Donald Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen is starting to take heat from the big guy himself over a brewing scandal involving a shady front company that bears every outward appearance of a thinly veiled pay-to-play scheme peddling whatever influence Cohen had on the president.
Reports have indicated that a number of companies including AT&T and pharmaceutical giant Novartis paid Cohen huge sums through the front, Essential Consultants LLC, which Cohen also allegedly used to pay off adult film actress Stormy Daniels. But hashtag-Resistance types have zeroed in on $500,000 in payments from US equity firm Columbus Nova, whose CEO Andrew Intrater is a cousin and investment partner of Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. (Columbus Nova was also previously a minority investor in Gawker Media Group, which owned several Gizmodo Media Group properties before its bankruptcy in 2016.)
While this alleged Russian connection could end up either being ephemeral or damning, something very odd indeed has come up: Columbus Nova registered a number of websites relating to US white supremacists during the 2016 elections. Per the Washington Post, it’s unclear whether the sites were ever actually used, but the timing of their registration is peculiar:
These sites include Alt-right.co, Alternate-right.com, Alternate-rt.com, Alt-rite.com, and other similar combinations, which were all registered in the two days following a speech given by then candidate Hillary Clinton in August 2016 in which she excoriated the far-right movement known for its extremist, racist, anti-Semitic and sexist viewpoints. The sites are not currently operational.
(NBC News first broke the story.)
One name appearing on the registration records is Frederick Intrater, Andrew Intrater’s brother and a design manager at Columbus Nova. According to the Post, the company told them that the brother was acting on his own and not on official business when he registered the websites, “even though he had used his company email address and listed the organization.”
Those who may have been paying any attention at all to the political news cycle in the past two years might draw a correlation to an alleged Kremlin-linked operation to promote disinformation during said elections and its possible ties to Trump associates. To some extent, that’s a knee-jerk reaction: When the rich and ethically disinclined are busy money-humping each other, all kinds of weird connections are bound to pop up.
But what is clear is that people with much fewer than six degrees of connections to Russian politics knew about Cohen’s front company, which could give them leverage over him—and that someone working for one of the companies involved was very interested in white supremacists just when they were becoming a contentious campaign issue.
The alt-right tie-in could be a lead to nowhere, and it’s best to be skeptical about vague forays down the internet rabbit hole. Perhaps Frederick Intrater is just a savvy domain squatter! Also, what we know about the alleged election-interference campaign indicates that Russia already had perfectly serviceable fronts like the now-notorious Internet Research Agency, so it’s not clear why whoever was behind it would need to lean on Vekselberg’s cousins.
Federal investigators seem very interested, however. Cohen’s office was raided a few months ago in a bank-fraud investigation that in retrospect seems obviously connected to Essential Consulting, and they have also questioned Vekselberg about those payments (and possibly massive Trump campaign donations placed by Andrew Intrater). The line of questioning almost certainly had more to do with the pay-to-play scheme and the legality of the front than alt-right domains. But it’s sure more bad PR for Cohen at a time when he’s probably going to get indicted, and certain angry presidents could easily decide to throw him under the bus.
Update, May 10, 11:10pm: In a statement emailed to Gizmodo, Frederick Intrater explained that he purchased a number of domain names, including a number of alt-right related ones, with an intention of flipping them for a profit. Intrater said he later thought better than to sell them and instead decided to just let them expire.
“In retrospect, it was a dumb idea and I never told my brother or anyone else at Columbus Nova that I had done this,” he said. “To conclude that I support white supremacy or anti-Semitism is unreasonable given what I’ve described above and also taking into consideration that I am a Jew and the son of a Holocaust survivor. I truly regret the unexpected outcome of my actions.”
Correction: A prior version of this headline (but not the article) stated Columbus Nova was a “Russian firm.” Columbus Nova is registered in the US—though as NBC noted, its ownership is disputed, and until November 2017 it was listed online by Vekselberg’s Russia-based firm, Renova Group, as a subsidiary. We regret the error.