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Thursday, December 27, 2018

Prague rock

Syria was supposed to be today's topic -- never before has Donald Trump acted so clearly at the behest of a foreign government -- but the latest revelation about Michael Cohen demands attention.
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.
Which intelligence agency? Ukraine would have much to gain from the release of this information, especially given the current situation. An even likelier candidate would be the Czech Republic itself, which has a decent signals intelligence capability. The BIS (their CIA) is headquartered in Prague; they consider Russia their primary target.

Question: If McClatchy's source is Czech, why would the BIS keep mum about this business until now?

Heretofore, the claim that Cohen went to Prague was the most controversial aspect of the Steele dossier  -- aside from, you know, the moist bits. Whenever a Fox Newser wanted to discredit the entire report, they pointed to Cohen's insistence that he had not gone that city. Cohen switched loyalties, yet he never changed his Prague story. Moreover, the former Trump fixer produced a passport which backed up this assertion.

"Case closed," said Trump's defenders. "The whole dossier has been fully disproven!"

The Trumpers don't like to be reminded that Paul Manafort had three passports. Multiple passports are fairly common in cases of international skullduggery.

Lanny Davis, the attorney for Michael Cohen who helped him make the big segue, has always insisted that his client has never been to Prague. For a while, I thought: Maybe that part of the dossier really is off the mark. Such an error would constitute a serious strike against Steele, even if it doesn't disprove the entire opus.

But Davis has not been Cohen's lawyer for a while, although the two men retain a friendly relationship. Moreover, we have been told that Davis is not privy to the chats that Cohen has had with Mueller.

I've been wondering why Davis deliberately shifted to non-lawyer status, even though his client still requires the services of an attorney. Perhaps Davis adopted this "just a friend" role precisely so he could say things to the press that are not necessarily true. Whenever Davis re-assures the world that his former client never went to Prague, he sends a clear signal to Team Trump: "Cohen still hasn't spilled the beans. Not those beans. He may be talking about Stormy Daniels, but he won't talk about the real shit."

Why would Davis send that signal? Perhaps to offer Cohen a certain degree of physical protection. Everyone knows that the Russians don't just play dirty -- they play filthy. An alternative theory: Perhaps the intention was to entice Trump into making a false statement. It seems likely that Mueller asked Trump "Did you send Michael Cohen to Prague?"

I've just given you two related Theories of Cohen. If you possess any imagination, you could concoct another dozen or so before supper.

One thing is certain: What truly counts is not what Cohen told Davis or what Cohen told reporters or what Davis told reporters. What truly counts is what Cohen told Mueller. The current McClatchy story dovetails nicely with this one from last April (which most people ignored because nobody else could confirm it).

Kevin Drum makes an interesting point:
Second, it means that special counsel Robert Mueller knows about all this and decided to keep it closely held instead of using it in the charge sheet against Cohen.

But why would Mueller want to keep it secret? Well, the alleged purpose of Cohen’s trip to Prague was to visit with Russian intelligence folks in order to come up with a plan for making cash payments to the hackers who were working with Team Trump to take down Hillary Clinton. Even for Mitch McConnell, I assume this would be considered an impeachable offense, and it’s the kind of thing you’d really want to nail down solidly before you make it public.
One claimed purpose of the Prague meeting was to pay hackers. In this light, you may want to check out an under-noticed column published in the Spectator a couple of weeks ago...
Pay especially close attention to a mysterious $50,000 payment to an unnamed tech company that – court filings reveal – Cohen made during the election campaign.

Could these be the payment to ‘hackers’ made in the Czech Republic described in the Steele dossiers – and always, so far, publicly denied by Cohen and his lawyers?
Marcy Wheeler, in her twitter feed, seems to be treating this story with skepticism. I know that I should defer to her judgment, but I'm an ornery sunvabitch -- and I've always been more willing than she to deem the Dossier credible.

McClatchy is a trustworthy news source. Would they buy into a false claim made by someone pretending to be from an Eastern European spy organization? Such a thing is possible. Spies lie, and they know how to buttress a false claim with a persuasive and elaborate "legend." A claimed "Czech" source might actually be a Russian.

But is that likely?

Correction: McClatchy's sourcing is second hand, although they also have multiple sources.
"Four people spoke with #McClatchy on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of information shared by their foreign intelligence connections. Each obtained their information independently from foreign intelligence connections."
I don't think that McClatchy would put their name on a story like this unless they were talking to some serious people.

Update: Marcy now has a piece up which notes that Mueller, having acquired Cohen's phone records, would have known about the Prague trip ages ago -- presuming that such a trip occurred.

Even if Cohen did not take his personal phone on the trip, SIGINT from eastern Europe could have picked up his voice talking to a Russian target -- or, conceivably, two Russians talking about Cohen. Lots of possibilities here.

That said, Marcy thinks that everyone should concentrate on the stuff Mueller can prove without dragging the dossier into it. Maybe. But I still think that Steele was onto something. 
The reason I don't fully trust Marcy Wheeler is because she has some weird hangups on the dossier. She suggests that the entire document is a red herring and not credible. While there's nothing wrong with skepticism, she gets really passionate in trying to downplay it. It's weird, so I wouldn't put much stock in what she says about Cohen. I should also note that she was pretty skeptical of the Russian conspiracy early on so it's not like she has a spotless record in understanding how it's unfolding.
Nemdam, Marcy worked hard to earn credibility as a national security reporter, so I don't blame her for being more careful and cautious than (say) a wild animal like yours truly.

Also, Trump has forced us all to make a wrenching transition. All of a sudden, we're in a world in which the good guys include people like John Brennan and Michael Hayden. And Max Boot. And Bill Kristol.

(Kristol. Good lord, I'll NEVER get used to THAT.)

In Marcy's case, she was sympathetic to the folks in Ray McGovern's group, and to guys like Bob Parry. So was I.

Waking up is hard to do.
When Steele started asking his Russian contacts to look into possible Kremlin interactions with the Trump presidential campaign, it seems inevitable that Russian intelligence would catch wind of Steele's inquiries, and feed him disinformation. So it should be expected that the dossier would contain a mix of real facts, and falsehoods intended to discredit the factual material.

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