“Swept Up!” The Russian Payments that Led to Trump’s Felony Conviction

There has been a lot of performed ignorance about the origin of the investigation that led to the felony conviction of Donald Trump.

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ spox, Sarah Isgur, quoted Robert Jackson about prosecutors choosing defendants.

Kerri Kupec, the DOJ spox who helped Bill Barr spin key aspects of his unprecedented corruption at DOJ, likewise quoted Jackson.

Both mouthpieces for Trump’s DOJ insinuated that Alvin Bragg invented this case out of thin air, rather than pursuing the fraud revealed by an investigation that developed — and was substantially interfered with by Barr — while they were at DOJ.

Then, three of the NYT reporters who commented on Trump’s wild screed the other day mused about whence this investigation might have come from, with Maggie describing those whose own actions made them targets of the Mueller investigation in the passive voice, “swept up,” as she is wont to do (to say nothing about her refusal to discuss the way Trump’s pardons silenced key witnesses against him).

We know whence the investigation into Cohen, and therefore the investigation into Trump, came from, thanks in part to a media coalition including NYT, because the coalition liberated the warrants used to investigate Cohen.

As the first warrant targeting Michael Cohen, dated July 18, 2017, lays out, the investigation started from information “supplied by” — almost certainly in the form of Suspicious Activity Reports — a bank known to be First Republic Bank.

This Know Your Customer filing was submitted as an exhibit at the Trump trial.

The entity will be set up to receive consulting fees in the form of wires and ACH — all under 10K 1-2 a month, the wires and fees will be income from consulting work from personal clients, all domestic. He will then internally transfer the funds to his personal account at First Republic. He is setting this account to keep the income from his consulting work separate.

Even the original Stormy Daniels payment violated the representations Cohen made in that KYC statement (as likely explained in still-redacted passages in the warrant affidavit).

As Gary Farro, a witness who had worked at First Republic explained at trial, Cohen denied that the account (and an earlier one, Resolution Consultants, the plan for which he abandoned) had anything to do with political fundraising.

Q Looking now at the question in — labeled number 12. What does that say?

A “Is the entity associated with political 21 fundraising/political action committee PAC.”

Q And what answer is checked?

A “No.”

Q And do you know why the form includes a question about political fundraising?

A Because it would be something the bank would want to know.

Q And if somebody checked “yes,” is that something that would require additional review by the bank?

A Yes, it would.


Q And looking at the questions towards the top third of 3 the page.

In the form does it say — does this have the same question that we saw in the Resolution Consultants form?

It says: “Is the entity associated with political fundraising or political action committee.”

A Yes. This is just the digital form of what was provided earlier, which would be the hard copy.

Q What’s the answer to the political fundraising question 11 on the form?

A Is “No.”

Q Now, turning to the business narrative portion in the middle of the page.

What business narrative is provided for Essential Consultants LLC?

A It’s Michael Cohen is opening Essential Consultants LLC as a real estate consulting company to collect fees for investment consulting work he does for real estate deals.

Within days after he set up the account on October 13, 2016, his October 27 transfer to Keith Davidson violated Cohen’s claims to be engaging in real estate deals. As Farro explained, had Cohen indicated the transfer had a political purpose, it would have invited more scrutiny from the bank — and possibly a delay in the payment.

Q Did any of the wire transfer paperwork indicate that money was being transferred on behalf of a political candidate?

A No.

Q Would the bank’s process for approving the wire transfer be different if Mr. Cohen had indicated that the money was being transferred on behalf of a political candidate?

A We would have additional due diligence.

Q Would that have delayed the transaction?

A It certainly could.

Had it ended with just that hush payment, had the hush payment remained secret, Cohen might have gotten away with it.

But it didn’t.

As that first warrant goes on to explain, after Cohen quit Trump Organization and announced he was serving as Trump’s personal lawyer, he used the same account to accept payment from a bunch of foreign companies, some of them controlled by foreign governments. That led the bank to provide more information — again, almost certainly in the form of SARs — to the Feds.

The most alarming of those payments involved $416,665 in payments over five months from Columbus Nova, which is ultimately controlled by Viktor Vekselberg.

The reason those payments were such a concern is that, as the NYT itself reported on February 19, 2017, Andrii Artemenko (Person 2) and Felix Sater (Person 3) had used Cohen to pitch a “peace deal” for Ukraine to Mike Flynn.

