Dayspring Mishandled?

A conspiracy theory on the Prague meeting.

(Explanation for the obscure title at the end)

I should not be telling you this, but I think readers have a right to know before the weekend.

The Steele dossier on Trump’s numerous shady ties to Russia includes the notorious alleged visit by Cohen to Prague in August 2016.

1. Speaking to a compatriot and friend on 19 October 2016, a Kremlin insider provided further details of reported clandestine meeting/s between Republican presidential candidate, Donald TRUMP’S lawyer Michael COHEN and Kremlin representatives in August 2016. Although the communication between them had to be cryptic for security reasons, the Kremlin insider clearly indicated to his/her friend that the reported contact/s took place in Prague, Czech Republic.

2. Continuing on this theme, the Kremlin insider highlighted the importance of the Russian parastatal organisation, Rossotrudnichestvo, in this contact between TRUMP campaign representative/s and Kremlin officials. Rossotrudnichestvo was being used as cover for this relationship and its office in Prague may well have been used to host the COHEN / Russian Presidential Administration (PA) meeting/s. It was considered a “plausibly deniable” vehicle for this, whilst remaining entirely under Kremlin control.

3. The Kremlin insider went on to identify leading pro-PUTIN Duma figure, Konstantin KOSACHEV (Head of the Foreign Relations Committee) as an important figure in the TRUMP campaign-Kremlin liaison operation. KOSACHEV, also “plausibly deniable” being part of the Russian legislature rather than executive, had facilitated the contact in Prague and by implication, may have attended the meeting/s with COHEN there in August.

Cohen – even after his plea deal – continues to maintain he has never been to Prague and was in Rome or maybe Capri at the time. However, McClatchy reporters have found circumstantial evidence (cellphone location records) that he was there after all. What will the Mueller report reveal? If the Steele dossier’s allegation is confirmed, it could be the smoking gun that ends the Trump presidency.

My own high-level source (whose identity I am sworn not to reveal) makes the following observation, couched as a speculation. Suppose you are the head of the Czech security service BIS, Michal Koudelka. He will see Putin’s machinations to weaken or destroy the NATO alliance and reestablish Russian hegemony over the former Soviet empire as a critical threat to the security of his country. Such threats justify extreme measures. The BIS will have put a major effort into checking the Steele claims of collusion with Donald Trump, the Trump organization, or the Trump campaign. They know what really happened in Prague.

Let’s suppose that these efforts have turned up a blank on the visit: Cohen did not meet Kremlin representatives in Prague, though the conspiracy was real. A professional counterespionage officer would inevitably think about an operation to “frame the guilty”.

The alleged location is home turf, and any patriotic Czech would cooperate with the op. It would be necessary to fabricate a complete web of irreproachable evidence: phone, fax and messaging intercepts, phone traffic data, flight and train records, hotel registers, human witnesses, smartphone snaps, security camera footage, even enough loose ends to reflect the untidiness of reality. Tricky but surely doable.

The package would have to convince Robert Mueller, a very experienced law enforcement professional and an upright man. On the other hand, the FBI includes a counterespionage function but is not specialised in the task like the BIS, as it also has to catch bank robbers, mad cultists, kidnappers, and serial killers. Divided attention and broader experience works in your favour. Besides, Mueller himself is possibly too upright to have the deviousness and paranoia of a real security man. Convince Mueller, and nobody else – certainly not the politicians in Congress – will be in a position to challenge the claim.

It’s a risky play, and if it failed Trump might well escape scot-free, but there are no easy choices in this game. Koudelka is an heir to the men who decided to kill Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, knowing the act would bring down dreadful reprisals on the heads of many innocent compatriots.

It would be poetic justice if the US President who has made systematic lying into his signature tune were to be brought down for the one treason he did not actually commit.

*     *     *     *     *     *

The title is a reference to a fine late story of Rudyard Kipling’s from 1928. The plotline is an elaborate lover’s revenge through the forgery of a Chaucer fragment. The forger plans to inveigle the victim, a Chaucer expert, into vouching for the piece’s authenticity, and then destroy his reputation by exposing the fraud. But in the end he cannot do so and the work enters the canon.

Ah Jesu-Moder, pitie my oe peyne.
Daiespringe mishandeelt cometh nat agayne.

Kipling’ s Sussex house, Bateman’s, lies only 18 miles from Piltdown, scene of the great Piltdown Man forgery of a proto-human skull. This was “discovered” in 1912, and the hoax only exposed in 1953. The forger’s identity and motive are still contested. The expert taken in was the eminent Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, head of the geological department at the British Museum. So was he a target like Castorley in the story? The discovery made headlines and Kipling would surely have taken an interest. Perhaps his poet’s antennae detected something funny going on.

