While political observers were focusing on President Trump's bizarre Putin-pandering comments at his press conference earlier this week, you might have missed an important story focusing on another Trump vulnerability: Longtime Trump attorney and fixer Michael Cohen's apparent work on behalf of pharmaceutical company Novartis- whose drug pricing agenda seems to have miraculously been replicated to a large degree by the Trump administration in their official plan to bring down drug prices.
Marketwatch reports that a Senate committee report found that Cohen worked for Novartis for longer than previously thought, evidently doing more work than was originally known:
Novartis NOVN, -0.94% has said that, a month after entering an one-year, $1.2 million contract with Cohen’s consulting company, the relationship was essentially over, as the consultants could not “provide the services that Novartis had anticipated.”
But then-Chief Executive Joe Jimenez and Cohen communicated multiple times after that and over the course of 2017, including an email exchange in which Jimenez sent Cohen Novartis’ “ideas to lower drug costs in the U.S.,” which were to be discussed with the Trump administration.
Several of the ideas later appeared in Trump’s drug pricing plan, released earlier this year, the report found. In spite of Trump’s harsh rhetoric about pharmaceutical companies, the plan largely leaves drugmakers unscathed, experts say.
The story continues:
Novartis’ initial contract with Cohen similarly proposed that he provide “access to key policymakers” in the Trump administration, and that he “assess the reaction of the US Government to certain options to improve the affordability of medications,” according to the report. Cohen also represented himself as Trump’s lawyer when speaking with Novartis, according to the report, including through signature lines like “Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump.”
Later communications regarding drug pricing occurred around the same time as a report that Trump had drafted an executive order about drug pricing that was very industry friendly, and included several proposals that had come from industry.
Of the six drug pricing proposals that Jimenez sent Cohen, some are very like what was eventually included in Trump’s drug pricing blueprint, such as the criticism of “global freeloading” — or other countries paying lower prices for drugs — the promotion of value-based pricing for pharmaceuticals and point-of-sale rebates at pharmacies.
The proposals provided by Jimenez were “well-known ideas for lowering the cost of pharmaceuticals that had been discussed publicly in the industry,” Novartis said.
Novartis probably has a point here. Most of the pharmaceutical industry has been firmly behind the proposals Trump put his stamp on, which include raising pharmaceutical prices abroad to make the gap between what US customers and those abroad pay for the same drugs appear smaller and less significant (therefore eliminating an optics problem for the drug industry) and various steps to curtail or eliminate the 340B drug discount program, which pharmaceutical companies say keeps their profits unfairly low but on which many Trump voters rely.
The Trump administration has also hired a great number of ex-pharmaceutical bosses, lobbyists and lawyers into its ranks, as noted by PJMedia here. In view of that, it is unsurprising that Trump's ultimate drug pricing plan would look Big Pharma-friendly, despite his fiercely Big Pharma-skeptical campaign rhetoric and proposals unveiled before he won the presidency.
Nonetheless, the Novartis story will raise further questions about the extent of influence exerted over a presidency that most observers expected to be tough on the drug industry and which has, for the time being mostly given them a pass.
It will also raise questions about whether Michael Cohen is the dumbest lobbyist ever or an influencer extraordinaire.