In recent days it has become clear that the President’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, has been more than merely a lawyer. He has run a business consultancy of an eclectic sort on the side, calling it Essential Consultants. And in the process he has developed a stellar client list, including the famed telecom AT&T, which paid Cohen, through Essential, $600,000 to advise it on pending political issues.

It appears that this amount is a summing up of $50,000 per month payments through all of 2017: the company terminated the contract in December 2017.

The AT&T/Cohen relationship has raised a lot of other questions. For what exactly was AT&T paying? Were they paying what might vulgarly be categorized as a “bribe” to a man who could help their cause with the President? Were they paying what might even more vulgarly be characterized as “protection” to a man who could hurt their cause with the President? And … what was that cause?

Two Big Issues

As of inauguration day, 16 months ago, there were two big issues pending for the new administration that were very much of concern to the giant telecom corporation: the above-mentioned Time Warner merger; and the question of “net neutrality.”

Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers should treat all data on the internet the same, without discriminating as to, for example: user, website, or content.

Back in 2012, for example AT&T was alleged to be breaching net neutrality by allowing access to that particular app only for users who had paid for its then new shared data plans. [Let’s pause for a moment: how could AT&T have been in any trouble over ‘net neutrality’ in 2012 if the FCC didn’t create the rule until 2015? I’ll address that in a ‘final word’ below. The point at present is ….] AT&T claimed the right to impose “some reasonable restrictions” on FaceTime, in order to avoid traffic congestion. Then it backed down when public interest groups threatened to challenge the blockage with the FCC.

Roughly eleven months after Donald Trump became President, the FCC lifted the net neutrality rules.  This made matters easier for AT&T and one could surmise that it considered the lifting of those rules to be well worth the money it had been paying Trump’s personal lawyer.

As to the other Big Issue, there is no need for surmise. AT&T is very clear that its payments to Cohen were connected in its own corporate mind, with the Time Warner merger.

Right Wing View

Much of the political right in the United States is hostile to the whole idea of “net neutrality,” so much so as to create a sense that if it took pay-offs to Michael Cohen for the Trump administration to get rid of net neutrality, this should improve the reputation of pay-offs as a dispute resolution method.

A twitter denizen who calls himself “bengus” writes that net neutrality “prevents innovation within the industry,” and he threatens to unfollow anyone who tweets in its favor.

As to Time Warner, likewise … conservatives aren’t opposed to the result AT&T wanted. The National Review’s Joshua D. Wright says that the whole idea of the Justice Department blocking the merger of AT&T with Time Warner requires a “dubious theory of harm” and it “fails to articulate points” that a conservative can find cogent. Wright’s clear implication is that the merger ought to proceed.

Some on the right think that, although the AT&T/Cohen link looks bad, it is mitigating that Cohen approached AT&T rather than vice versa. They didn’t buy him (and thus by extension Trump); he sold them … a bill of goods. He “scammed” them, according to one tweet.

A writer at the website suggests that what Cohen is accused of is business as usual. “In the perverse pay-to-play world that Washington has become, it’s not clear that any of the Essential Consultants transactions were illegal. It’s common for powerful corporations to hire Washington insiders to influence government decisions.”

Nonetheless, the author of the piece, who calls himself Trumpstar, acknowledges that this line of defense is itself the problem. Trump campaigned against the sort of ‘swamp’ that constitutes business as usual. Now, as a consequence, “the President is no longer liable just to the traditional square-jawed work of Justice Department prosecutors, but also to the slash-and-burn tactics he himself rose to power employing.”

Conservatives argue, too, about the leaks that made this deal public. The world knows about the Cohen-AT&T connection because Michael Avenatti, better known as Stormy Daniels’ attorney, told news agencies about it, and he knew because a still-unknown informant told him. That still-unknown leaker may be in “serious legal trouble,” some conservatives contend.

Left Wing View

The left wing of U.S. politics generally regards these disclosures as emblematic of everything that it despises about this administration.

As radio host Rick Smith puts it, Cohen has demonstrated that he is a “great bag man.”

Much of the political left has been friendly to the idea of net neutrality, sometimes equating it to the Star Wars rebellion against Darth Vader and the evil Galactic Empire. Thus,NN’s defeat under Trump’s tenure presents an example of how harmful the work of this ‘bag man’ can be.  April Glaser, writing in Slate, writes approvingly of various efforts to derail the deregulatory agenda she associates with FCC chairman Ajit Pai, and says “there’s a lot of fight left in this particular struggle for the future of the net.”

Much of the left, also, thinks the federal government ought to play a role in reviewing mergers and in preventing the concentration of an excess of market power in the hands of too few firms. As Sean Illing has written recently in Vox, consumers these days are “handing over massive amounts of personal data and allowing companies … to disproportionately influence the news and information Americans consume.” In general, liberals see a combination of AT&T with Time Warner as likely worsening this situation.

And the Trump administration in this particular respect has taken the ‘liberal’ side. It has pursued the case against this merger. In fact, the President has complained that he hasn’t got enough credit for this.

Still, if AT&T paid Cohen money at least in part in the expectation that they could get the administration to take a permissive view of their proposed merger, the fact that it didn’t work in that case hardly sanitizes it. Some on the left, including blogger Brian Kassenstein, are trying to organize a boycott of AT&T as an expression of their outrage over the effort.

Final Word

It is worth noting, at last, that the idea of net neutrality, and indeed various regulatory efforts to enforce that idea, long precede the formal rule passed in 2015 with which the phrase is now too closely associated.

The FCC had promulgated a previous generation of rules on the subject five years before. Less formal invocations of neutrality as a policy making consideration preceded that, too.

The issue did not arise for the first time in 2015, then, and the disappearance of the 2015 rules won’t make the principle, or the argument, likewise disappear.