*     *     *     *     *

PS to the post: The less interesting story dramatically is that Cohen did meet Russian agents in Prague and the Czech package will confirm it. In that case Koudelka and Mueller will have to anticipate attacks on its credibility, including half-baked conspiracy theories like mine. They had better find confirmation from another source owing nothing to the BIS.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

17 thoughts on “Dayspring Mishandled?”

  1. I have long been puzzled that Cohen has been credited with decisively denying the described meeting. He has gone on endlessly about what his passport does not show; but he would not need a passport stamp to enter the Czech Republic from another EU country. He has been vague and fuzzy about his actual travel schedule. He has said that he has never been to Prague, but not generalized that to the Prague area or the Czech Republic — until very recently and then with less than crystal clarity. I have seen no statement from him along the lines of, “I participated in no meeting even remotely similar to the one Mr. Steele describes in time, location and participants.” If he could have done that, why didn’t he? Something is fishy in Bohemia.

    1. But the key point is establishing that Cohen entered a Schengen country during the relevant time period. And it’s very difficult to see how Cohen could enter such a country without having his passport stamped upon entry. If there’s no stamp, that’s a very complete denial.

      More importantly, Cohen’s either a cooperator or is maneuvering frantically to become one. And he supposedly has hired at least one actual criminal defense lawyer who knows his business. At this point, Cohen’s lawyers must be telling him that a “cute” denial that hinges on some technicality or clever linguistic gymnastics would forever end any hope of a deal. I think you have to treat what’s he has said and his display of his passport as a complete denial.

      Now, if Cohen’s lying (for some reason that nobody can explain) and he did have such a meeting in or near Prague then he’s totally screwed. But then, as an aside, the legitimacy of Wimberley’s hypothesized BIS evidence would be established or destroyed by the question of how Cohen entered the Schengen Area without having his passport stamped or his entry observed. If, say, Germany or Italy confirms that he entered and explains why his passport wasn’t stamped then the hypothesized evidence from BIS will be powerfully corroborated. But if nobody can give a plausible explanation of how he got into the Schengen Area, this the sort of operation hypothesized by Wimberley would be utterly pointless.

        1. Thank you for the link. As I understand the article, his passport shows that arrived in Italy during the relevant time period and therefore it is clear that he could potentially have travelled to Prague without leaving the Schengen area and, therefore, without having to present his passport at a frontier. If the source of the story about the cell phone is either the BIS, NSA, or GCHQ the hurdle of establishing that he was inside the Schengen area and therefore could potentially have been in Prague is overcome.

          Nevertheless, I continue to for three main reasons:

          First, Cohen has absolutely no reason to deny that the meeting took place. It is widely believed that Cohen is holding back information and materials related not to Trump but rather to his family (deeply involved in all kinds of schemes and his father-in-law is apparently one of Trump’s chief intermediaries with Eastern European organized crime and oligarchs); it’s understandable that Cohen doesn’t want to put them in the jackpot but if the meeting actually took place, it’s clearly the Crown Jewels and would be the get-out-of-jail-free card for himself and his whole family.

          What’s more, there were a number of news reports that once Cohen decided to become a cooperator, he hired a very smart, very experienced lawyer who is very familiar with criminal practice and especially the SDNY. At this point, Cohen either is a cooperator or his auditioning his heart out for the role. I guarantee to you that his lawyer isn’t allowing Cohen to perform the “Dance of the Seven Veils” on Twitter. From the government’s perspective it is absolutely vital that a witness is in a position to say, yes, I was lying when I was with that bunch of crooked crooks but from the moment I decided to help the government, I’ve been telling the truth, the whole truth, and everything like that.

          Second, I doubt whether the meeting (as described) took place because, from the perspective of Russian intelligence, it made absolutely no sense. Presumably, the point of all these interactions is to make contacts within the conservative moment and, ideally, to either recruit these people or else compromise them in ways that they couldn’t disclose on their security clearances in a Trump or future Republican administration. That’s a powerful pressure point and so it makes sense for the Russians to want to move these conservatives into compromising positions.

          As a practical matter, there was zero purpose in having Cohen meet with cutouts or frontmen since he’s been doing that for his entire life, anyway. Being photographed and recorded doing campaign related stuff with a bunch of GRU or FSB agents would be more compromising but it would also eliminate the kind of deniability that the Russians have used in other similar disinformation or social disruption operations (such as Brexit) over the past couple of decades. And Cohen isn’t going to be in line for a big foreign policy or national security job in any Republican administration, ever. His only connection to anything is Donald Trump and, evidently, the president is happy to give the Russians whatever they want, so there’s really no need to have a pathetic jamoke like Cohen as an intermediary.

