The Prague Mystery
One of the more specific, and potentially falsifiable, claims of the Steele Dossier was that former Trump personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen went to Prague in the late Summer of 2016 and met with Russian officials to coordinate the release of hacked emails. In short, collusion.
The stakes on this are huge, both ways. If it is proven Cohen did go to Prague, a major element of the Steele Dosssier’s allegation of Trump Campaign collusion is proven. If it is proven Cohen did not go to Prague, then the credibility of the Steele Dossier takes a major hit, and Trump’s claim of it being a “fake dossier” is supported.
When he was still willing to “take a bullet” for Trump, Cohen denied it completely. He testified to Congress he had never been there. He produced a passport showing no trip there.
Understandably, little weight was given to his denials. He could have multiple passports, or have travelled first to another EU country before taking a train to the Czech Republic. As for lying to Congress, he has admitted to doing that. Indeed he did, but if he lied about going to Prague, Mueller never charged him for it. The more mundane and less inflammatory lie about Trump Tower was prosecuted by Mueller instead.
However, on April 13, 2018 the normally reputable McClatchy Report claimed Mueller had proof Cohen went to Prague. At that time McClatchy did not say what the proof was and no other major media outlets corroborated or confirmed it.
In the meantime, a cooperating Cohen became more silent, at least in public, on matters associated with the Russian investigation. On December 12th Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison for bank fraud, tax evasion, lying to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project, and campaign finance violations related to hush payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. At the sentencing hearing, Mueller’s office told the judge that Cohen’s assistance had been helpful to the Russia investigation and that Cohen told the truth.
On December 14th Cohen appeared on ABC in an interview with George Stephanopoulos. In addition to accusing Trump of acting with knowledge of the illegality of the Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal payments, Cohen was directly asked if he believed Trump was telling the truth in the Russian investigation. Cohen directly answered “no,” without further elaboration. Stephanopoulos never asked Cohen about the Prague trip, but indicated many topics were off limits because Cohen was still cooperating with Mueller. I wondered why would that question would be off limits if the answer was still that he had never been to Prague. Wouldn’t Cohen be free to say if the answer was still “no”?
On December 27th the McClatchy Report released another bombshell claiming Mueller has electronic evidence that Michael Cohen’s cell phone was detected in Prague in late August or early September of 2016. McClatchy also claimed four sources advising that an unstated Eastern European intelligence agency intercepted calls between Russian leaders during this period describing Cohen meeting with them in Prague.
Things would seem to be looking good for the Steele Dossier, except for one big thing. Tweeting for the first time since the ABC interview two weeks earlier, Cohen strongly denied the McClatchy Report’s latest claims, even while teasingly saying, “Mueller knows everything.”
So this comes down to who to believe, Cohen or the McClatchy Report. Normally, choosing between a respected publication (McClatchy has never failed a fact check) and a convicted liar is an easy call, but I don’t think it is this time. Keep in mind that while other major news outlets have reported on what McClatchy published, none have reported corroborating or confirming this information with their own sources. That is true for both the April and more recent reports. The bottom line is the McClatchy Report is only as good as its still completely anonymous sources.
It’s also clear that Cohen has no love for Trump and is not trying to help the President. Cohen has strongly implicated Trump in criminal campaign finance fraud, flat out said Trump is lying about Russia collusion, and even in the Prague denial threw in the enticing dig that “Mueller knows everything.” That final statement is not likely to give Trump any rest.
Which brings us to the real point. This is not really a test between just McClatchy’s word vs. Cohen’s. It’s also Mueller’s word because Mueller asserts Cohen is now being truthful. I do not regard it plausible for Mueller to have told Cohen to lie when denying he went to Prague. It would be unethical, and there would be no point to it in any event. I believe Mueller when he says Cohen is telling the truth.
Accordingly, I believe Cohen when he says he has never been to the Czech Republic. I think the McClatchy Report is simply wrong. For fans of the Steele Dossier this should be disappointing. In this key assertion it appears to be wrong.
This does not mean someone else didn’t go to Russia instead. One explanation, consistent with known facts, is that Cohen gave a burner phone to another member of campaign, whose signal was picked up in Prague. The FBI seized as many as 16 phones when executing its search warrants on Cohen.
Nor would no visit to Prague by anyone in the Trump team mean no collusion. There’s plenty of evidence of collusion outside of that, particularly involving Roger Stone (and his associates) with a Wikileaks that was effectively an arm of the Russian GRU. It’s also important to remember that parts of the Steele Dossier have been proven, including the key finding that the Russian government interfered in the election and did so with the intent to help Donald Trump get elected.
If we are choosing to believe the new Cohen, we can be confident that Trump is lying about the Russia connections to his campaign and we can be confident that “Mueller knows everything.” We also have to accept that the Steele Dossier erred in saying Cohen went there. You can’t have it both ways.