When Novartis issued its first explanation of its “suspicious” payments to Michael Cohen, the company didn’t blame anyone specific for handing over money to President Trump’s personal attorney.
The second time, it explained the payments away as part of a $1.2 million consulting deal on healthcare policy that Novartis never actually used.
Now, sources inside the company are pointing the finger at one person—former CEO Joe Jimenez—and asserting that Novartis wasn’t buying policy wisdom. It was buying access to the president and his inner circle.
The drugmaker’s payments to Cohen went public late Tuesday in a memo from Michael Avenatti, the attorney representing Stormy Daniels, who claims she had an affair with Trump. Avenatti listed “suspicious financial transactions” between Cohen and a list of others, including AT&T and a company tied to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.
The memo said Novartis had paid Cohen almost $400,000, which turned out to be one-third the amount the company had actually shelled out to the lawyer, who’s worked for Trump for decades and is often called his “fixer.”
Novartis disclosed its $1.2 million contract with Cohen Wednesday, taking pains to clear CEO Vas Narasimhan, who took the helm in February, of any involvement in the payments. The company said it struck its deal with Cohen long before then, and its payments wrapped up in January.
That laid the buck-stops-here responsibility on Jimenez, albeit without actually mentioning his name. But now, according to a Novartis insider who spoke to CBS News, Cohen approached Jimenez himself soon after Trump was elected, offering advice on gaining access to members of the incoming administration.
An unnamed senior Novartis executive put it more bluntly to NBC News: Cohen “was promising access to the new administration.” And Novartis had multiple reasons to want that access—including Trump's promise to crack down on drug prices. Jimenez then ordered his team to set up a deal, a Novartis source told Stat.
That’s when Novartis inked the $1.2 million contract. The company said it paid $100,000 per month to Cohen’s Essential Consultants for advice on healthcare policy, though Cohen has no particular expertise in healthcare.
"It was almost as if we were hiring him as a lobbyist," Stat's source said.
Jimenez has not yet commented on the reports.
Novartis said it continued paying the consulting firm even after determining—during its first meeting with Cohen—that his advice on administration policy wouldn’t serve Novartis’ purposes. The payments continued, Novartis said, because the contract could only be terminated “for cause.”
Cohen’s offer and Novartis’ payments to the lawyer caught Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s eye, and his team contacted Novartis in November 2017 for information, Newsweek reported. In its Wednesday statement, Novartis said it had cooperated with Mueller’s office and “considers this matter closed as to itself.”