The narrative that President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, had visited Prague has proven to be spectacularly enduring.
Despite numerous previous failed attempts by media to prove that Cohen was in Prague, McClatchy reporters Peter Stone and Greg Gordon published a story on Dec. 27th saying that a cell phone signal placed Cohen outside of Prague in “late summer 2016.”
“A mobile phone traced to President Donald Trump’s former lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen briefly sent signals ricocheting off cell towers in the Prague area in late summer 2016, at the height of the presidential campaign, leaving an electronic record to support claims that Cohen met secretly there with Russian officials, four people with knowledge of the matter say,” reads the article.
“During the same period of late August or early September, electronic eavesdropping by an Eastern European intelligence agency picked up a conversation among Russians, one of whom remarked that Cohen was in Prague, two people familiar with the incident said,” the article continues.
Worth noting is that Michael Cohen had as many as 16 phones that were ultimately handed over to federal prosecutors as part of the probe by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Cohen responded to the new McClatchy story on Twitter:
Notably, Cohen specifies not just Prague, but the entire Czech Republic. Cohen then closed with a somewhat cryptic comment:
“#Mueller knows everything!”
Cohen’s immediate denial of any visit to Prague carries a certain weight as he is still cooperating with the Mueller team. Cohen also responded to questions on Twitter asking if he had been to any part of the Czech Republic—not just Prague. Each time his answer was simple and the same:
Similarly, nowhere in the Cohen plea agreement filed by Mueller is there any reference to a Prague visit by Cohen. This is notable, as Mueller has prosecuted even the smallest of misstatements, particularly if one subscribes to the theory that Mueller is intent on indicting Trump.
Claims that Cohen was in Prague have been repeatedly used over the past two years to fuel speculation regarding alleged Trump-Russia ties and the idea that Cohen’s activities with the Kremlin lie at the heart of the collusion narrative.
Cohen was likely never in Prague. He testified for countless hours and provided detailed bank records to the special counsel. However, information regarding a Michael Cohen was captured and made its way into the now-infamous Steele dossier. How that information was captured—and how the information made its way into the dossier—is where the real story lies.
The McClatchy article, which is based on four anonymous sources, each of whom “obtained their information independently from foreign intelligence connections,” reads like an attempt on the part of the intelligence community to frame an explanation as to how the information contained in the Steele dossier was originally obtained.
The real question raised is “How did the information on Cohen, an American citizen, make its way from the intelligence community to Christopher Steele and his dossier?”
The article may ultimately be shown to be entirely false, or it may prove to be the framing of a narrative by elements within the intelligence community.
The Origins of the Prague Narrative
The Prague allegations were first made in an Oct. 20, 2016, memo contained within Christopher Steele’s dossier:
“Kremlin insider reports Trump lawyer COHEN’s secret meeting/s with Kremlin officials in August 2016 was/were held in Prague.”
Steele had also referred to Cohen in earlier memos; first on Oct. 18, followed by an elaboration on Oct. 19, but Prague had not been mentioned. Steele claimed that Cohen “was heavily engaged in a cover-up and damage limitation operation in the attempt to prevent the full details of TRUMP’s relationship with Russia being exposed.”
In his final memo dated Dec. 13, Steele amended his timeframe somewhat to claim Cohen was in Prague in “August/September 2016.”
The issue of Cohen and the alleged Prague visit are significant. If the dossier is proven to be inaccurate in regard to Cohen, the entire dossier is then called into question.
Cohen has vigorously and consistently denied that he was in Prague at the time mentioned and even went so far as to meet with BuzzFeed reporter Anthony Cormier in May 2017 and showed him his passport. As noted in the BuzzFeed article, “there is no stamp showing Cohen visited the Czech Republic.” Cohen has also denied having a second passport and there has been no mention of such a passport from the Mueller legal documents.
Cohen did visit Italy in July 2016, but flew out of Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport in Rome on July 17th. Cohen claimed that he stayed on the island of Capri with family and friends—including musician Steven Van Zandt. Cohen has stated “he was in Los Angeles from the 23rd through the 29th of August, and that the rest of the month he was in New York.”
In the article, Cormier notes the failed efforts by BuzzFeed and other media at proving Cohen had visited Prague:
“Many news organizations attempted to verify or debunk claims in the dossier, including that Cohen was in Prague around that time. A BuzzFeed News reporter spent three days visiting about 45 hotels in the city and found no evidence Cohen had stayed in any of them during that period.”
CNN’s Jake Tapper reported on Jan. 17, 2017, that the wrong Michael Cohen had been identified:
“My reporting suggests that people did try to run that down and they concluded that it was a different Michael Cohen. It was a Michael Cohen with a passport from another country, the same birth year, different birth date.”
