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Controversy surrounding Michael Cohen's finances goes in an unexpected direction

We initially thought Donald Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, created a shell company simply to pay Stormy Daniels' hush money. It turns out, that's incomplete.
Image: FBI Investigates Trump's attorney Michael Cohen
epa06664208 Attorney Michael Cohen, US President Donald J. Trump's long-time personal attorney, walks from his hotel to his apartment in New York, New York,...

When the Stormy Daniels controversy began in earnest, one of the key details was how, exactly, Michael Cohen paid the porn star the pre-election hush money. After all, it wasn't as if Donald Trump's personal attorney just grabbed his checkbook and wrote her a check for $130,000.

Rather, Cohen bought Daniels' silence through an LLC he quietly created in Delaware, where it's easier to establish business entities with minimal disclosures. He established Essential Consultants LLC, on Oct. 17, 2016, just a few weeks before Election Day.

It was generally assumed that Essential Consultants LLC wasn't really a proper business, so much as it was a vehicle Cohen used to pay off one of the president's alleged former mistresses. But what we discovered last night is that Cohen's little one-person operation was far busier than anyone realized. NBC News reported late yesterday:

Stormy Daniels' attorney claimed Tuesday that President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen received $500,000 from a company controlled by a Russian oligarch, deposited into an account for a company also used to pay off the adult film actress.Daniels' attorney, Michael Avenatti, also detailed other transactions he said were suspicious, including deposits from drug giant Novartis, the state-run Korea Aerospace Industries, and AT&T -- which confirmed it paid Cohen's company for "insights" into the Trump administration.If true, Avenatti's claims, made in a dossier posted to Twitter, could add a new dimension to the federal investigation into Cohen. NBC News has reviewed financial documents that appear to support Avenatti's account of the transactions.

Note, Cohen's LLC also appears to have paid Cohen more than $1 million, in three installments, last summer. This raises related questions about whether Trump's lawyer deposited those checks for himself or for someone else.

But just as important is the existence of that money.

We were under the impression that Cohen was forced to take out some kind of home-equity loan just to afford Stormy Daniels' hush money. Now we know Cohen's shell company was also receiving money from some very large companies -- including one company controlled by billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin.

Vekselberg's Columbus Nova made a series of payments to Cohen's LLC starting in early 2017 and continuing until at least August 2017. And as Rachel noted on last night's show, Vekselberg, now the subject of U.S. sanctions, has been questioned by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team.

In all, according to the materials released by Michael Avenatti, Stormy Daniels' lawyer, roughly $4.4 million flowed through Cohen's LLC's bank account over the course of about a year.

Why anyone, least of all corporate giants like AT&T and Novartis, would see value in putting money into Cohen's little shell company -- the vehicle for porn-star hush money -- is a question that probably deserves an answer. Maybe it had something to do with trying to influence Cohen's client in the Oval Office.

Finally, there's the question of the timeline. The Washington Post  reported overnight that when Cohen withdrew $1 million from his shell company for reasons unknown, Essential Consultants LLC "hadn't yet received the $750,000 paid by AT&T, Novartis and Korea Aerospace."

And so, we're left with the obvious question that hasn't yet been explained: Where did Cohen's shell company get that money?