WASHINGTON — Randall L. Stephenson, AT&T’s chief executive, said on Friday the company had made a “big mistake” by hiring President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to provide advice on federal policy.
“Our company has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons these last few days and our reputation has been damaged,” Stephenson wrote in a memo to employees. “There is no other way to say it — AT&T hiring Michael Cohen as a political consultant was a big mistake.”
Stephenson’s note followed the revelation this week that the company had paid Cohen $600,000 to advise on the $85.4 billion merger with Time Warner and other regulatory matters.
Federal prosecutors are investigating Cohen’s business dealings, including a $130,000 payment he made to the adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, known professionally as Stormy Daniels, to buy her silence about an affair she says she had with Trump. The president has denied Clifford’s claims.
The payment to Clifford was the first known activity involving Essential Consultants, a company started by Cohen. It was through Essential Consultants that AT&T retained Cohen. Several other businesses, including the Swiss drugmaker Novartis and an American company linked to a Russian oligarch, sent payments to Cohen’s company.
Although AT&T’s statements were meant to distance itself from Cohen and the arrangement on Friday, they also provided insight into how companies like AT&T operate in Washington during the Trump era.
Trump pledged during his campaign to to “drain the swamp” while railing against “the special interests, the lobbyists and the corrupt corporate media that have rigged the system against everyday Americans.” But the anti-lobbying rhetoric and policies did not discourage some former Trump aides from seeking big paydays from the influence industry.
Some Trump insiders, including Cohen and Corey Lewandowski, a former Trump campaign manager, positioned themselves as strategic advisers. Because they were offering insight — or political intelligence — on Trump and his team, and not overtly lobbying, they did not need to disclose their role to Congress and possibly the Justice Department.
AT&T paid a total of $4.1 million in lobbying fees to nearly 30 firms through the first three months of this year, according to congressional lobbying filings. But none of those businesses have lobbyists who were as close to Trump as Cohen. Filings show the largest fees paid to those firms were around $35,000 a month — significantly less than the $50,000 a month the company paid Cohen.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.