Memo 134 (pages 30-31, October 18, 2016), after discussing Carter Page's alleged meeting with Russian officials says that "a key role in the secret TRUMP campaign/Kremlin relationship was being played by the Republican candidate's personal lawyer, Michael COHEN." The remainder of the paragraph is blacked out.
Memo 135, dated October 19, 2016, pages 32-33 picks up where the last one left off, saying that Cohen had taken over as the Trump campaign's Russia contact after Manafort was fired as campaign manager in August, 2016. (Given the similarity to the earlier paragraph, could that be the blacked out section?). It says that Cohen and Russian officials met in August, 2016 in "an EU [European Union] country" to discuss how to cover up the extent of contacts, particularly Manafort's business ties to Russia and Carter Page's conversations during his trip to Russia in July. Since then things had only gotten "hotter," and the Russians were limiting themselves to unofficial contacts (i.e., not formal employees of the executive branch of the Russian government) to allow plausible deniability. Steele's contact did not know who Cohen met with, or the date or place of the meeting but was working on it.
Memo 136, dated October 20, 2016 but for some reason pages 18-19, dates the meeting to August, 2016 and says it took place in Prague, and identifies the Russians involved as representatives of the parastatal firm Rossotrudnichestvo and and Konstantin Kosachev, a pro-Putin member of the Duma (Russian parliament). The purpose of the meeting was damage control following revelations about Manafort and Page. The meeting was originally scheduled for Moscow, but moved to Prague lest Cohen traveling to Moscow attract attention and suspicion.
Finally, Memo 166, dated December 13, 2016 (i.e., after Trump was elected) contains some extremely explosive revelations. It dates the meeting to the last week in August or the first week in September. It says that Cohen was accompanied by three colleagues and identified the Rossotrudnichestvo contact as Oleg Solodukhin. It also appears from context to contain identifying information about Steele's source, blacked out. More shocking are the details of the alleged conversation. Plans were allegedly made on how to arrange deniable cash payments to the hackers. The source says that a company (name deleted) had been using botnets and porn traffic to "transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct 'altering operations' against the Democratic Party leadership." Other names in the operation are named, but blacked out. Cohen and the Russians discussed how to protect the operatives, particularly in the case of a Clinton victory, by making untraceable cash payments and allowing them to go into hiding. (This was in addition to covering Manafort and Page's tracks). Various Romanian hackers were to stand down, and others were to head for a "bolt hole" in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Finally, the memo says that the "operatives involved" were paid by both the Trump team and the Kremlin.
This last memo is particularly explosive. It is the only one to indicate that the Trump campaign had advance knowledge of, or participated in, the hackings. We can very well imagine that Mueller would consider proof of this allegation to be the gold standard -- proof of direct Trump involvement in the hacks.
Cohen's response was to deny having been in Prague and produce the passport to show it. The general consensus appears to be that absence of Prague on the passport is not by itself conclusive. EU countries have an arrangement allowing travel among members without having to go through customs, so any travel to Europe at the time of the alleged crime could have included slipping across the border into the Czech Republic. Cohen did say he visited Italy in July, and his passport would presumably reflect the dates. And he proved a definite alibi for August 29, 2016 -- the University of Southern California confirmed that Cohen was present with his son and met with the baseball coach. Cohen said the USC visit lasted from August 23 to 29. I do not know if those dates are confirmed. He said that he was in New York for the first week of September, although it is not clear whether he has witnesses to support that. Czech intelligence established he did not arrive by plane. There was also evidence that he had been confused with a different (presumably innocent) Michael Cohen.
And there it seemed to lie -- until now. McClatchy now reports that one of Cohen's phones briefly sent a signal "in the Prague area in late summer 2016," apparently momentarily activated to download information. McClatchy attributes this information to four anonymous sources, each obtaining the information independently "from foreign intelligence connections." The report also quotes two anonymous sources at saying that an East European intelligence service picked up a conversation among "Russians" during the end of August or beginning of September, saying that Cohen was in Prague. Later in the article, the two Russians are referred to as "officials" and the two sources appear to be two of the four sources that knew of Cohen's cell phone service.
Is this true? Thus far no other outlet has confirmed this story, although they have been able to confirm most other such scoops. And the McClatchy sources are apparently reporting second-hand information.
John Schindler, former NSA but with continued connections, says that someone else could have borrowed one of Cohen's many phones, or that signals of this kind can be forged. However, he also confirms the report from a friendly spy service about two Russians mentioning Cohen's presence in Prague. He also says that the NSA picked up a conversation between Kremlin bigwigs "in the late summer of 2016" saying that Cohen was in Prague, although not what he was doing. He does not say whether this was the same conversation that a friendly service picked up. Schindler is emphatic that the Western intelligence services did not spy on the meeting. But that does not disprove its existence. After all, our intelligence services appear to have learned about the Trump Tower Meeting when they read about it in the New York Times. So they are not infallible.
So it would appear that what Mueller (and, presumably, the intelligence services) has is Steele's highly inflammatory allegations about Cohen's activities in Prague, supported by a conversation between two Kremlin bigwigs mentioning his presence in Prague at about the time of the alleged crime (either picked up by two intelligence services, or two such conversations), and a possible signal from Cohen's cell phone in Prague at about the time of the crime. We have about a two-week window to work with, and Cohen claims to have an alibi for the first week and definitely has one for at least August 29. We are not told whether the cell phone signal and the discussion of Cohen's presence are at within the time frame Cohen does not have an alibi for, or how close in time they are. (We do apparently know that there is no record of Cohen staying at any Prague hotel, so his visit was presumably a short one).
|More Prague architecture|
But it seems unlikely that any of these participants will cooperate, and unlikely that there will be sufficient evidence without a cooperating witness. Which means, in short, that if Michael Cohen really was up to no good in Prague, it can be extremely difficult to make charges stick. But if the Mueller investigation can prove that he was in Prague and lied about it (either to Congress or the FBI), they will have a case of perjury, serving as a cover to much more serious charges of espionage that are harder to prove.
Hence the popularity of prosecutions for perjury, as well as income tax evasion.