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.”
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.
Former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks
“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.”
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, some politically damaging, including messages showing that the DNC was biased toward Clinton in the party’s nomination battle pitting her against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Mueller’s investigators have sought to learn who passed the emails to WikiLeaks, a London-based transparency group, which published them in July and October, causing embarrassment to Clinton and her backers.
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.”
It is a felony for anyone to hack email accounts. Other laws forbid foreigners from contributing cash or in-kind services to U.S. political campaigns.
If Cohen met with Russians and hackers in Prague as described in the dossier, it would provide perhaps the most compelling evidence to date that the Russians and Trump campaign aides were collaborating. Mueller’s office also has focused on two meetings in the spring of 2016 when Russians offered to provide Trump campaign aides with “dirt” on Clinton – thousands of emails in one of the offers.
Cohen is already in the spotlight because of the FBI raids on his offices and home in New York. Various news outlets have reported that investigators principally sought evidence on non-Russia matters, including a covert, $130,000 payment Cohen made days before the 2016 election to porn star Stormy Daniels to silence her about an alleged affair with Trump. The FBI raids also scooped up some of Cohen's computers and cell phones among other evidence, according to these reports.
CNN, which reported Friday that Cohen’s business dealings have been a subject of a separate months-long investigation by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, also quoted sources as saying that Cohen often taped phone conversations and those tapes also could be in the FBI’s possession.
If the raids turned up evidence that would be useful to Mueller’s investigation, rather than the one being done in New York, it would be shared with Mueller’s team, unless a court imposes conditions regarding the transfer of evidence, said former senior Justice Department official Michael Zeldin. “Given the sensitivities in this case, I expect evidentiary sharing decisions will be mediated by main DOJ and FBI headquarters,” Zeldin said.
Prior to Trump’s election, Cohen spent almost a decade in high-profile positions in Trump’s real estate company and grew a reputation as Trump’s “fixer.” During 2016, he was an informal adviser to the Trump campaign, proving to be one of Trump’s fiercest defenders in television interviews.
When Trump took office, Cohen became Trump’s personal attorney.
He also formed a law firm, Michael D. Cohen & Associates, which in April forged a strategic alliance with the powerful Washington lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs. With headlines blaring about Cohen’s role in providing hush money to Daniels, the two firms disclosed this week they had parted company.
Soon after Trump took office, Cohen became embroiled in controversy when The New York Times reported he was involved in promoting a secret “peace plan” for Ukraine and Russia that was the brainchild of a little-known Ukrainian legislator, Andrii Artemenko. The plan would have ended U.S. sanctions against Moscow and allowed Russia, if it pulled back militants invading Ukraine, to keep control of Crimea under a 50- to 100-year lease, if voters approved.
In February 2017, he told the newspaper, he left it on the desk of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who resigned days later and later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts with the Russian ambassador. But in subsequent interviews, Cohen denied ever delivering the plan to the White House.
Knowledge that Cohen may indeed have traveled to Prague during the campaign could heighten Trump’s risk of being prosecuted for obstruction of justice if news reports are accurate that he is considering firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller investigation, or Mueller.
“This kind of knowledge impacts his state of mind in taking any action in firing anyone from the Justice Department or Mueller’s office,” Wine-Banks said, because it would be easier for prosecutors to build a criminal case showing he did so to impede Mueller’s investigation.
If the Prague meeting actually occurred, Kosachev’s possible involvement would be especially significant given his close ties to Putin and other roles he has played in covert Moscow efforts to destabilize other countries, Russia experts said.
“While not a member of Putin's innermost circle, (Kosachev) is one of the most influential Russian voices on foreign affairs,” said Michael Carpenter, a former senior Pentagon official. “When Kosachev speaks, everyone knows he's speaking for the Kremlin.”
Kosachev appears to have been a booster of Trump over Clinton in early June of 2016, according to a post on his Facebook page at the time.
“Trump looks slightly more promising,” Kosachev wrote. “At least, he is capable of giving a shake to Washington. He is certainly a pragmatist and not a missionary like his main opponent [Hillary] Clinton.”
The Prague meeting would have occurred during a period when Trump advisers had become jittery about publicity swirling around the campaign’s Russian connections and seemingly friendly posture toward Moscow, according to the dossier and a source familiar with the federal investigation.
Campaign chairman Paul Manafort resigned abruptly on Aug. 19, shortly after the revelation that he had received $12.7 million in secret consulting fees over five years from the pro-Russia Party of Regions in Ukraine. Manafort was instrumental in the 2010 election of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in early 2014 and fled to Moscow.
Another flap stemmed from a secretive maneuver at the Republican National Convention in July. Party officials weakened language in the 2016 Republican platform calling for a boost in U.S. military aid to support Ukraine’s fight with Russian-backed separatists who invaded Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
The dossier cited multiple sources as reporting that Kremlin officials also had grown edgy about the possible exposure of their secret “active measures” effort to defeat Clinton and help Trump. According to the dossier, Russian diplomat Mikhail Kalugin was brought home from Russia’s embassy in Washington last August because he had played a key role in coordinating the cyber offensive. McClatchy quoted several Russia experts on Feb. 15 as saying they suspected Kalugin was an intelligence operative. Kalugin has denied any espionage activities.
Cohen’s attendance at a Prague meeting like the one described in the dossier would have been a logical assignment for him; Trump had long used him to solve business and legal headaches, three Republican operatives who were close to the campaign said.
One source with close ties to the campaign said Cohen “wanted a bigger and more formal role [in the campaign], but there were a lot of long knives out for him within the campaign and the larger GOP infrastructure in part because he was a Democrat and treated people horribly.”
Cohen was best known during the 2016 campaign for his testy interviews defending Trump. In one case, when an interviewer cited poor polling numbers for Trump. Cohen kept aggressively asking, “Says who?”
Beginning last year, he took a hand in fundraising for the Republican National Committee and Trump’s re-election campaign. Cohen was one of four co-chairs of a big fundraiser at the Trump International hotel in mid-2017 that raised about $10 million for the two committees. In April 2017, Cohen was named a national deputy finance chairman at the RNC, not long after his March announcement that he had officially registered as a Republican.
A millionaire with his own New York real estate holdings, Cohen has long had family and business ties to Ukraine. His wife is Ukrainian, and he has had ties to Ukrainian ethanol company. He also once ran a thriving taxi business.
Peter Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent