A bombshell report claimed Thursday that Donald Trump “personally instructed” his then-attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress in 2017 — which seemed to be the strongest indication yet that the president may have criminally tried to obstruct justice in connection with the Russia scandal.
But on Friday evening, special counsel Robert Mueller’s office released a rare statement pushing back against the article — raising questions about its accuracy.
The report from Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier of BuzzFeed News claimed that Trump “directed” Cohen to lie about talks to build a Trump Tower Moscow. The story also claimed that Mueller has substantial evidence and testimony (beyond just Cohen’s word) to prove it, though it did not lay out what specifically this evidence indicates.
On Friday evening, however, a spokesperson for special counsel Mueller’s team released a statement saying that “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate.”
A whole lot of President Trump’s behavior over the past two years has raised questions of obstruction of justice — such as pressuring the Justice Department over investigations, or firing the FBI director when he wouldn’t comply. Some argued that, even given what we know, the obstruction case against Trump looked damning.
But there hasn’t been anything quite as clear-cut as hard evidence of the president telling a witness to lie for him. Experts have told me that if clear evidence of something like that — or of paying off witnesses, or destroying evidence — were to emerge, it would greatly strengthen an obstruction case.
When the BuzzFeed News story was published, it seemed that that had finally happened — if the story was accurate, that is.
What the BuzzFeed story claimed — and how Mueller’s office responded
The BuzzFeed report — sourced to “two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter” — contains only a few details on its central allegation. The story claimed:
- That Trump “directed” and “personally instructed” Cohen to lie to Congress
- That the goal was “to obscure Trump’s involvement” in the Trump Tower Moscow project
- That Mueller’s team is relying on more than Cohen’s word here — they have “interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents”
- And that Cohen himself has confirmed all this in interviews with Mueller’s team
The rest of the story was about the Trump Tower Moscow project itself, particularly about how often Trump and his children were briefed about it in 2016.
The sourcing for the story sounded strong. The central claim that Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress is attributed to “two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.” The language suggested the two had firsthand knowledge of what they’re talking about. But Mueller’s team has been remarkably leak-proof so far — raising questions about just who those sources were.
We should note that the journalists involved, Leopold and Cormier, have done remarkable reporting on the Trump Tower Moscow story in particular, filing dispatches all year that were both far ahead of every other media outlet and later proven true by revelations from Mueller.
But as I wrote when the new story first came out, any major news that hasn’t been confirmed by multiple media outlets should be treated with at least some skepticism.
Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani responded to the story by telling the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, “If you believe Cohen I can get you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge.”
And now, Mueller’s spokesperson’s statement said the following aspects the BuzzFeed piece were “not accurate”:
- The report’s “description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office,”
- and the report’s “characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office,”
- related to “Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony.”
The statement did not quite say the BuzzFeed piece was entirely wrong. But for an office that rarely says much on the record, the pushback was very notable.
But after Mueller’s statement, BuzzFeed News Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith tweeted that he was still standing by the story.
In response to the statement tonight from the Special Counsel’s spokesman: We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing.
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) January 19, 2019
The Trump Tower Moscow deal background
While Donald Trump was running for president in 2015 and 2016, it’s now clear, his attorney and Trump Organization executive Michael Cohen was involved in secret talks to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
The project remained a secret during the campaign: Trump had tweeted about his hopes for a Moscow tower in 2013 (around the time he brought the Miss Universe pageant to the city), but there had been no apparent further action since then. And while running for president, Trump denied having any deals in Russia.
Word of the project only first leaked out in August 2017, months after Trump became president. At that time, news broke that the Trump Organization had signed a letter of intent to build the Moscow tower in late 2015. It certainly sounded like the sort of project Trump would like. The planned tower was to be 100 stories tall, which would have made it the tallest building in Europe (though it didn’t end up being built).
But the full story remained concealed. Cohen falsely told congressional committees in 2017 that Trump knew little about the project, that he’d talked about it with him infrequently, and that the deal had fallen through by January 2016 (relatively early in the presidential campaign).
However, just two months ago — after Cohen had already been convicted on separate charges involving his finances and campaign violations — he admitted that he had lied to Congress about the Moscow project, in a new plea deal with Mueller.
Cohen now admitted he had talked to Trump about it “more than” three times, that he’d briefed “family members” of Trump, that he had a lengthy phone call with the assistant to a top Russian government official about it, and that talks about the tower project continued later into the presidential campaign.
Then in Mueller’s sentencing memo for Cohen last month, the special counsel claimed the project could have made “hundreds of millions of dollars” for the Trump Organization. He also said that one way Cohen helped the probe was by providing information on “the circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries.”
But Mueller’s filings conspicuously avoided saying that Trump directly told Cohen to lie in his congressional testimony.
Obstruction-geddon… if true
Already on Friday, attention among Democrats turned to the topic of obstruction of justice and potential impeachment.
The topic of obstruction was extensively discussed at the confirmation hearings for Trump’s attorney general nominee William Barr just this week. Asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) whether it could be obstruction of justice if “the president tried to coach somebody” to “testify falsely,” Barr responded that, yes, it could.
Indeed, Barr had written as much in a memo to the Justice Department last year, months before Trump nominated him as attorney general. Barr offered the unsolicited opinion that Mueller’s obstruction case against Trump appeared to be weak, from what he had read in the media about the special counsel’s apparent legal theory.
However, he wrote that “obviously” the president could commit obstruction. For example, he said, if a president “suborns perjury” then “he, like anyone else, commits the crime of obstruction.”
When news about Barr’s memo broke last month, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was asked about his criticisms.
“Our decisions,” Rosenstein said, are informed by our knowledge of the actual facts of the case, which Mr. Barr didn’t have.”
But does BuzzFeed have those facts?
Updated to include Mueller’s spokesperson’s statement calling aspects of the BuzzFeed piece inaccurate.