First in a series on how the media handled the Steele dossier. Read the rest of the series here.
The heel-digging by McClatchy — a chain of media properties including the Miami Herald and the Sacramento Bee — comes after a report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz raises further questions about one of the most sensational stories of the entire Russia-Trump saga.
According to the dossier assembled by former British intelligence official Christopher Steele, Michael Cohen, the once-fiercely loyal attorney who worked for the Trump Organization, traveled to Prague in August 2016, with shadowy ends in mind. “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,” it said.
Id est, the famous Cohen-Prague collusion conference.
Though Cohen denied that he’d participated in any such meeting — or even visited Prague in 2016 — McClatchy suggested otherwise. “Sources: Mueller has evidence Cohen was in Prague in 2016, confirming part of dossier,” read the headline on an April 2018 story by Greg Gordon and Peter Stone. “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 the condition of anonymity because the investigation is confidential,” noted the story. In December 2018, the same reporters caused a stir with their report that Cohen’s mobile phone “sent signals ricocheting off cell towers in the Prague area in late summer 2016.” Also: An Eastern European intelligence agency, reported the McClatchy team, had eavesdropped on a conversation among Russians, including a comment that Cohen was in Prague.
This killer information was shared with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, noted McClatchy.
When Mueller’s report emerged earlier this year, however, it didn’t cite the evidence asserted by McClatchy. It merely stated that “Cohen had never traveled to Prague,” an assertion attributed to an interview with Cohen.
How did McClatchy handle these unwelcome developments? With an editor’s note: “Robert S. Mueller III’s report to the attorney general states that Mr. Cohen was not in Prague. It is silent on whether the investigation received evidence that Mr. Cohen’s phone pinged in or near Prague, as McClatchy reported.” (The boldface is in the original.)
Now for the Horowitz report. Obsessed with the integrity of the intelligence that the FBI used to fill out applications for surveillance warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the 400-plus-page report goes into great detail about the dossier, Steele and the various indications that it was a crock. Take this passage from page 176:
Finally, by early January 2017, BuzzFeed had obtained copies of some of the Steele election reports during a meeting with the McCain Institute staff member and published them as part of an article titled “These Reports Allege Trump Has Deep Ties to Russia.” … Included in this collection was Report 166, another report that previously had not been shared with the FBI. It included allegations that Trump attorney Michael Cohen had held secret discussions in Prague in late summer 2016 with representatives of the Kremlin and “associated operators/hackers,” and that the “anti-Clinton hackers” had been paid by the “[Trump] team” and Kremlin … The FBI eventually concluded that these allegations against Cohen and the “Trump team” were not true.
The New York Times in April supplied further information on this front. In a piece poking at the dossier’s credibility, it noted that “Mr. Cohen’s financial records and C.I.A. queries to foreign intelligence services revealed nothing to support” the allegation that he’d visited Prague.
The Horowitz report provides clues as to how the dossier went awry. Not only does this massive document bore into how the FBI used the Steele reporting, it dives into the sources that Steele used to put it all together. Along these lines, it discloses that in an interview with the FBI in September 2017, Steele “made statements that conflicted with explanations from two of his sub-sources about their access to Russian officials” (p. 192). There’s more on that front:
FBI documents reflect that another of Steele’s sub-sources who reviewed the election reporting told the FBI in August 2017 that whatever information in the Steele reports that was attributable to him/her had been “exaggerated” and that he/she did not recognize anything as originating specifically from him/her. The Primary Sub-source told the FBI that he/she believed this sub-source was “one of the key sources for the ‘Trump dossier’” and the source for allegations concerning Michael Cohen and events in Prague …
Translation: This appears wobbly.
The reporters of the two McClatchy stories, however, argue that their work rested not on the dossier, but on sources. “Our stories, while sensational, provided only hints — or breadcrumbs — suggesting that Cohen may have taken such a trip in late summer 2016. Without Cohen’s acknowledgment that he made such a trip, that he attended a clandestine meeting and without his description of what was discussed, the Cohen allegations appear to hit a dead end,” write Gordon and Stone in a statement to the Erik Wemple Blog. “There’s been no indication that Czech intelligence monitored or was aware of such a meeting, so it’s difficult to see how Special Counsel Robert Mueller could have proved this allegation even with an admission by Mr. Cohen.”
The whole issue, they write, may be consigned to a “mystery.” The Erik Wemple Blog asked Gordon if the reporting team ever knew what was the phone number attached to those alleged cellphone pings. He declined to comment. (For the full statement of Gordon and Stone, see below.)
Reading through the Gordon-Stone stories, it’s clear that they worked sources to land these stories. That said, it’s not the job of journalists to leave “mysteries” in the laps of their readers. It’s to nail down a story that withstands scrutiny. Here, McClatchy overlays conflicting information on top of its teetering claims. At least it has some company in this foxhole, considering that CNN did the same thing earlier this week.
Full Statement from Greg Gordon and Peter Stone:
It is important to emphasize that our stories cited evidence — not proof — that Michael Cohen may have made a secret trip to Prague in the late summer of 2016.While a purported Cohen trip to meet with Russians in Prague on behalf of Donald Trump’s campaign was a central element of former MI6 officer Christopher Steele’s infamous dossier, we viewed the dossier as no more than raw intelligence. It was NOT a source for our stories.We quoted a total of five sources. Our sources cited information that signals from a cell phone owned by Cohen were detected in the vicinity of Prague and that, during that time frame, electronic eavesdropping by an Eastern European intelligence agency picked up a Russian remarking that Cohen was in the Czech capital. Our stories, while sensational, provided only hints — or breadcrumbs — suggesting that Cohen may have taken such a trip in late summer 2016. Without Cohen’s acknowledgement that he made such a trip, that he attended a clandestine meeting and without his description of what was discussed, the Cohen allegations appear to hit a dead end. There’s been no indication that Czech intelligence monitored or was aware of such a meeting, so it’s difficult to see how Special Counsel Robert Mueller could have proved this allegation even with an admission by Mr. Cohen.We quoted Mr. Cohen’s vociferous denials in each of our stories, published by McClatchy in April and December of 2018.Some news organizations have quoted the Mueller report as stating that Mr. Cohen never had been to Prague, when in fact the report merely recited very briefly Cohen’s denial to investigators. It would be rather odd for a federal investigator to declare with certitude that someone had never been to a foreign city.We are aware that other journalists have obtained unpublished information that tends to support our stories, but the fact is that this issue may remain a mystery.It is always possible that the information we gathered was part of a Russian disinformation campaign, and that the phone intercept was a spoof by Moscow intelligence agencies, but given what we know, that seems unlikely.When Mr. Mueller testified about his report to Congress last July, a Republican congressman specifically asked him to state whether our initial story was false.Mr. Mueller replied: “I can’t get into it.” In response to the next question, he stated that a story by another news outlet was inaccurate.
Read more from this series by Erik Wemple: