A Russian oligarch with ties to the Kremlin who has been sanctioned by the US for election interference visited Donald Trump’s personal attorney in Trump Tower 11 days before the inauguration, according to reports.
Viktor Vekselberg met Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer and “fixer,” on Jan. 9, 2017, reportedly to discuss strengthening US-Russian ties under the new administration, the New York Times reported.
The billionaire’s cousin, Andrew Intrater, head of US investment firm Columbus Nova, attended the meeting and described it to the Times, which also confirmed Vekselberg’s presence with video footage.
A source familiar with the meeting told CNN that Vekselberg, chairman of Russian asset manager Renova Group, was not originally expected to attend the brief session.
Days after Trump’s inauguration, Columbus Nova awarded Cohen a $1 million consulting contract, a deal that has drawn the attention of the feds probing the lawyer, sources told the Times.
Intrater told the paper that Vekselberg had no role in Columbus Nova’s decision to hire Cohen as a consultant.
“Obviously, if I’d known in January 2017 that I was about to hire this high-profile guy who’d wind up in this big mess, I wouldn’t have introduced him to my biggest client, and wouldn’t have hired him at all,” Intrater said, stressing that he has done nothing wrong.
Columbus Nova has tried to distance itself from Vekselberg, denying that the oligarch used the company as a conduit to pay Cohen, according to CNN.
Columbus Nova has removed references to Renova Group from its partners’ biographies and said it’s a “management company solely owned and controlled by Americans.”
The company said it hired Cohen after the inauguration, but the newly discovered video shows that Vekselberg and Intrater were meeting with Cohen before Trump took office, CNN reported.
FBI agents working with special counsel Robert Mueller have questioned Vekselberg about the Columbus Nova payments to Cohen, as well as more than $300,000 in donations from Intrater to Trump’s inauguration and the Republican National Committee, sources told the network.
“Columbus Nova has cooperated with all requests for documents and information from federal authorities,” Intrater’s lawyer Richard Owens told CNN.
Attorney Michael Avenatti, who is representing porn star Stormy Daniels in her defamation suit against Trump and Cohen, alleged that Renova Group paid Cohen about $500,000 after the inauguration.
Cohen’s home, office and hotel room were raided last month as part of a criminal probe by federal prosecutors in Manhattan.
Lawyers for Vekselberg and Cohen did not respond to requests for comment by the Times and CNN.
Meanwhile, US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. pulled out of an event Friday that would have required him to be in the same room as Vekselberg, according to Reuters.
Last week, Huntsman said he planned to be at a panel discussion on US-Russian business ties as part of the St. Petersburg investment forum, a Kremlin-backed showcase for the Russian economy.
Vekselberg was on the panel of speakers Friday along with American and Russian business executives, but Huntsman was absent. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Vekselberg told the session that US-Russia relations have worsened in the past year.
“The number of optimists has declined, though there are still some in this room,” he said.
“We have to answer the classic question in Russian history: ‘What should we do?’ We can do nothing except to talk, to maintain a dialogue,” he added.
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