Mueller has evidence Cohen was in Prague in 2016, confirming part of dossier

From McClatchy:

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.

Confirmation of the trip would lend credence to a retired British spy’s report that Cohen strategized there with a powerful Kremlin figure about Russian meddling in the U.S. election.

It would also be one of the most significant developments thus far in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of whether the Trump campaign and the Kremlin worked together to help Trump win the White House. Undercutting Trump’s repeated pronouncements that “there is no evidence of collusion,” it also could ratchet up the stakes if the president tries, as he has intimated he might for months, to order Mueller’s firing.

Trump’s threats to fire Mueller or the deputy attorney general overseeing the investigation, Rod Rosenstein, grew louder this week when the FBI raided Cohen’s home, hotel room and office on Monday. The raid was unrelated to the Trump-Russia collusion probe, but instead focused on payments made to women who have said they had sexual relationships with Trump.

Cohen has vehemently denied for months that he ever has been in Prague or colluded with Russia during the campaign. Neither he nor his lawyer responded to requests for comment for this story.

It’s unclear whether Mueller’s investigators also have evidence that Cohen actually met with a prominent Russian — purportedly Konstantin Kosachev, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — in the Czech capital. Kosachev, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of a body of the Russian legislature, the Federation Council, also has denied visiting Prague during 2016. Earlier this month, Kosachev was among 24 high-profile Russians hit with stiff U.S. sanctions in retaliation for Russia’s meddling.

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 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.

Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller’s office, declined comment.

Unconfirmed reports of a clandestine Prague meeting came to public attention in January 2017, with the publication of a dossier purporting to detail the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia – a series of reports that former British MI6 officer Christopher Steele gathered from Kremlin sources for Trump’s political opponents, including Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Cohen’s alleged communications with the Russians were mentioned multiple times in Steele’s reports, which he ultimately shared with the FBI.

When the news site Buzzfeed published the entire dossier on Jan. 11, Trump denounced the news organization as “a failing pile of garbage” and said the document was “false and fake.” Cohen tweeted, “I have never been to Prague in my life. #fakenews.”

In the ensuing months, he allowed Buzzfeed to inspect his passport and tweeted: “The #Russian dossier is WRONG!”

Last August, an attorney for Cohen, Stephen Ryan, delivered to Congress a point-by-point rebuttal of the dossier’s allegations, stating: “Mr. Cohen is not aware of any ‘secret TRUMP campaign/Kremlin relationship.’”

However, Democratic investigators for the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, which are conducting parallel inquiries into Russia’s election interference, also are skeptical about whether Cohen was truthful about his 2016 travels to Europe when he was interviewed by the panels last October, two people familiar with those probes told McClatchy this week. Cohen has publicly acknowledged making three trips to Europe that year — to Italy in July, England in early October and a third after Trump’s November election. The investigators intend to press Cohen for more information, said the sources, who lacked authorization to speak for the record

One of the sources said congressional investigators have “a high level of interest” in Cohen’s European travel, with their doubts fueled by what they deem to be weak documentation Cohen has provided about his whereabouts around the time the Prague meeting was supposed to have occurred.

Cohen has said he was only in New York and briefly in Los Angeles during August, when the meeting may have occurred, though the sources said it also could have been held in early September.

Evidence that Cohen was in Prague “certainly helps undermine his credibility,” said Jill Wine-Banks, a former Watergate prosecutor who lives in Chicago. “It doesn’t matter who he met with. His denial was that I was never in Prague. Having proof that he was is, for most people, going to be more than enough to say I don’t believe anything else he says.”

“I think that, given the relationship between Michael Cohen and the president,” Wine-Banks said, “it’s not believable that Michael Cohen did not tell him about his trip to Prague.”

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.”

Read the whole thing …

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