The funny thing is that, in the end, the point made by our own Howard Portnoy this weekend may be the decisive one. There was a Michael Cohen in Prague in “August or early September of 2016,” but it wasn’t the Michael Cohen who’s been Donald Trump’s lawyer for years. It was a different Michael Cohen.
Not only did CNN – where they’re no fans of Trump – pick up on that back in January of 2017, just a day or so after the contents of the Steele dossier were published. It was widely reported at the time. According to Czech sources, the local authorities said it wasn’t the Michael Cohen who is Trump’s lawyer. It was a Michael Cohen with a different birth date.
That last detail matters, and we’ll get to it shortly. Before we do, we need to preview the “case” that’s being built against Cohen.
The narrative, as we know it
The McClatchy report from 13 April conveys the heart of it:
The dossier alleges that Cohen, two Russians and several Eastern European hackers met at the Prague office of a Russian government-backed social and cultural organization, Rossotrudnichestvo. The location was selected to provide an alternative explanation in case the rendezvous was exposed, according to Steele’s Kremlin sources, cultivated during 20 years of spying on Russia. It said that Oleg Solodukhin, the deputy chief of Rossotrudnichestvo’s operation in the Czech Republic, attended the meeting, too.
Further, it alleges that Cohen, Kosachev and other attendees discussed “how deniable cash payments were to be made to hackers in Europe who had worked under Kremlin direction against the Clinton campaign.”
U.S. intelligence agencies and cyber experts say Kremlin-backed hackers pirated copies of thousands of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chief John Podesta during 2015 and 2016…
Citing information from an unnamed “Kremlin insider,” Steele’s dossier says the Prague meeting agenda also included discussion “in cryptic language for security reasons,” of ways to “sweep it all under the carpet and make sure no connection could be fully established or proven.” Romanians were among the hackers present, it says, and the discussion touched on using Bulgaria as a location where they could “lie low.”
One question that immediately leaps out is why it has suddenly been leaked from the Mueller people that there is evidence Cohen was in Prague. Why now?
It’s not because Cohen’s office and home were just raided. It’s because of something you probably haven’t heard about that happened a little over two weeks ago.
A Russian hacker whose story I outlined nearly a year ago was extradited from the Czech Republic to the United States at the end of March 2018. Yevgeniy Nikulin is accused of hacking into LinkedIn and Dropbox back in 2012, and selling the personal information of their users, whose total numbers run into the millions. He was arraigned in federal court in San Francisco on 30 March.
But Nikulin was originally arrested for the LinkedIn and Dropbox hacks on an Interpol warrant in Prague, on 5 October 2016. He’s been sitting in jail awaiting Czech court decisions about his extradition ever since. The U.S. and Russia both wanted him, and lodged competing requests for extradition.
Nikulin, in the interim, alleged in a letter sent to a Russian-language TV site operating out of Prague – as part of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty* – that in November 2016, an FBI team pressured him intensively to make a plea deal in which he would confess that he had hacked into the DNC and Hillary campaign IT systems. In exchange, he would get the full package of U.S. citizenship, a living, new identity, and so forth.
Obviously, we can’t know whether that allegation is true. Note, at the very least, however, that Nikulin was arraigned only for the LinkedIn and Dropbox (and associated) counts on 30 March. (He entered a plea of not guilty, which is interesting in its own right.)
If the FBI genuinely thinks Nikulin hacked into the DNC and Hillary systems, there would have been no reason not to clarify that by charging him for those attempts as well.
If such charges have been lodged in another jurisdiction (presumably the D.C. Court), by either Robert Mueller or the Justice Department, it hasn’t been reported.
Russia lobbied hard to get Nikulin before he was finally extradited to the U.S. Interestingly (yet again), Paul Ryan is credited with breaking the extradition logjam in Prague during his visit to the Czech Republic in March.
For those who believe in the Russia-Trump narrative, meanwhile, Nikulin’s extradition has been a field day. Now there’s an actual hacker in U.S. custody, one who could fit the profile of the hackers Cohen is alleged to have met with in Prague. They see the noose closing on both Cohen and Trump.
Moreover, Mueller’s team “leaked” to Daily Beast in March, about a week before Nikulin’s extradition, that anonymous hacker “Guccifer 2.0” – the one associated specifically with the release of John Podesta and Hillary Clinton emails in July 2016 (as distinct from the DNC hacks by Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear) – had been tagged as a Russian intelligence operative.
This leak does more than finger a Russian entity (in this case, military intelligence, or the GRU). It could also obviate the need to find a Romanian, any suspicious-looking Romanian, to make the Steele-dossier narrative true. It would account for the involvement of the Guccifer copycat persona, without having to find another Romanian.
(The original Guccifer, the actual Romanian who exposed the existence of Hillary’s private email server by hacking Sidney Blumenthal – yes, the Blumenthal who both fed into the Steele dossier and shopped it to the State Department – has been in federal prison serving a 52-month sentence since September 2016. Remember, when Steele was composing his dossier, there still was no information on who Guccifer 2.0 was. Steele never purported to know, nor did anyone speaking for the U.S. government. So it would be easy to refine the narrative and say, Hey, we were looking for another Romanian, and Steele’s information at the time seemed to fit, but then it turned out it was this Russian GRU guy.)
There’s still a Bulgaria connection to account for, if we’re going for loose ends. We’ll see what they come up with.
Acronyms and Eastern Europe
Meanwhile, don’t forget where you’ve seen that eye-glazing Russian acronym “Rossotrudnichestvo” before. At the exact same time the Steele dossier was being published by BuzzFeed in January 2017, Newsweek posted an article by Kurt Eichenwald which referred to a supposed meeting by a “Trump official” with a member of the Russian parliament at a Rossotrudnichestvo location “in Eastern Europe.”