The warrant affidavit really downplayed the substance of the NYT story, which described Artemenko claiming that the “peace plan” “he had received encouragement for his plans from top aides to Mr. Putin.” In the story, Cohen excused chasing a plan with support from Russia based on Artemenko’s claim to have proof of corruption implicating then Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko.

After speaking with Mr. Sater and Mr. Artemenko in person, Mr. Cohen said he would deliver the plan to the White House.

Mr. Cohen said he did not know who in the Russian government had offered encouragement on it, as Mr. Artemenko claims, but he understood there was a promise of proof of corruption by the Ukrainian president.

“Fraud is never good, right?” Mr. Cohen said.

Cohen’s claim that, “Fraud is never good,” did not make the warrant affidavit that would set off an investigation that would lead to the conviction of Donald Trump on 34 counts of fraud.

The payments from Columbus Nova — along with payments from Korea Airspace Industries, Kazkommertsbank, and Novartis — would undoubtedly have resulted in SARs in any case. But given the report on the “peace deal,” it substantiated probable cause to suspect that Cohen was acting as an agent of a foreign power and/or violating FARA, which statutes were two of the four crimes the warrant authorized the FBI to investigate.

But false statements to a financial institution were also in there, in part, lying to First Republic about using the Essential Consultants account to pay off porn stars and accept big payments from foreign companies.

Michael Cohen, and so, Donald Trump, was not investigated simply because he had ties to Donald Trump. Claiming he was ignores the public record, including legal and reporting work done by the NYT. It ignores Cohen’s actions, including boneheadedly stupid moves he made as he tried to profit from his proximity to Trump.

He was investigated because he lied to his bank and then, even as he was making public comments about entertaining a “peace deal” with Russian involvement, used the bank account associated with the hush payment to accept big payments from a prominent Russian oligarch.

Importantly, this predication — a SAR implicating a politically exposed person about big payments from a foreign company — is far more than what predicated the investigation, and now six years of non-stop attention from the GOP, into Hunter Biden. That investigation started from a SAR about sex workers, from which an IRS agent fished out Hunter Biden’s name and then spent seven months digging before using Burisma to predicate a grand jury investigation.

If mouthpieces for Trump’s DOJ have a problem with this investigation, then they should be speaking out even more loudly about the investigation into Hunter Biden in which Bill Barr personally tampered.

Update: Corrected an error where I transposed the number of fraud counts Trump was convicted on. It’s hard to keep count!

Update: Isgur is out with an op-ed that scolds Hunter Biden he should plead guilty, without noting that to appeal the motion to dismiss based on the reneged plea deal, he can’t do that. Isgur also doesn’t mention that the gun shop doctored the form.

43 replies
  1. Amicus12 says:

    Going by memory, I don’t recall these sorts of concerns coming from the right with respect to the John Edwards prosecution and trial. There were objections from the left, but there were good reasons to believe that the predication for the Edwards investigation and charges was political. That did not stop DOJ from acting.

    Also being ignored, is what sort of signal was sent when DOJ failed to act with respect to Trump, once it became public knowledge that Trump likely had committed fraud for political advantage.

  2. Bob Roundhead says:

    The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
    At times it feels as if there is an entire industry designed to make us forget.

  3. GSSH-FullyReduced says:

    Does the conviction of DJT last week have any implications into Barr’s and/or Comey’s partisan involvement in 2016 election?

  4. Sussex Trafalgar says:

    Excellent research and analysis! Well done!

    Viktor Vekselberg, another one of Putin’s oligarchs who paid US attorneys to play in the American legal and political system in order to increase Putin’s organized crime syndicate influence and profits in America and elsewhere.

    Bill Barr is a paid Republican Party hack contracted by Republican billionaires to clean up embarrassing problems that threaten the power of the Republican Party.

    Bill Barr is the Winston cleanup character in Pulp Fiction.

    • Codewalker says:

      Please. Do not sully the reputation of a fine gangster, Winston Wolff by comparison to the disgusting Bill Barr.

      Ever notice they called the wolf at 8:00am. He’s wearing a tuxedo.

  5. Warren Peese says:

    Isgur worked for Sessions, but no one can mistake her as being pro-Trump, as her record at The Dispatch well attests.

