AT&T reportedly paid $600,000 to President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, last year in order to better understand where a Trump administration might fall on issues like net neutrality and its proposed acquisition of Time Warner.
The payment highlights how AT&T’s top management sought to navigate Trump’s surprise election.
As noted by the New York Times, James Cicconi was a longtime Republican insider and for years headed up AT&T’s lobbying and government affairs. He publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton in June of 2016, and shortly thereafter announced his retirement. A longtime AT&T executive, Bob Quinn, took over Cicconi’s job as AT&T’s head of external and legislative affairs.
But when Trump won the presidential election in November of 2016, the Times noted that AT&T’s management were caught by surprise—and likely concerned, considering Trump had spoken out against AT&T’s proposed purchase of Time Warner during his campaign. Thus, AT&T confirmed it paid $200,000 to Cohen’s Essential Consultants company to get insights into Trump (though the Times and Reuters, both citing an unnamed source, reported that AT&T’s payments to Cohen actually totaled $600,000).
In an email to employees published by Dallas News, AT&T said that it routinely seeks information on how presidents might affect its business.
“As President Trump was taking office, we hired several consultants to help us understand how the President and his administration might approach a wide range of policy issues important to the company, including regulatory reform at the FCC, corporate tax reform and antitrust enforcement,” AT&T wrote in its email to employees. “Companies often hire consultants for these purposes, especially at the beginning of a new Presidential Administration, and we have done so in previous Administrations, as well. Cohen was one of those consultants.”
AT&T said Cohen did not do any legal work for the company and that its contract with Cohen ended in December 2017.
Now, of course, Cohen is at the center of a controversy involving not only possible Russian influence in U.S. elections—via Robert Mueller's investigation—but also payments Cohen made to porn star Stormy Daniels to reportedly stay quiet about an affair with Trump.
And, according to one new report, AT&T could face legal issues over its payments to Cohen, though other legal experts disagree.
“AT&T, Novartis and Korean Airlines face exposure if Michael Cohen was selling ‘official acts’ by Trump Administration officials in exchange for cash. Cohen would be liable and so would any person in the government who was agreeing to and/or providing official, government conduct promised to the payor. To the extent that Cohen’s conduct borders on selling official acts, at Trump’s direction or knowledge, then Trump and Cohen would be liable. If, on the other hand, the companies were hiring Cohen as a lobbyist for which he lobbied government officials on policy issues, then his only exposure would be for failing to register as a lobbyist,” Attorney Michael Volkov told MarketWatch.
Indeed, AT&T appears to already be feeling heat from its work with Cohen. The company confirmed to The Hill that Mueller contacted AT&T about the payments it made to Cohen.
“When we were contacted by the Special Counsel’s office regarding Michael Cohen, we cooperated fully, providing all information requested in November and December of 2017," an AT&T spokesperson said in a statement.