STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Several companies with business before the United States government now confirm they made payments to Michael Cohen, President Trump's personal attorney, for various services. News of the payments first came from a surprising quarter. They were revealed by the lawyer for porn actress Stormy Daniels. Michael Avenatti says payments totaling more than $1 million went to a shell company - the same company that was used to pay $130,000 to Daniels not to discuss an alleged affair.
(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)
MICHAEL AVENATTI: Essential Consultants was formed approximately two weeks before the payment to my client of $130,000, OK? There's no question in my view that the purpose of the formation of that entity was to further shield that payment from scrutiny by not having Michael Cohen's name directly on it or Donald Trump.
INSKEEP: Avenatti spoke with CNN. And to be clear here, only Avenatti has claimed the details here. We can't confirm a lot of the details, but the general outline of the payments has been confirmed by the companies themselves. And one of the payments came from a company with ties to a Russian oligarch, a businessman. This is one of the subjects we'll raise with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who is on the Senate intelligence committee, which has been examining Russian interference in the U.S. election.
Senator, welcome back to the program.
RON WYDEN: Thanks for having me again.
INSKEEP: What do you make about this news about the payments to Michael Cohen?
WYDEN: I have said for months and months that the key issue is the follow-the-money question. Michael Cohen is Donald Trump's money man. And the Congress just is kind of getting to the bottom of this. I mean, this is somebody who talked to a top Putin aide about putting a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to published reports. He was involved in paying $130,000 to cover up at least one affair. And I think it's very unfortunate that the leadership of the Senate intelligence committee has been unwilling to bring Mr. Cohen back to the committee for an open session.
INSKEEP: Oh, you want to talk to him again. Although, let me ask about these payments that have been confirmed by companies, including AT&T, as well as this firm that was linked to the Russian oligarch. It sounds very strange, but then again, as you know very well, people with business interests do find ways to do nice things for people in power. Is this anything out of the ordinary?
WYDEN: Again, because I'm on the intelligence committee, I can't confirm the details. But the fact of the matter is, Cohen is Donald Trump's go-to guy on money, and that's why these issues are so important. And Michael Cohen has just played the intelligence committee. Here's how he did it. Last September, he released a public statement before he was supposed to meet with the committee staff. At the time, the chairman said Mr. Cohen would have to come back and testify. But the end of the February - at the end of February, the leadership said, oh, we don't need to hear from Cohen any longer. And I think it's just bending the committee's responsibility to inform the American public about the interference in the election, about his role in connection to these money matters that we're talking about. And if the investigation's going to be concluded responsibly, you've got to hear from the core player.
INSKEEP: Just so I understand, Senator - I asked you about the payments to this shell company, and you said, as a member of the intelligence committee, you can't confirm the details. Are you affirming, though, that this is a matter that is being explored by the Senate intelligence committee, the way that money went into and out of this particular shell company?
WYDEN: I can't get into that. I can say that, I, as a member of the intelligence committee, the ranking Democrat on the finance committee that is really focused on these issues, I have made a big effort to zero in on the abuses of shell companies of a bipartisan bill, for example, with Senator Marco Rubio, to clear this up, to require that the public find out who really are the beneficial owners.
INSKEEP: OK. So let me ask also about Gina Haspel. She is President Trump's nominee to lead the CIA. And, of course, you're going to have an opportunity to question Gina Haspel. I understand you're opposing her nomination. Decades of experience at the CIA at every level but has also been accused of some links to torture and various interrogation techniques that are now banned - but we had presidential adviser Marc Short on the program yesterday, Senator, who said if we can't find the ability to confirm somebody with her credentials, it just suggests a poisonous atmosphere in Washington. Does it?
WYDEN: I don't buy that at all. And, in fact, I've been seeing ads that the far right has been running saying, oh, anybody who has questions about Gina Haspel's somehow hostile to women. I can tell your listeners, there are scores and scores of women who are qualified national security specialists. And the idea that Gina Haspel is the only woman in America who can do this job I think is just plain insulting to women.
INSKEEP: Although she has a lot of experience and can argue - has argued, as I understand it - that her connection, for example, with a secret facility in Thailand where waterboarding took place was that she was in charge of it, but it wasn't her order to do that sort of thing.
WYDEN: What I can tell you is there has been a wall-to-wall cover-up by the agency with respect to her background. And as of right now, this almost looks like a secret confirmation process. People are asking, well, you can ask questions, can't you? You can push hard. I can tell you, when I asked James Clapper that question about whether the government collected any type of data at all on millions of Americans and he lied to the public, it took six months to, in effect, ask that question.
INSKEEP: You're talking about James Clapper, who was the former director of national intelligence. Let me ask one other thing about Gina Haspel. Marc Short on the program yesterday said that Gina Haspel is going to say in her testimony she would abide by the laws of Congress and that Congress has changed the laws relating to torture and so forth, and she does not believe the CIA should be in the interrogation business. Are you reassured?
WYDEN: What I can tell you is that nominees say practically anything when they're up for confirmation. The question is, past is prologue. And I think that there are substantial questions here. And I think there's also an issue, based on what I know, of a clear conflict of interest. As the acting CIA director, apparently, she's responsible for the classification decisions about herself. That really seems to have nothing to do with national security and everything to do with the cover-up.
INSKEEP: We'll have to leave it there for now. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, thanks very much.
WYDEN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.