In a conversation with Yahoo News on Tuesday night, Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen vehemently denied allegations that he was a key link between the president-elect and the Kremlin during last year’s campaign season.
Cohen, an executive vice president and attorney at Trump’s real estate company, claimed his passport proves there’s no way he met with Russian officials in the Czech Republic while the campaign was underway.
“I’ve never been to Prague or Czechoslovakia — the Czech Republic. The allegations are baseless. It’s merely fake news being put out by the liberal media to malign Mr. Trump and to distract from tomorrow’s press event,” Cohen said, referring to Trump’s first post-election news conference, which is scheduled for Wednesday.
“And I’ve never been to Russia either,” Cohen added.
The claims about Cohen’s dealings with the Kremlin surfaced on Tuesday evening after CNN reported intelligence officials have presented Trump with accusations that there was an ongoing exchange of information between the Russian government and his campaign. The officials reportedly detailed the claims last Friday when they gave Trump a briefing on Russian involvement in the election. In that briefing, the officials also delivered a report that concluded the Russians launched cyberattacks on Democrats and Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton, for the purpose of boosting his chances.
According to CNN, the information about the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia was largely based on “memos compiled by a former British intelligence operative” who did opposition research on Trump for Democrats and Republicans during the presidential race. CNN reported that officials have found the operative to be “credible” in the past but did not include the allegations in their official report on the cyberattacks. Shortly after CNN’s story was released, BuzzFeed published what it described as the full document compiled by the operative.
BuzzFeed admitted the document was “unconfirmed” and “includes some clear errors.” It detailed a claim that Russia “has been cultivating, supporting, and assisting” Trump “for at least five years.” According to the unnamed author of the report, there were ongoing communications between intermediaries for the Russian government and representatives of the Trump campaign, including Cohen, during the election. The memo said the two sides exchanged information and Moscow sought to boost Trump by releasing information about Hillary Clinton, with Russian President Vladimir Putin keeping tabs on the effort. It also said the Russians had obtained compromising information about Trump that could be used to blackmail him.
Trump’s transition team did not respond to a request for comment on this story. However, shortly after the stories were published by BuzzFeed and CNN, Trump wrote a tweet that said simply, “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”
Cohen described the document published by BuzzFeed as “salacious,” “disgraceful” and “disgusting.”
“None of it is true. I don’t know who created the document or what it was supposed to be used for, but there’s absolutely no accuracy to anything in that document,” Cohen said.
The memo claimed a “Kremlin insider” stressed Cohen’s “importance” in the “covert relationship with Russia.” It also said Cohen’s “wife is of Russian descent and her father [is] a leading property developer in Moscow.”
“She’s not Russian. My wife is Ukrainian. It’s a different country,” Cohen said.
Cohen claimed his wife has not been in Ukraine since 1972, when it was part of the USSR along with Russia. He said he had been to Ukraine “twice,” in “either 2003 or 2004,” because his “brother’s father-in-law lives in Kiev.”
“I went to Kiev. That’s the extent of it. I’ve never been to Russia. I have no Russian Kremlin connections. My father-in-law is not a real estate developer friend of Putin’s in Russia. I don’t even think my father-in-law ever has been to Russia,” he said
The document published by BuzzFeed included a claim that Cohen met with “Kremlin representatives” in Prague last August. Cohen told Yahoo News he was in New York and California throughout that month. He used FaceTime video chat to show his passport. It appeared to show stamps dated from 2009 until late 2016 from visits to France, Hong Kong, Macau, Scotland, Anguilla, St. Maarten, St. Bart’s, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Turkey. The trips to Georgia and Kazakhstan all seemed to be dated from 2010 to 2012. Cohen promised to allow Yahoo News to examine the document at Trump’s press conference on Wednesday.
While Cohen’s passport didn’t seem to contain stamps from the Czech Republic, he wouldn’t necessarily need to have one if he visited the country. The Czech Republic is part of the Schengen Area, a group of 26 European countries that have a border agreement. Visitors must present a passport when they first enter the area, but they do not necessarily need to show the document when they travel between countries within the zone. Based on the passport pages he showed to Yahoo News, Cohen made multiple visits to Schengen countries, from which he could have traveled on to the Czech Republic, including a trip to Paris last year.
According to BuzzFeed and CNN, the allegations detailed in the document have been circulating in Washington for some time. Cohen said he first heard of the claims concerning him about two weeks ago and that he hasn’t discussed the accusations with Trump. However, Cohen said he let all the top members of the president-elect’s team review his passport on Tuesday night, and Trump was in the room at Trump Tower at the time. Cohen said the president-elect’s senior counselor, Steve Bannon, was the first to look at the document. Trump questioned Bannon about what he saw in the passport.
“So is Michael telling the truth? Has he ever been to Prague?” Trump asked, according to Cohen.
Bannon informed Trump that the passport didn’t show travel to the Czech Republic, Cohen said. After Bannon looked at the document, Cohen said Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, press secretary Sean Spicer and special counselor Kellyanne Conway all checked out the passport. He also showed it to Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
“He didn’t spend two seconds looking at it. He was like, ‘I believe you, Mike,’” Cohen said of Pence.
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