It was one of the most incendiary allegations included in the Clinton-financed opposition research known as the Steele dossier – that Donald Trump’s fixer Michael Cohen met with “Kremlin officials” in Prague in 2016 to arrange payments to operatives hacking Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Despite strong denials from Cohen, the claim has shadowed the president, inspiring and coloring the Russia investigation ever since. McClatchy reported in April that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had obtained evidence of the Prague trip and likely confirmed the secret meeting.
But a flurry of court filings by Mueller last week suggests that this story is false, a damaging piece of disinformation that has roiled the nation for two years.
Officials familiar with the case said the proof is in the lack of evidence in the 25 pages of court papers Mueller has filed on Cohen over the past two weeks. The alleged Prague visit is not evident in the plea agreement, the criminal information statement or the sentencing memorandum, none of which contain redactions.
In fact, language in the filings strongly indicates prosecutors have not found evidence to authenticate the Prague rumor, according to people familiar with the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
They point to the sentencing memo filed Friday, for starters. On page 5, Mueller stated that Cohen "has provided relevant and truthful information” about "his own contacts with Russian interests during the campaign” to prosecutors in their investigation of Russian election interference. Though Mueller details contacts Cohen made with various Russians, he offers no evidence he contacted Kremlin officials in Prague, as described in the dossier. The Czech city, in fact, is not cited in any of his filings, though Moscow, St. Petersburg, Davos and other cities are.
Prosecutors corroborated the information Cohen provided about his Russia contacts with evidence — including travel records — they seized from him.
In addition, Cohen pleaded guilty last month to a single count of providing false testimony to Congress related to a Moscow real estate venture – which suggests there was no reason for him to correct his September 2017 statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee claiming, “I have never in my life been to Prague or to anywhere in the Czech Republic.”
In that same sworn testimony, Cohen also categorically denied plotting with Russian officials to hack the election.
"I have never engaged with, been paid by, paid for, or conversed with any member of the Russian Federation or anyone else to hack or interfere with the election,” Cohen told the Senate. "I emphatically state that I had nothing to do with any Russian involvement in our electoral process.”
He added that he saw “not a hint of anything” that demonstrated Trump’s involvement in Russian interference in the election, either.
The Prague allegation is one of the most specific claims in the Steele dossier, a piece of opposition research compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele and paid for by the Clinton campaign. Although former FBI Director James Comey has called the dossier “salacious and unverified,” Mueller's team has relied on it as a road map in its investigation, and even traveled to London to debrief its author.
The Prague claim was cited in three unconfirmed, hearsay reports written by Steele between October and December 2016. They alleged that Cohen visited the Czech capital to clandestinely meet with "Kremlin officials” and hackers in August 2016 to arrange “deniable cash payments to hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the Clinton campaign.” The reports further state that “three colleagues” accompanied Cohen to Prague.
Cohen has offered his passport to show he has never traveled to Prague – nor even left the country during the time alleged.
Steele hasn't worked in Moscow since the 1990s and didn’t travel there to gather intelligence on Cohen or Trump firsthand. He relied on third-hand “friend of friend” sourcing.
The Prague rumor was sourced to an anonymous “friend" of an unnamed “Kremlin insider." If that claim of Russian origin is true, the Prague rumor stands as a highly successful piece of Russian disinformation channeled through the Clinton campaign.
The rumor has spawned more than 900 full stories on it or articles in which it was mentioned in the media since it first circulated more than two years ago, according to a search of the Nexis news database. The most sensational report was last April when a McClatchy report said Mueller had evidence that Cohen “secretly made a late-summer trip” there during the 2016 presidential campaign. “If Cohen met with Russians and hackers in Prague as described in the dossier,” the article stated, “it would provide perhaps the most compelling evidence to date that the Russians and Trump campaign aides were collaborating."
McClatchy’s story was based on two anonymous sources who do not appear to be from Mueller’s office, which tried to steer reporters off the story. After NBC and other major media could not confirm the story, one of its authors, Greg Gordon, told NBC he stood by it.
“We stand by it and, of course, we’ll find out what happens, presumably,” he said during the May interview. "If Michael Cohen ends up becoming a government witness, we might find out more.”
Gordon did not respond to questions checking whether he still stands by the story in light of Mueller's plea agreement with Cohen. His co-author, Peter Stone, could not be reached for comment.
Sources say that though Cohen may have lied about the timeline of a Moscow real estate venture, he appears to have been telling the truth about Prague.
“Cohen may be a convicted liar, but he’s not an agent of the Kremlin -- that much is now clear from the court pleadings,” said a U.S official with direct knowledge of the case.
He noted that Mueller’s failure to substantiate the Prague rumor deals a "devastating blow" to the credibility of the dossier, which was used by the FBI to justify spying on at least one Trump campaign aide. “That was pretty much the heart of the whole thing,” he said.