    [Welcome back to emptywheel. Please use the SAME USERNAME and email address each time you comment so that community members get to know you. I have edited what appeared to be your RL name to that of your most frequently-used username. Make a note of it, use it on all future comments, check your browser’s cache and autofill. /~Rayne]

  6. Doug says:

    Did anyone follow up to see where the $416,665 went? I’ll bet most of it ended up in Trump’s pocket. At a time when Trump was the sitting President.
    A Senate committee needs to follow that trail. Cohen should be co-operative.

  7. Upisdown says:

    Interesting. Viktor Vekselberg met with Putin in March 2017, and in May 2017 Tony Bobulinski and James Gilliar were scheming how to pull Joe Biden into their CEFC deal.

    (From page 123 of the House Oversight transcript of Hunter Biden’s interview:)

    3 And then there’s this other text message from James Gilliar, exhibit 18, in which
    4 he tells Mr. Bobulinski, “Later Bro. Man, you are right. Let’s get the company set up.
    5 Then tell H and family the high stakes and get Joe involved.”

    And we know that Bobulinski and Vekselberg are connected.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Donny Trump only hires the best. So, Mikey used the same bank account he set up for the Stormy Daniels payment for other purposes, including receiving large payments from suspect foreign sources. LOL.

    To extend the Chekhov gun theme, when committing crimes, never use the same weapon twice. Never wear the same clothes; drive the same getaway car; use the same computer and phone or the same M.O. Never leave a trail that might tie together disparate crimes, because they will no longer seem separate and unrelated. You’ll be the thing that ties them together. FFS.

  9. RitaRita says:

    That Trump’s 2 co-conspirators faced legal consequences for their role in the criminal conspiracy seems lost on the people wringing their hands over selective prosecution. Trump’s pattern and practice of fraud presented such a target-rich environment for prosecution over the decades, the question I have is why prosecution wasn’t pursued years ago. Selection of whom not to prosecute can be as important as whom to prosecute.

    The Republican media outreach has been masterful. Once again they are throwing shiny baubles around and shouting “Squirrel” to distract from the import of Trump successfully hiding his uncomfortable sexual encounters history prior to the 2016 election. As happened with Michael Cohen and his “I wasn’t in Prague” diversion, the news media chases the baubles and misses the story.

    • Fancy Chicken says:

      If you’re referring to Trump when you wonder why prosecution wasn’t pursued years ago, firstly Trump was a sitting president at the time Cohen was charged. Remember all the “Individual 1” snark as Trump was referred to in Cohen’s case? Couldn’t go after him then.

      Secondly, Dr. Wheeler refers above to Bill Barr’s attempt to manipulate the charges against Cohen, which he pleaded to, and the continuing campaign finance investigation which Barr personally shut down.

      She goes into deeper detail about Barr’s fuckery in the matter here-


      If that wasn’t what you were referring to my apologies for misreading.

      • RitaRita says:

        I am wondering more about possible tax fraud. The NYTimes did an expose’ about tax and financial statement manipulations in 2018. Weisselberg was found guilty of tax evasion for a number of years but statute of limitations had run out on for other years. His jacked up financials were standard operating procedures. He had lost a variety of civil fraud lawsuits.

      • posaune says:

        Trump was engaged in fraud from the first day of his working life. It was obvious to almost every New Yorker.

    • pluralist says:

      Why wasn’t he indicted (decades) earlier? See Elie Honig’s Untouchable: How Powerful People Get Away with It. Trump is a frequent character in this book (alongside more violent mobsters).

  10. freebird says:

    What is peculiar is that a senior executive at a profitable NYC real estate company did not have access to $160K in cash. I worked in commercial lending in the area and almost all the senior executives had salaries in the millions and liquidity to match.

    Cohen should have known that a SAR would have been triggered. On three occasions I got interviewed within the KYC process due to my former consulting business. The bank even called me to inquire about the $33K I won at Saratoga Racecourse. I gave them a copy of my 1099 and went on my way.

    • Sue Romano says:

      Isn’t the reason there were no funds at the end of 2016 was because Trump was broke. Once he won and money flowed in 2017, funds were available to issue checks?

      • freebird says:

        I surmise that Cohen like Manafort was working for free like the others in Trump’s orbit. Giuliani is owed $2 million and won’t ask for it.

        Trump is a well known deadbeat.

