Saturday, March 02, 2019

Someone In Prague?

On Thursday, Andrew Prokop of Vox wrote

Furthermore, unless Cohen is blatantly lying in his new testimony, his account appears to put the nail in the coffin of some long-simmering claims from the Steele dossier (the reports compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele alleging a Trump-Russia conspiracy).

The dossier claimed that Cohen had a major role in conspiring with Russia. Steele wrote that during the campaign, Cohen traveled to Prague at Trump’s request to secretly meet Russian officials. There, Steele claimed, they discussed how to cover up Trump’s relationship with Russia, and Cohen even discussed how to make “deniable cash payments” to hackers directed by the Kremlin.

But very quickly, Cohen vociferously disputed this claim that he had been to Prague — and he continued to do so after his plea deal, and in his testimony Wednesday.

Trump TV's Tucker Carlson, whose career unhappily did not end when he was pantsed by Jon Stewart. snidely commented "Oh damn, he did it again, straying from the script. Instead of confirming the Russia conspiracy that dominated and controlled American politics for more than two years, Michael Cohen just refuted it."

In Carlson's vernacular: oh damn, he did nothing of the sort. Even laying aside Cohen's testimony about Trump Tower Moscow and the Trump/Roger Stone/Wikileaks connection, the ex-fixer and lawyer did not "refute" the theory of a conspiracy between Russian actors and the Trump campaign to thwart a democratic election.

In his appearance Wednesday before the House Oversight Committee, Cohen stated "I have never been to Prague" and in response to the follow-up question, "I've never been to (the) Czech Republic."

It probably was a wise claim, given that it lines up with what he told the Special Counsel. However, at first glance it appears to conflict with McClatchy's report last December that 

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.

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 phone and surveillance data, which have not previously been disclosed, lend new credence to a key part of a former British spy’s dossier of Kremlin intelligence describing purported coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s election meddling operation.

The dossier, which Trump has dismissed as “a pile of garbage,” said Cohen and one or more Kremlin officials huddled in or around the Czech capital to plot ways to limit discovery of the close “liaison” between the Trump campaign and Russia.

When Buzzfeed in January maintained that the President had directed Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower project, the Special Counsel's office denied the report, albeit in a slightly cryptic manner. (That may be because, according to Cohen on Wednesday, Trump had merely made it clear to him what he should say without directing or ordering him to do so.)

Yet, McClatchy in its Prague story added "Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller's office, declined to comment about the electronic evidence."  Additionally

Cohen’s spokesman, Lanny Davis, reiterated his client’s denials about Prague in a phone interview this week.

Cohen “has said one million times he was never in Prague,” Davis said. “One million and one times. He’s never been to Prague. … He’s never been to the Czech Republic.”

Davis, a longtime Democratic political operative, declined to comment about the new foreign intelligence.

Christopher Steele's dossier was merely a compilation of raw intelligence rather than a doctoral dissertation or prosecutorial indictment. Having earlier sworn that he had not made the trip, Cohen's denial on Wednesday was predictable.

The burden of proof in this matter lies with skeptics of the claim that Cohen never has been in Prague. Even the normally objective Prokop believes that the denial puts "the nail in the coffin" of the claim of a surreptitious meeting. However, phone data picked up signals from Cohen's phone and neither the Special Counsel's office nor Cohen's attorney has denied the McClatchy report.

Michael Cohen may be telling the truth. Or McClatchy's report may be accurate. Or both.

It is unlikely Cohen was in Prague. However, it also is probable that his phone was there, indicating someone else had been using it. Were that the case, Cohen is not lying and McClatchy is not mistaken, and another, extraordinarily intriguing, line of inquiry has opened.  No one should assume the meeting occurred- but no one should assume it did not. Because when we assume....

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