Novartis is a global pharmaceutical giant that's headquartered in Switzerland, employs 126,000 people, and pulls in $50 billion a year making newfangled drugs, including the medication that ought to be handed out like candy to the American media in the hyperactive age of Donald Trump: Ritalin. But this icon of Big Pharma prefers to deal with politicians the old-fashioned way.
It buys them.
At least that's the knock on Novartis in places like Greece — when a decade-long bribery scheme that involved two prime ministers and several cabinet members was described by a government official there as "the biggest scandal since the creation of the Greek state" — or China, where Novartis has been accused of paying doctors to prescribe its drugs, or Turkey, where Novartis is linked to a consulting firm that may have kicked back money to government officials.
Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because there's growing evidence that Novartis used the same heavy-handed tactics to gain access and influence with the despotic ruler of a backwater banana republic called the United States of America.
It was revealed last week, in a bizarre fashion, that Novartis had paid President Trump's lawyer and self-described "consigliere," Michael Cohen, some $1.2 million over the course of 2017 in order to pick the brains of Cohen — taxi-medallion king, phone-threatener extraordinaire, and graduate of America's Worst Law School™ — for high-level strategy on complex issues like drug-pricing policy.
Or maybe it was because Cohen is one of a handful of people who can speed dial Trump's personal cellphone. If so, it was slightly depressing to learn that the White House can be bought so cheaply. AT&T, the world's largest telecommunications firm, paid just $600,000 over roughly the same period of time for Cohen's deep insights into the button-down mind of our current president, while Korean Aerospace cited the New York attorney's skill in accounting as why it sent him a $150,000 check last fall, right after the Pentagon delayed a massive Air Force jet-trainer contract the firm is up for. You can draw your own conclusion about the $500,000 linked to a Russian oligarch.
Those of us rooted in Philadelphia know that pay-to-pay politics is nothing new in America, and in fact our lawmakers and judges have worked hard to ensure that much of it is legal. Still, there's something especially crass and unseemly about the way Team Trump does it. Big cash payments to an unskilled and sometimes thuggish "fixer" so close to the president himself — an autocratic ruler who continues to profit from his own business while he runs the country and puts his daughter and son-in-law in a position of great power — is the kind of thing you used to read about in some laughable central Asian dictatorship, Whereverstan, but not the formerly exceptional U.S. of A. The only thing we're missing is a glorious military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue…wait, what?
Still, Cohen — and by extension, Trump — have managed to place a uniquely American stamp on our presidential corruption, by making the whole thing look like the lost episode of The Sopranos. When the FBI recently raided Cohen's office, home and hotel room, Cohen — who has a long history of family and personal ties to suspected Russian organized-crime figures — put on a wild-patterned sports jacket that looked off the rack from Martin Scorsese's prop room, and met his associates outside on the street while paparazzi snapped photos that looked like government surveillance shots. It was reported that — in addition to the big-name clients he did land — Cohen was rebuffed by at least one, Ford Motor Co., and one can only imagine his pitch to the executives in Detroit. "Hey, that's a nice Explorer you got there. Be a shame if anything happened to it."
Welcome to the Bada Bing's new location on K Street.
The comic possibilities of Cohen's racket shouldn't obscure the fact that this is potentially a huge story, with Watergate-size implications. "Potentially" because there are still so many questions about the president's lawyer and his consulting business, not least of which being how confidential business records ended up in the hands of Cohen's worst enemy — attorney Michael Avenatti, representing purported Trump mistress and adult-film star Stormy Daniels.
But since Avenatti's surprising scoop has been largely confirmed, there are now two important ways to look at this.
The most immediate concern is, quite simply: What did the president know about Essential Consultants LLC, a Delaware corporation, and when did he know it? Because consider some things we do know about the business of this shell company formed just as Trump was getting elected 45th president of the United States. Its cash inflows included more than a couple million dollars from powerful corporations seeking influence with the U.S. government. At other times, the cash outflows included the $130,000 intended to silence (and doing so quite badly) Stormy Daniels about her alleged Trump liaison, as well as a $1.6 million payout to a former Playboy model which everyone involved insists had nothing to do with the president, even as some pundits ask some very interesting questions.
Did Trump know which companies were hiring Cohen to influence him? Were monies from these influence-seekers somehow connected to the funds that seem to have directly benefited Trump, by solving problems in his personal life? If not, where did the money that paid off Stormy Daniels come from? The powers that be have made it almost impossible to prove the crime of political bribery in modern America. The wrong answers to these questions, though, could make the impossible suddenly seem possible, and raise serious doubts about the survival of Trump's presidency.
But what if the dollars from Novartis, AT&T, et al, didn't benefit Trump in any illegal way? What if Michael Cohen simply sold these large corporations a bill of goods, winning huge contracts for high-level access and insights that he then didn't deliver. There's a valid argument that what Cohen did after Trump's surprise victory in November 2016 is no different from how other Trump insiders cashed in — what, for example, is the deal with Qatar paying Trump's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski $150,000 a month? — and what close associates of both Democratic and Republican presidents or top Capitol Hill lawmakers have been doing for many decades. Under this scenario, the work of Essential Consultants is about as shocking as gambling in the back room of a Casablanca nightclub.
Politico's Playbook, not surprisingly, spoke for the corrupt and contented classes the other day when it published this:
First of all, why are wealthy fixers buying houses in Delaware, of all places? Second of all, both the cynicism expressed here, and the fact that few people are shocked by it, are in and of themselves … shocking. If what Michael Cohen did here is business as usual, and it may well have been, then why must Americans accept a level of business as usual that would look familiar to an Uzbek tinhorn dictator? Especially when it leads to outcomes that hurt everyday Americans.
How so? It's hard not to notice the companies that hired Cohen got outcomes that were good for them and not for the public. Novartis hired Trump's lawyer with a goal of keeping prices for prescription drugs artificially high, which is just what happened the other day when Trump broke his campaign promise for Medicare to negotiate with Big Phama. The AT&T lobbyist who hired Cohen got a private dinner with Trump's FCC chairman Ajit Pai just a month later — and not long before Pai announced the commission was scrapping net neutrality, a cherished goal of Big Telecom.
If America wants to become an exceptional nation, let's pass some exceptional laws that restrict this kind of influence peddling. Let's pass a bill to make it clear that the "strategic consulting" performed by Cohen and his ilk is really just old-fashioned lobbying, that needs to be disclosed to the public. And when the new Congress takes its seats next January, it needs to launch an all-out war on big money in politics, including the unwinding of the Citizens United case, even if that requires a constitutional amendment. We don't know yet what this scandal means for Trump, but we can do some things to prevent the Michael Cohens of the future. Bada bing, bada boom!