        • HikaakiH says:

          LIke mob operations where the lower ranks are expected to take their cut of the deals (but not too much) as money flows upwards in the pyramid rather than being on a retainer paid from the top down.
          Giuliani’s bankruptcy should make his forgiveness of Trump’s debt moot as bankruptcy trustees will be rather more invested in meeting the obligations Giuliani owes to others.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Trump’s a cheap shit, obviously, but he’s probably overleveraged. He doesn’t care, because he calculates his “net worth” by overvaluing his assets without regard to their liabilities, which is not a calculation of net worth. It’s just made up. Unless he’s under oath, he lies about that to everyone who asks.

      Being overleveraged would mean he’s cash short all the time. So, he’s nothing like the usual highly-compensated executive, who has ready access to cash, lines of credit and other liquid assets. (Neither is Michael Cohen.) Nearly everything he has is tied up in his businesses, which is why I’m surprised he could come up with both bonds to appeal his civil trial losses.

      • freebird says:

        As former commercial lender and business analyst I find Cohen’s story abstruse. I followed Cohen during the election season where he said he’d take a bullet for Trump to negotiating with Russian oligarchs to putting his home at risk and then turning on Trump.

        A section of the puzzle is missing.

        • RitaRita says:

          Didn’t Cohen own about 50 taxi medallions, whose value had seriously plummeted as a result of Uber and Lyft?

          I can imagine that he may have been strapped for cash, perhaps having to meet margin calls or calls to pay down loans because the collateral had diminished in value.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          The issue isn´t whether Cohen was illiquid. No employee pays a much richer boss´s debt, and not one for $130K. (If they do, they know it´s fishy or illegal as hell; apparently routine at the Trump Org.)

          And nobody does it without explicitly expecting to be repaid and pronto. The longer you wait, the less likely you are to be repaid. That´s why Weisselberg came up with the structure, and he, Cohen and Trump agreed on it.

          Weisselberg and Trump still screwed Cohen, though, because they made him wait a year to be fully repaid. That made him insecure, but kept his trap shut, at least until he thought Trump was throwing him under the bus. It was another hush money payment.

      • trnc2023 says:

        “Unless he’s under oath, he lies about that to everyone who asks.”

        And everyone who doesn’t.

        I have a question about the evidence (or lack thereof) in the fraud trial for Cohen’s work as DT’s personal attorney after 2016. I think I read that for the $420K he received claimed as retainer, that would have amounted to an hourly rate of $31K/hour. That’s obviously preposterous, but DT claimed that Cohen didn’t detail every hour worked, right? Was there evidence from Cohen’s time in the Trump Org that documented Cohen’s actual hourly rate at that time, or was he salaried as an exec so that there would have been no invoices for hourly work?

  11. Franktoo says:

    I’ve read that the earliest investigations into Michael Cohen began soon after Mueller was appointed Special Counsel. IMO, One of the weaknesses of the initial targets chosen by the CH investigation was that two of these targets (Papadopoulos and Page) barely knew Trump and a third, Flynn, hadn’t been close before the campaign. If I were to have made an approach to Trump, I’d do it through his family and/or Russian friends (as Veselnitskaya did), Manafort (as Kilminik did with his Ukrainian peace plans) or Michael Cohen (who had relatives in Ukraine). Mueller issued search warrants for Cohen’s email in the summer of 2017, possibly before anyone became interested the the bank SARs you mention above. The Special Counsel’s Office referred Michael Cohen to SDNY on Feb 8, 2018 and jointly raided his office two months later. Mueller kept control of the Congressional perjury case (the best fit for his investigation’s charter?) and left the others for SDNY to pursue.


    • emptywheel says:

      Jeebus Christ.

      Do you know how aggravating it is to write a post that cites the primary documents that you think you’re describing, and have you come in an lecture me about something that happened before stuff that happened first?

      Did you even read the effing post? This was the first warrant. You’re looking at it.

      • Franktoo says:

        And why was the newly appointed Special Counsel trolling around in Michael Cohen’s bank SARs in July of 2017? Hint, the Special Counsel’s office wasn’t trying to catch Trump and Cohen breaking campaign finance laws by purchasing an NDA. Or catch Cohen lying to his bank about the purpose of the Essential Consultants account. Nor his hidden taxi earnings. Nor the other suspicious payments Cohen received.