It isn’t clear whether that is supposed to be the same meeting as the one allegedly involving Michael Cohen in Prague. The Newsweek article seems to suggest that the meeting it refers to occurred earlier than the one alleged in Prague – apparently it took place before mid-August 2016. But the story isn’t specific about its timeline (a chronic problem with this whole, endlessly capacious narrative), so we can’t be definitive on that head.
In any case, this detail from the Newsweek article brings us home:
While Newsweek could not determine the purpose of the meeting, a Western intelligence official said that surveillance of the meeting was conducted by or on behalf of the Estonian Information Board (EIB), the foreign intelligence service of Estonia.
GCHQ first became aware in late 2015 of suspicious “interactions” between figures connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents, a source close to UK intelligence said. This intelligence was passed to the US as part of a routine exchange of information, they added.
Over the next six months, until summer 2016, a number of western agencies shared further information on contacts between Trump’s inner circle and Russians, sources said.
The European countries that passed on electronic intelligence – known as sigint – included Germany, Estonia and Poland. Australia, a member of the “Five Eyes” spying alliance that also includes the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, also relayed material, one source said.
Now, we need to keep in mind that if there were a solid “there” there, we’d already know about it. If the U.S. government had really been spotted this massive array of clues and sources, starting in 2015, we’d already know for certain if there were anything indictable going on during that period.
This whole enterprise continues to look more like people who know where to find Russian front organizations just making plausible-sounding stuff up (and probably being played by some Russians in the bargain; see here and here as well), than it looks like a conspiracy by “Trump officials” – to do anything.
The people who know where to find Russian front organizations would include Christopher Steele, Glenn Simpson, and the list of DOJ and FBI personalities (the Ohrs, Strzok, their seniors and juniors), along with the cherry-on-top Hillary associates (Sidney Blumenthal, Cody Shearer).
What’s wrong with the ‘Cohen in Prague’ story
But let’s test that Michael-Cohen-in-Prague allegation to see if it can hold any of this together. The reason it can’t comes directly from the narrative itself. It doesn’t hold together because to have intelligence that Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen was in Prague talking to the cast of characters he was supposed to have spoken with – and then to gain evidence that he really was in Prague, in spite of the lack of evidence that he ever went to or from Prague – you would have to know the one thing no one seems to know.
You would have to know what day Cohen was in Prague.
Listen again to what Mueller supposedly knows about Cohen in Prague. McClatchy:
But investigators have traced evidence that Cohen entered the Czech Republic through Germany, apparently during August or early September of 2016 as the ex-spy [Steele] reported, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is confidential. He wouldn’t have needed a passport for such a trip, because both countries are in the so-called Schengen Area in which 26 nations operate with open borders. The disclosure still left a puzzle: The sources did not say whether Cohen took a commercial flight or private jet to Europe, and gave no explanation as to why no record of such a trip has surfaced.
There is no form of evidence Mueller’s investigators could have that does not include a time stamp of some kind on it. If they really knew the Michael Cohen was in Prague, they’d have to know what day he was there.
If they’re relying on the witness information of someone who knew about the meeting – such as an Eastern European intelligence source – they’d know what day the meeting took place. End of story. That’s all they would need to track down other forms of evidence, such as security camera footage.
Even if they somehow found Cohen on security cameras without any cueing, they’d know what day it was. At the very least, they’d have it down to a period of just a couple of days, based on other factors such footage can be narrowed down with. But the need for that probably would not have occurred.
If they had Cohen on a cell phone going through a microwave tower in the Prague area, they’d have a time stamp on that.
Credit card? ATM use? Time stamp.
If they had incidental eyewitness information, such as identification from a photo of Cohen, walked by local gumshoes around the streets of Prague, they would easily have tracked down information about the meeting that clarified which day it occurred on, even if they couldn’t place the identification of Cohen to that precise day.
If they had signals intelligence describing events or plans related to the meeting (including emails or other communications involving Cohen himself), they would have time stamps on those, and in any case would know dead to rights what day the meeting was.
If Cohen made an overnight stay in a hotel, they’d have his passport information from the hotel stay, available from Czech authorities. They’d know exactly when Cohen was there. (This, I suspect, is how the Czechs know for sure that some other Michael Cohen with a U.S. passport was there.)
The bottom line is that they cannot know Cohen was there, for a meeting, without knowing what day he was there.
Yet they keep talking about August or early September, in terms similar to those of the Steele dossier, as if they just can’t pin it down. There is no form of verifiable evidence that someone was in Prague for a meeting that does not clarify what day the person was in Prague. If we were 10 or 20 years down the road, and records had been lost in the interim at service companies, and at government and law enforcement agencies, there might conceivably be evidence of that kind. But we’re not.
It looks very much as if the Mueller leakers are trying to leave things vague in order to generate the impression of a coherent narrative, without actually building one. If they suggested a day on which the meeting was supposed to have occurred, the actual Michael Cohen in question probably has six different ways to prove that he was in the United States that day.
In fact, he can probably prove where he was each day of the timeframe suggested in the latest McClatchy article. (Note, as Ben Bowles pointed out today, that Cohen has again emphasized categorically that he has never been in Prague at all, in 2016 or at any other time.) But it’s not on Cohen to offer such proof, in response to a mere news article. It’s on Mueller to build a case. It continues to appear that if Mueller could do that, he would have done it already.
* RFE/RL has been funded by George Soros since the mid-1990s, and closely associated with his Open Society journalism projects ever since. (See my Nikulin post from May 2017.)