At 5:06 p.m. on May 8, Michael Avenatti, the ubiquitous lawyer for adult-film star Stormy Daniels, tweeted a bombshell. Avenatti, whose client is suing President Trump, said he had obtained a list of alleged wire transfers dating from October 2016 to January 2018 into and out of a company controlled by Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer. Among the alleged inflows to Essential Consultants LLC: half a million dollars from a firm controlled by an aluminum baron close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and hundreds of thousands of dollars from companies with business before the Trump Administration, including telecom giant AT&T and Swiss pharmaceutical behemoth Novartis. Going out, Avenatti claims: the now famous $130,000 mystery-money payment to Daniels, hundreds of thousands of dollars to Cohen’s own bank accounts and millions of dollars in unaccounted for payments to unknown parties.
In the hours following the tweet, several of Cohen’s clients confirmed the payments, and it became clear that a new front had opened up in Trump’s legal and political battlefield. For the past year, Trump had railed against the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller as a witch hunt into nonexistent election collusion with Russia. Avenatti’s disclosures, coming just a month after an FBI raid of Cohen’s temporary residence and office, showed that the Justice Department probe has expanded to encompass the business and political activities of Trump’s inner circle during the transition and under his presidency, including payments allegedly made in the President’s personal interest. The broadening investigation is a problem for Trump that firing Mueller can’t solve.