Trump's personal attorney solicited $1.34 million from government of Qatar


Michael Cohen, the former personal attorney for US President Donald Trump, exits the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City on May 11, 2018.
Michael Cohen, the former personal attorney for US President Donald Trump, exits the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City on May 11, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Mr Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's personal attorney, solicited a payment of at least US$1 million (S$1.34 million) from the government of Qatar in late 2016, in exchange for access to and advice about the then-incoming administration, according to several people with knowledge of the episode.

The offer, which Qatar declined, came on the margins of a Dec 12 meeting that year at Trump Tower between the Persian Gulf state's Foreign Minister and General Michael Flynn, who became Mr Trump's first national security adviser.

Mr Steve Bannon, who became chief White House strategist, also attended, the people said.

Mr Cohen did not participate in the official meetings but spoke separately to a member of the Qatari delegation, Mr Ahmed al-Rumaihi, who at the time was head of the investments division of the country's sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority.

Details emerged last week on how Mr Cohen leveraged his relationship with Mr Trump to receive millions of dollars from companies eager for insight and entree into the new President's inner circle.

They included AT&T, the global pharmaceutical giant Novartis, a Korean defence contractor and Columbus Nova, a New York-based investment firm with ties to a Russian oligarch. All have confirmed payments to Mr Cohen.

But news of the Qatar solicitation marks the first time Mr Cohen is believed to have pitched his influence directly to a foreign government.

A spokesman for Mr Rumaihi, after first saying he would be available for an interview, said he was no longer available late on Wednesday.

The private company Mr Rumaihi - who is no longer in government - founded last year, Sport Trinity, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Intercept reported on Wednesday that Mr Rumaihi had confirmed the solicitation, and his refusal to pay Mr Cohen, in an interview.

Mr Cohen and his lawyer did not respond to a request for comment. Qatar's embassy in Washington declined to comment on the revelations.

Mr Cohen's offer to Qatar came as he was bragging to others that he could make millions from consulting on Mr Trump and that foreign governments would be interested in having his expertise.

At the time, Mr Cohen was also angling, unsuccessfully, as it turned out, to enter the White House, telling associates that he might become counsel or chief of staff.

As Mr Cohen collected clients, he texted associates articles that described him as Mr Trump's "fixer" and asked them to spread them around.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, which conducted raids last month on Mr Cohen's New York residence and office, are investigating his activities.

Mr Cohen's attempts to sell access were first publicly alleged last week by Mr Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Ms Stormy Daniels, an adult-film star who was paid US$130,000 by Mr Cohen before the election to keep quiet details of an alleged sexual encounter with Mr Trump.

Mr Trump, who said last month that he knew nothing about the Daniels payment and did not reimburse Mr Cohen, reported an apparent reimbursement payment to his lawyer on financial disclosure documents released on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Mr Avenatti has expanded his public allegations against Mr Trump and those around him. Early this week, he tweeted a photograph of Mr Cohen and Mr Rumaihi, taken on the day of the December 2016 Trump Tower meeting.

Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Thani was one of a number of senior foreign officials who visited transition headquarters at Trump Tower between the November election and January inauguration.

Requested by Qatar, the session followed a meeting between then-candidate Trump and Qatari Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2016.

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton cancelled a separately scheduled meeting with the ruler due to what her campaign said was a scheduling conflict.

Qatar, whose natural gas resources and small population have made it the richest per capita country in the world, is home to the Middle East headquarters of US Central Command and a major US air base where 10,000 American troops are stationed.

It is a substantial purchaser of US defence equipment and a major investor in this country.

Its government was deeply interested in continuing close relations, and there was, the people knowledgeable about the meeting said, a lot to talk about at the Dec 12 Trump Tower meeting.

These people spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about sensitive issues.

Mr Rumaihi was one of several Qatari officials accompanying the minister. Five days earlier, he had first encountered Mr Cohen at a breakfast fundraiser in New York, where businessmen and transition officials were chatting about the new administration and exchanging contact information.

The two also met later in the week at a New York hotel restaurant, where Mr Cohen discussed Mr Trump's plans to solicit investment in a massive US domestic infrastructure programme.

Mr Rumaihi told him that Qatar expected to invest in the programme, and Mr Cohen offered to help find projects for Qatar to sponsor, in exchange for a US$1 million up-front fee.

Mr Rumaihi, these people said, declined to pay.

The subject came up again at Trump Tower, when Mr Rumaihi and Mr Cohen, neither of whom attended the meeting between the Foreign Minister and Gen Flynn, chatted outside.

The next day in Doha, the Qatari capital, the government announced it would invest US$10 billion in the infrastructure programme.

Four months later, on the eve of Mr Trump's first presidential trip abroad to Saudi Arabia, Qatar's main rival in the Persian Gulf neighbourhood, Saudi Arabia, announced it would invest US$20 billion in the US infrastructure fund.

It was immediately following Mr Trump's trip to Riyadh that the Saudis, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, said they were severing relations with Qatar and instituting a blockade of its territory.

Qatar's more eclectic and liberal foreign and domestic policies had long irritated its neighbours in the region, and Mr Trump's visit had apparently convinced the Saudis that he would take their side in a dispute.

Mr Trump tweeted his support for the Saudi-led move, saying he had heard in Riyadh about Qatar's support for terrorism.

It was not until September, just before his meeting with Sheikh Tamim, that Mr Trump was convinced by Defence Secretary James Mattis and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to take a more balanced view of the situation.

Since then, the President has repeatedly called, to no apparent avail, on all parties to the Gulf dispute to settle their differences and focus on uniting to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorist groups.

But the diplomatic conflict among them persists, with the Saudis, Emiratis and Qataris each spending millions in this country on lobbyists, public relations groups and campaigns to denigrate each other and showcase their close relations with the United States.