Over the weekend I ran a story here about McClatchy’s bombshell alleging that Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s lawyer and bagman, went to Prague in 2016 despite his adamant denials about such a trip. “If accurate, Cohen — and Trump — are screwed,” I wrote. “If false, the media’s credibility on RussiaGate will be utterly shredded as McClatchy’s story has been widely picked up and essentially reported as true by numerous outlets.”
The original allegation about the Prague trip was first made in the now notorious BuzzFeed dossier. It alleged that Cohen met in Prague with a powerful Kremlin figure and discussed meddling in the U.S. election. The story was picked up widely and generated enormous excitement in anti-Trump circles. “Why the question of whether Michael Cohen visited Prague is massively important for Donald Trump,” ran a Vox headline.
Well, it’s been a few day and barring new information, I’m leaning towards the McClatchy story being false. Benjamin Wittes laid out a few grounds for skepticism in this Twitter thread:
(2) The story does not, actually, say that Michael Cohen was, in fact, in Prague at the relevant time. It says that Mueller's investigation has developed some evidence that he was in Prague. It gives no sense of how much evidence or what type of evidence—or how credible it is.
— Benjamin Wittes (@benjaminwittes) April 14, 2018
The central trick of the McClatchy piece, whether it proves to be accurate or not, was to report allegations from unnamed sources and then have an on-the-record source confirm the allegation as being true. It’s something, unfortunately, we’ve seen time and again in media coverage of the whole Russiagate affair.
In this case, McClatchy, starts with the sensational allegation that the Justice Department special counsel “has evidence” that Cohen “secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to two sources familiar with the matter.”
“It would…be one of the most significant developments thus far in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of whether the Trump campaign and the Kremlin worked together to help Trump win the White House. Undercutting Trump’s repeated pronouncements that ‘there is no evidence of collusion,’ it also could ratchet up the stakes if the president tries, as he has intimated he might for months, to order Mueller’s firing.”
That’s a lot of “ifs” and speculation. But the story effectively confirms itself with the help of Jill Wine-Banks, a former prosecutor turned media commentator. Here’s the relevant section:
Evidence that Cohen was in Prague “certainly helps undermine his credibility,” said Jill Wine-Banks, a former Watergate prosecutor who lives in Chicago. “It doesn’t matter who he met with. His denial was that I was never in Prague. Having proof that he was is, for most people, going to be more than enough to say I don’t believe anything else he says.”
“I think that, given the relationship between Michael Cohen and the president,” Wine-Banks said, “it’s not believable that Michael Cohen did not tell him about his trip to Prague.”
Beyond the vast speculation here, unmentioned is that Wine-Banks is not just a former Watergate prosecutor, which provides her with a halo and air of impartiality. She’s also an MSNBC contributor who’s long been on the impeachment bandwagon.
So getting Wine-Banks to confirm an explosive allegation like this is akin to quoting Sean Hannity on Donald Trump’s lifelong devotion to equal rights for women and a harassment-free workplace. Not a good look.