Novartis is a global pharmaceutical giant that's headquartered in Switzerland, employs 126,000 people, and pulls in $50 billion a year making newfangled drugs, including the medication that ought to be handed out like candy to the American media in the hyperactive age of Donald Trump: Ritalin. But this icon of Big Pharma prefers to deal with politicians the old-fashioned way.
It buys them.
At least that's the knock on Novartis in places like Greece -- when a decade-long bribery scheme that involved two prime ministers and several cabinet members was described by a government official there as "the biggest scandal since the creation of the Greek state" -- or China, where Novartis has been accused of paying doctors to prescribe its drugs, or Turkey, where Novartis is linked to a consulting firm that may have kicked back money to government officials.
Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because there's growing evidence that Novartis used the same heavy-handed tactics to gain access and influence with the despotic ruler of a backwater banana republic called the United States of America.
It was revealed last week, in a bizarre fashion, that Novartis had paid President Trump's lawyer and self-described "consigliere," Michael Cohen, some $1.2 million over the course of 2017 in order to pick the brains of Cohen -- taxi-medallion king, phone-threatener extraordinaire, and graduate of America's Worst Law School -- for high-level strategy on complex issues like drug-pricing policy.
Or maybe it was because Cohen is one of a handful of people who can speed dial Trump's personal cellphone. If so, it was slightly depressing to learn that the White House can be bought so cheaply. AT&T, the world's largest telecommunications firm, paid just $600,000 over roughly the same period of time for Cohen's deep insights into the button-down mind of our current president, while Korean Aerospace cited the New York attorney's skill in accounting as why it sent him a $150,000 check last fall, right after the Pentagon delayed a massive Air Force jet-trainer contract the firm is up for. You can draw your own conclusion about the $500,000 linked to a Russian oligarch.
Those of us rooted in Philadelphia know that pay-to-pay politics is nothing new in America, and in fact our lawmakers and judges have worked hard to ensure that much of it is legal. Still, there's something especially crass and unseemly about the way Team Trump does it. Big cash payments to an unskilled and sometimes thuggish "fixer" so close to the president himself -- an autocratic ruler who continues to profit from his own business while he runs the country and puts his daughter and son-in-law in a position of great power -- is the kind of thing you used to read about in some laughable central Asian dictatorship, Whereverstan, but not the formerly exceptional U.S. of A. The only thing we're missing is a glorious military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue"wait, what?
Still, Cohen -- and by extension, Trump -- have managed to place a uniquely American stamp on our presidential corruption, by making the whole thing look like the lost episode of The Sopranos. When the FBI recently raided Cohen's office, home and hotel room, Cohen -- who has a long history of family and personal ties to suspected Russian organized-crime figures -- put on a wild-patterned sports jacket that looked off the rack from Martin Scorsese's prop room, and met his associates outside on the street while paparazzi snapped photos that looked like government surveillance shots. It was reported that -- in addition to the big-name clients he did land -- Cohen was rebuffed by at least one, Ford Motor Co., and one can only imagine his pitch to the executives in Detroit. "Hey, that's a nice Explorer you got there. Be a shame if anything happened to it."
Welcome to the Bada Bing's new location on K Street.
The comic possibilities of Cohen's racket shouldn't obscure the fact that this is potentially a huge story, with Watergate-size implications. "Potentially" because there are still so many questions about the president's lawyer and his consulting business, not least of which being how confidential business records ended up in the hands of Cohen's worst enemy -- attorney Michael Avenatti, representing purported Trump mistress and adult-film star Stormy Daniels.
But since Avenatti's surprising scoop has been largely confirmed, there are now two important ways to look at this.