          Third, I doubt wither the GRU would move an asset (which I assume is what they considered Cohen to be) to someplace like Prague to have a secret meeting with people from Russia (be they oligarchs, functionary, or spies) who are guaranteed to be under the most intense surveillance imaginable? Why not just bring him right to Moscow? He’s famously dealing with Russians anyway, his sidekick is Felix Sater, his father-in-law is the guy who supplies Trump with a lot of his grey or even black money. So, what’s gained by moving him to Prague for a stupid meeting, especially when you’re just bringing a ton of unwanted heat on everybody.

          Therefore, I don’t believe that the meeting took place. It’s possible that it was proposed and that’s what Steele’s contact picked up scuttlebutt about, but my guess would be that any planned meeting would have been vetoed by the intelligence professionals.

          1. Points well made. However, I continue to believe that a cryptic, dancing-around-the-edges quasi-denial nearly always means that the basic accusation at issue in fact actually does have merit. That still seems to me like a description of Cohan’s history of statements here.

          2. kendoran,

            The world of the criminal justice system is a little bit different because everything in that world revolves around preparing for trial and that means worrying about how your witnesses will do under cross-examination and also how you, as a prosecutor, will be received.

            I really can’t emphasize enough that neither federal prosecutors nor their witnesses are going to do this dancing around the edges under even the most exceptional of circumstances. The main things that the government has going into a case are the presumption of guilt and their credibility as “straight arrows”.

            Good federal prosecutors never do what you and others are talking about because it destroys their credibility, destroys the presumption of guilt, and makes convictions difficult or impossible to obtain.

            Neither they nor Cohen’s experienced defense lawyer are going to allow him to do the “Dance of the Seven Veils” because being a Twitter troll like that renders him useless as a witness at trial. Mueller’s people are all top federal prosecutors and they’ve all had a huge amount of experience in dealing with criminals as witnesses. The obvious problem with using criminals as witnesses is that they’ve got an incentive to lie (self-preservation) and almost always a long history of lying and (being criminals) an even longer history of committing crimes; prosecutors try to offset that by corroborating everything possible (arguing that if the witness is truthful in small details, the larger testimony is more likely to be truthful) and through the crafting of some kind of narrative to show why the witness is telling the truth now that typically involves acknowledging that the prosecutors have made it clear that he must tell the truth now that he’s a cooperator or risk losing his deal. Defense lawyers essentially reverse that formula on cross-examination by exposing small lies and then arguing that one who’s lying about little things is probably lying about the big things, too.

            It’s simply inconceivable that Mueller would jeopardize the most important criminal prosecution in American history simply to troll everybody and have a good laugh.

            The other, related point is that if the meeting took place, Cohen would have to have a reason for continuing to lie about it (as opposed to just keeping his mouth shut). He has no reason to lie about whether the meeting took place.

  2. A NATO member trying to pull a fast one like this on the US? Too much risk, too little reward that I can see. More likely it is the American people being lied to, by Cohen, with the blessing of Mueller’s team, wanting to keep a lid on this meeting. Lying to the American people involves little or no risk these days.

    1. A different conspiracy, and I agree that it’s more plausible. It only requires the BIS to keep mum until Mueller drops the bombshell – and silence is in their logo (tace).

    2. It is simply inconceivable that Meuller would do something that stunningly idiotic. Aside from the pointlessness of a such a deception, it would undermine the credibility of whatever reports he might prepare, undermine the credibility of any prosecution brought against anyone even remotely connected to Trump, and, most importantly, it would destroy any hope of obtaining sustainable convictions by instantly rendering every witness for the government per se unworthy of belief.

      If Mueller has any reason to believe the Prague meeting took place he simply cannot afford to be cute about it. These are some of the best prosecutors in the country; they would never sabotage their entire project by putting out deceptive statements or allowing cooperators to put out cute deceptive statements.

      The fact that Cohen’s hope of a deal isn’t publicly being flushed down the toilet by Mueller and SDNY is a pretty good indication that he’s telling the truth about there never having been a meeting in Prague.

  3. It’s not all that difficult to come up with an explanation for how Mr. Cohen’s phone was in Prague but he was not (particularly since 12 or so cell phones were found when his home was raided). Nor is it difficult to understand how a source with knowledge of the phone’s presence at a particular meeting might have erroneously concluded that Mr. Cohen was there.

