itself? AT&T has not broken any laws. Like many US companies, the telecoms group was caught unawares by Mr Trump’s victory. His upset over Hillary Clinton posed a specific headache for AT&T, which had a few months earlier announced a $85bn takeover of Time Warner. Mr Trump said on the campaign trail he would oppose the deal should he be elected. Time Warner owns CNN, which Mr Trump had taken to pillorying as the “Clinton News Network”. Sure enough, Mr Trump’s Department of Justice is now suing to prevent the merger.
But Mr Cohen is not a garden-variety politico-turned-lobbyist. Unlike earlier iterations that now fill K Street firms, Mr Cohen has no public policy experience or time spent in campaign trenches. He was Mr Trump’s longtime fixer, meaning all he was offering corporate clients was access in exchange for cash — an extraordinarily naked quid pro quo, even for Washington. In other countries, corporate payments to such hangers-on are criticised by transparency advocates as tantamount to legalised bribery.
AT&T was just one of the companies that retained Mr Cohen for his “strategic advice”. Others include Novartis, the Swiss drugs maker, Columbus Nova, a New York-based investment firm, and Korea Aerospace Industries. In all, Mr Cohen made $2.4m in fees simply because he knew Mr Trump. His record was mixed. AT&T clearly did not get its money’s worth since the administration blocked the deal. Novartis, which sought advice on changes to US healthcare policy, might be less unhappy. Last Friday Mr Trump dropped plans to use the federal government’s buying power to force lower drugs prices. But this had nothing to do with Mr Cohen. Columbus Nova is a murkier case. One of its investors is Viktor Vekselberg, a Kremlin-linked Russian billionaire, who has had sanctions imposed on him by the US Treasury. Robert Mueller, the special counsel, will undoubtedly want to probe whether Columbus Nova was a conduit for Russian payments to Mr Cohen.
The private sector should draw two lessons from the Cohen episode. First, the Washington swamp is, if anything, even swampier than before. Dozens of Trump associates are profiting from their former and apparently continuing access to the most unorthodox figure ever to become president. Some, such as Corey Lewandowski, Mr Trump’s former campaign manager, who ran a lucrative consulting operation a few blocks from the White House, have profited to a far higher tune. The opportunity to “pay-for-play” is arguably greater than at any time since Richard Nixon’s administration. Second, companies do so at their own peril. Many in Mr Trump’s orbit, including Mr Cohen, have a long history of serving shadowy clients. Mr Trump came to office vowing to drain the swamp. In practice, the swamp is enjoying something of a golden age.