        IMO, Cohen almost certainly was being investigated by the Special Counsel’s office as the suspected intermediary delivering dirt on Hillary to the Trump campaign or conspiring with Russians in some other way to help Trump get elected. IMO, this appears to be what motived the Special Counsel’s Office to look at the SAR’s from Cohen’s bank. Cohen apparently didn’t commit perjury by claiming negotiations over a Trump Tower in Moscow ended in January of 2016 until September 2017, so the Special Counsel’s Office likely wasn’t interested in that subject when it first began looking into Cohen in the summer of 2017. The investigation into Steele’s report that Cohen traveled to Prague were likely completed under Comey. In the end, the Special Counsel’s office retained the perjury charges (as leverage over Cohen?) and turned over the rest of the investigation to SDNY.

        I’m sorry I skimmed over your numerous details about the bank SARs (which didn’t interest me) and jumped ahead to see WHY you thought the Special Counsel’s Office was interested in Cohen in July of 2017.

        Now that I see in 2024 Putin and Trump as informal allies against Ukraine, NATO, and the US Intelligence community, the opening sentences of the Steele Dossier make far more sense to me than they did in 2017. I’ve also learned that Trump’s opposition to NATO and free trade go back decades.

        “Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting at least five years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance… However, he and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.”

        • Rayne says:

          Now that I see in 2024 Putin and Trump as informal allies against Ukraine, NATO, and the US Intelligence community, the opening sentences of the Steele Dossier make far more sense to me than they did in 2017. I’ve also learned that Trump’s opposition to NATO and free trade go back decades.

          What. Did you miss Manafort’s role in Trump’s 2016 campaign and the friction inside RNC during the convention about removing terms in the party’s platform related to materiel for Ukraine? For starters.

          This is not a remedial site where principles offer refreshing; you could simply go back through and read the content here from 2015-2016 forward instead of exposing how much you’ve missed in threads by way of comments in excess of 300 words.

          This week is going to be demanding — don’t expect handholding especially when you haven’t put in the work up to now.

        • vigetnovus says:

          What Rayne said. If you read Dr. Wheeler’s story between the lines, it seems obvious to me that the FBI became interested in Cohen as soon as their expanded investigation into Flynn revealed that Cohen had dropped off a copy of a “peace plan” proposal in Jan/Feb 2017, acting as a courier for Sater/ Artemenko.

          From there they could have interviewed Sater (who was a prior FBI informant) and/or Artemenko, and found out about the financial aspects of the deal, which eventually would have led them to look at the SARs. At that point, they’d likely have probable cause for the June warrant.

          In addition, there was a May 2018 article from Reuters confirming a source told the NYT that Cohen and Vekselberg met at Trump Tower in Dec/Jan, and again at the inauguration.

  12. Dan Riley says:

    Cohen was “swept up” and Hunter should plead guilty. I have no words to do justice to this injustice–I really just can’t.

  13. GlennDexter says:

    Your contribution here explains so much without any rambling and I have to wonder does any media (with all the extensive coverage of the trial for hours and hours) have the ability to present the facts you’ve explained to the American people? Is it just that they think we’re that stupid? My take is they are too lazy while pondering if Trump is sleepy, what in the world does the jury think and what the polls say. Most do not read the NYT and can barely get through an hour of news but your facts would be easy to present – now to get a whiteboard…..

    • Charles Burrow says:

      During the 2016 campaign, when Trump claimed the “Mexican” judge in the Trump University case was biased and had made several unfair rulings against him, allegedly because he, Trump, was promising to build a wall on the Mexican border, I looked up the rulings to see whether I could see evidence of bias. But the first thing I noticed was that all but one of the rulings predated Trump’s promise to build the wall, hence (Surprise!, Surprise!), Trump was lying. That really drove me up the wall, because none of the talking heads I saw debating the issue made any mention of the illogic of Trump’s claim. Instead, they were all focused on whether the judge was Mexican (“He was born in the US, godammit!”) and whether Trump’s claim was racist. He had them all chasing the shiny objects while overlooking the underlying facts.

  14. timbozone says:

    Yep. This is why the other folks around Trump wanted to burn Cohen once they could not control him.

  15. Bay State Librul says:

    I view Cohen as a latter-day John Dean and also prison reform champion Charles Colson.
    Their remorse are real

    • trnc2023 says:

      Are you sure about Colson? I’ve read that he expressed regret for his role in Watergate, but he also lambasted Felt for exposing the coverup by contacting the media. I’m not sure Felt could have exposed it in any other way, so Colson’s complaint strikes me as self serving.

  16. MT Reedør says:

    There is a lot missing from Cohen’s story. Would love to see Marcy interview him on his podcast.

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