    1. I tried reasonably hard but I couldn’t think of such a reason. I also couldn’t think of a reason why Cohen would deny that the meeting took place or that he sent a deputy to the meeting with his cell phone.

  4. I’m inclined to give Mitch the win here on the merits. A minor additional reason for scepticism is : why on earth would the Russians choose Prague? It isn’t 1976 any more. The Czech Republic is hostile territory for Russian spooks, probably worse that Rome, where Cohen certainly went. Men like Koudelka know an awful lot about Russian dirty tricks and are not sympathetic.

    We may however all be overestimating the common sense of both Cohen and the FSB/GRU. The KGB started going downhill after the purges of the great illegals in the 1930s, mostly Central European Jews. Putin’s whole aggressive meddling strategy is short-termism that in the end will work against Russian interests. What real allies has Putin’s Russia got left? Germany is building power-to-gas pilot plants, with major rollout definitely on the cards, and it’s as much to cut dependence on Russian gas as to save the climate.

  5. MG won fair and square, and I’mma not going to pull a Kanye or anything and question the result. But, while I understand that if the credibility of Cohen’s testimony is very important in most cases, does it make a difference if it turns out to not to be that important, in itself, here. That might be the case if there is a lot of corroborating evidence, as there almost certainly would be if Cohen really took the meeting, and/or there’s a lot of corroborating evidence of collusion in general. If there really was collusion in general, then there is likely to be a LOT of evidence, including tapes, intercepts and testimony from flippers, and other circumstantial evidence. (In fact, if there is a lot of evidence, and the Prague meeting wasn’t that important to the conspiracy, then he may not even be asked about Prague under direct examination.)

    Note, I’m not prejudging the existence of collusion or a trip to Prague, just noting that if either happened, there’s likely to be a lot of compelling evidence thereof.

    So, here’s the theory. Cohen already has huge credibility problems. That cuts both ways, of course, but if the true facts he testifies to at trial are bolstered by a lot of other evidence, the answer to the question “Were you lying then or lying now?” is “I had obvious reasons to lie on behalf of Trump and myself then, but don’t now.” (Which he has to say anyway because he lied to the SC in the beginning.) “The facts I’m testifying to are consistent with voluminous credible evidence. And, as I testified on the stand (in redirect), the Special Counsel’s Office requested me to continue to deny the Prague trip in interviews in order to preserve its ability to question witnesses and gather additional evidence.”

    Plausible? Competition aside, from the quality and depth of his comment, MG clearly knows more about criminal prosecutions than I do, and has really thought this through, so he’s probably right. But, if it turns I’m right, then I demand my prize, a free subscription to RBC, and a better log-in that doesn’t forget who I am all the time. (Disqus remembers me!)

  6. One point: It is quite possible that Cohen’s cell phone was in Prague, but that Cohen was not. Assume that Cohen lent his phone to someone. He has repeatedly said that Mueller knows all. Presumably, that means that Mueller knows who had possession of the phone when it was in Prague.

  7. Anything’s possible in the abstract but it seems to me there’s two fundamental objections. The first is my argument that under no circumstance would a prosecutor worth his or her salt allow a cooperator to be so “clever” for the reasons I’ve already outlined at considerable length.

    The second objection is the one that James raises, namely, that Prague is a really poor choice for a clandestine meeting. As James points out, it’s the turf of an exceptionally hostile security service that’s been steeped for decades in Russian intelligence tradecraft. Also, since the people from Russia are roughly no more compromising than the ones he’d already been associated with, so they might as well have had the meeting in Rome.

  8. Possibly not relevant, but remember that Cohen’s cooperation (apparently) extends only to the facts of his illegal acts in concert with Individual-1 and unrelated (to him) russians. It very clearly does not extend to any illegal acts in concert with inlaws, their relations or associates. Reporting suggests that his business interests both in the US and Ukraine might not withstand scrutiny.

    If he made his trip to kill several birds with one stone it’s not impossible — or even implausible — that his blanket denial might be necessary to shield him on matters where he’s not currently cooperating.

  9. I agree that Cohen’s awkwardness as a cooperator is likely due his understandable reluctance to shop members of his own family. But, in my opinion, this makes the Prague meeting with the Russians less, not more likely. If the hypothetical meeting with the Russians took place, he has something of inestimable value to sell to buyers ready, willing, and able to absolve his family of their lifetimes of criminality. It is simply inconceivable to me that now, in his most dire hour of need, he would refuse to cash it in which is a major reason why I continue to doubt the meeting actually took place.

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