During congressional testimony Wednesday, President Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, explained why the drug giant Novartis paid him $1.2 million to act as a consultant on the Trump administration.
“They came to me based on my knowledge of the enigma Donald Trump,” Cohen said in response to Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). He said company representatives came to him, calling the pharmaceutical company “a multibillion-dollar conglomerate looking for information.” How often did he interact with them for that $1.2 million? At first, Cohen said he didn’t recall. When pressed, he responded: “I spoke to them on several occasions. Six times.”
The apparent goal of Meadows’ questioning was to undermine Cohen, who is making serious charges against the president, by portraying him as a shady operator who cannot be trusted. Meadows cited a May 2018 STAT article that disclosed the Novartis payment and reported that Cohen reached out to Novartis’s then-chief executive Joseph Jimenez in early 2017, promising help gaining access to Trump and influential officials in the new administration.
Meadows tried to portray the situation as one in which the firm used Cohen as an unregistered lobbyist, a characterization Cohen denied. “Novartis sent me their contract, which stated they wanted me to lobby. That paragraph was crossed out by me,” he said.
Novartis’ relationship with Cohen has become a repeated reputational headache for the drug giant. The relationship began after Cohen was introduced to Jimenez by a third party. Jimenez has said that he was moving quickly out of desperation. “You remember what it was like back then,” he said previously. “This was right after the election. Things were moving fast. The rhetoric around the Affordable Care Act was huge and we moved too fast without doing our due diligence.”
Initially, Novartis said that it had ceased contact with Cohen immediately after having a first meeting in which it became clear that he did not understand health policy well. The case cropped up again last July, when a congressional investigation revealed that the contacts between Novartis and Cohen had been more numerous than had been previously suggested.
At the time, Novartis said that Cohen had initiated contact with Jimenez, including one case in which Cohen asked for ideas on how to lower drug prices. Jimenez had sent him a list of what Novartis called “well-known ideas.”
The news of Cohen’s relationship with Novartis proved a kind of a trial-by-fire for Novartis’s current CEO, Vas Narasimhan, who told the audience at an event held by Forbes last year that he found out about it while in the car. “I was not mentally prepared, nor prepared from a crisis-management standpoint,” he said. “It’s not the phone call you expect to get from your mother, which was one of the first people I heard from.”
In a statement, a spokesman for Novartis said, “We have previously addressed all questions regarding our relationship with Essential Consultants and we consider this matter closed.”
During a break in Wednesday’s hearing, Meadows reiterated that he was concerned Cohen had been engaged in improper lobbying and had referred the issue to the Justice Department.
“I don’t blame Novartis,” he told STAT. “I think everybody’s looking for a way to figure out the best access to the administration.”
Ike Swetlitz contributed reporting.