This wouldn’t be the only time the wrong Michael Cohen was identified. In May 2018, Cohen filed legal documents noting that Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, had obtained bank records relating to two differing Michael Cohens. The filing claimed that “some of the transactions described in the dossier related to other people with the name Michael Cohen—including a Canadian citizen and a man who resides in Israel.”
Despite Cohen’s denials and media backpedaling, the same McClatchy reporters, Peter Stone and Greg Gordon, published a story in April 2018, claiming that the “Justice Department special counsel has evidence that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen, secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to two sources familiar with the matter.”
Cohen responded to the story in April on Twitter:
“Bad reporting, bad information and bad story by same reporter Peter Stone @McClatchyDC. No matter how many times or ways they write it, I have never been to Prague. I was in LA with my son. Proven!”
Cohen’s former lawyer and current adviser, Lanny Davis, has also disputed that Cohen visited Prague.
In a Dec. 16 appearance on MSNBC, Davis was asked by Kasie Hunt if the Prague trip ever happened. Davis responded, laughing: “No. No. Everybody. America. We all love Kasie’s show. No. No Prague, ever. Never.”
Steele Dossier Falling Apart
The veracity of the Steele dossier has come under question as time has progressed with some notable retractions from some surprising quarters.
Yahoo News reporter Michael Isikoff met with Steele in September 2016 and received information from the dossier. The resulting Sept. 23, 2016, article by Isikoff was then cited by the FBI as validating Steele’s claims and was featured in both the original FISA application on Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, as well as the three subsequent FISA renewals.
Zeigler: You mention the Steele dossier, which to me has been unfairly derided, especially by Trump fans. Would you agree that a lot of what’s in the Steele dossier has been at least somewhat vindicated? Would you agree with that assessment?
Zeigler: You would not?
Isikoff noted that “when you actually get into the details of the Steele dossier, the specific allegations, we have not seen the evidence to support them, and, in fact, there’s good grounds to think that some of the more sensational allegations will never be proven and are likely false. … Based on the public record at this point, I’d have to say that most of the specific allegations have not been borne out.”
Zeigler responded, noting somewhat wryly, “That’s interesting to hear you say that, Michael because, as I’m sure you’re well aware, your book was kind of used, indirectly, to try to validate the ‘pee tape’ for lack of a better term.”
Equally telling was a recent admission by Greg Miller, the national security correspondent for The Washington Post, while appearing in an interview televised on C-Span. Miller highlighted specific assertions The Washington Post had attempted to prove and failed:
“It’s not for lack of trying. There’s other material in the dossier we literally spent weeks and months trying to run down. There’s an assertion in there that Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer, went to Prague to settle some payments that were needed at the end of the campaign. We sent reporters through every hotel in Prague—through all over the place—just to try to figure out if he was ever there, and came away empty.”
Like BuzzFeed, the Post spent considerable time and resources in attempting to prove the dossier’s claim that Cohen was in Prague. They came away empty-handed but failed to report the failed results of their efforts. Perhaps more importantly, the Post canvassed their network of sources within the intelligence community and were further rebuffed:
“We’ve talked to sources at the FBI and CIA and elsewhere. They don’t believe that ever happened.”
Neither this recent McClatchy article nor the April 2018 article on Cohen’s alleged visit to Prague have been corroborated by any other reporting and the timing of the most recent article appears suspect as well.
How did McClatchy suddenly gain access to information that other media sources have been trying in vain to verify for almost two years? Given the non-stop flow of leaks from the intelligence community—and the potentially damaging nature of this particular information—one would assume these details would have been made public long before now.
Cohen’s immediate denials, and his insistence that he was never in the Czech Republic—let alone Prague—puts into further question the veracity of the reporting. And Cohen’s ongoing cooperation with the special counsel makes it doubtful that he would continue to lie about such a significant event at this late juncture.
As mentioned above, another possibility behind the timing and details of the McClatchy story may exist. Intelligence sources might be attempting to get ahead of news from the special counsel’s report by providing a rationale for their investigation into Cohen and his activities. Foreign-sourced intelligence, initially deemed to be credible, was eagerly seized upon and not properly vetted. Still unanswered is how that information—faulty or not—was then transmitted to Steele and his dossier.
If anyone knows the true details behind Cohen’s alleged visit to Prague—and how those details came to be within the Steele dossier—it’s likely to be Mueller and his team.
Jeff Carlson is a CFA® Charterholder. He worked for 20 years as an analyst and portfolio manager in the high-yield bond market. He runs the website TheMarketsWork.com