Mueller’s Office Disputes Report That Trump Told Cohen To Lie To Congress

In a rare public statement, the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller is disputing reports that the President directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.

In a rare statement released late yesterday, the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller released a statement stating that it disputed certain aspects of the bombshell Buzzfeed report released late Thursday that, citing ‘law enforcement sources,’ claimed that the President had directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about Trump’s business dealings with Russia:

WASHINGTON — The special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election disputed on Friday a report that said President Trump had directed Michael D. Cohen, his longtime lawyer and fixer, to lie to Congress about his role in negotiations to build a skyscraper in Moscow.

The rare public statement by a spokesman for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, challenged the facts of an article published by BuzzFeed News on Thursday saying that Mr. Cohen had told prosecutors about being pressured by the president before his congressional testimony.

“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,” said the spokesman, Peter Carr.

Before Mr. Carr’s statement, the BuzzFeed report led to a flurry of reactions by senior members of Congress who said that the allegations, if true, could be grounds for initiating impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump.

The president himself responded on Twitter late Friday, calling the special counsel’s statement “a very sad day for journalism, but a great day for our Country!”

A proven effort by Mr. Trump to pressure a witness to commit perjury would be one of the most damning revelations so far in the investigation into Russia’s attempts to sabotage the 2016 presidential election and could be the cornerstone of a case that the president obstructed justice to keep investigators at bay.

Both the White House and lawyers for Mr. Trump vigorously denied the BuzzFeed report even before the special counsel’s office weighed in.

“Two words sum it up better than anything anybody else can say, and that is ‘categorically false,'” the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, told reporters on Friday.

BuzzFeed News maintained that its report was accurate, its editor, Ben Smith, said after Mr. Mueller’s office disputed the account. “We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing,” Mr. Smith said on Twitter.

The statement by Mr. Carr, the special counsel’s spokesman, was unusual because it appeared to be the first time he had publicly challenged the facts of a news media account that had generated significant attention for its revelations about the president.

The New York Times has not independently confirmed the BuzzFeed report. One person familiar with Mr. Cohen’s testimony to the special counsel’s prosecutors said that Mr. Cohen did not state that the president had pressured him to lie to Congress.

Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that his panel would investigate the BuzzFeed report and was “already working to secure additional witness testimony and documents related to the Trump Tower Moscow deal and other investigative matters.”

If true, Mr. Schiff said, the allegations “would constitute both the subornation of perjury as well as obstruction of justice.”

Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas, another Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, wrote in a tweet that “if the @BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached.”

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Friday that the panel expected Mr. Cohen to be back to testify privately in early February.

More from The Washington Post:

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s office on Friday denied an explosive report by BuzzFeed News that his investigators had gathered evidence showing President Trump directed his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about a prospective business deal in Moscow.

“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,” said Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller.

The statement was remarkable on several levels — first, the special counsel’s office speaks exceedingly rarely, and second, the statement seemed to drive a stake through a sensational allegation that Democratic lawmakers suggested earlier in the day could spell the end of the Trump presidency. As earthshaking as the claims in the story were, no other media organizations were able to match them.

The story published by BuzzFeed on Thursday night attributed to two federal law enforcement officials an incendiary assertion: that Mueller had collected emails, texts and testimony indicating Trump had directed Cohen to lie to Congress about the extent of discussions surrounding a proposed Trump Tower project in Moscow. That project never came to pass, but Cohen pleaded guilty last year to lying to Congress about the matter.

The BuzzFeed report strongly implied the president might have committed a crime, dramatically raising speculation of possible impeachment. Within hours, Democrats in Congress were publicly demanding answers.

The potential consequences of the report were so severe — immediate congressional investigations and a possible legal showdown with the White House — that Mueller decided to take the surprising step of publicly denying his investigation had gathered any such evidence.

The special counsel’s office has only rarely issued public statements since it was created in May 2017; it had never previously issued a public statement regarding evidence in its investigation into Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Inside the Justice Department, the statement was viewed as a huge step, and one that would have been taken only if the special counsel’s office viewed the story as almost entirely incorrect. The special counsel’s office seemed to be disputing every aspect of the story that addressed comments or evidence given to its investigators.

The explicit denial by the special counsel’s office is likely to provide further ammunition to complaints by Trump and his supporters that press coverage of him is unfair and inaccurate.

Here is the statement posted by the Special Counsel’s Office, the response by Buzzfeed News Editor Ben Smith, who is standing by the substance of the report, and by Donald Trump:

Not surprisingly for a prosecutor known for playing his cards close to his vest, it’s not clear exactly what it is that Mueller is disputing in the Buzzfeed report. As noted, the statement states that “specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony” are “not accurate.” This could mean that that the entire report is untrue, although one presumes that if this were the case the statement would have said this much, or it could mean that portions of the report are inaccurate. For example, some of the speculation overnight has been that the Special Counsel’s office was referring to the part of the report that indicates what its source for the allegation that Cohen lied to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow deal might have been or the report that it had documents or other corroborating evidence corroborating the claims about Cohen’s false statements. In any case, this is why it’s always worth taking these initial reports with a grain of salt, especially given the fact that, so far at least, no other reporters have been able to independently corroborate the Buzzfeed report. It’s also worth noting that one of the reporters behind the Buzzfeed report, Jason Leopold, has been involved in questionable reporting in the past. Back in 2006, he reported that former George W. Bush political strategist had been indicted in connection with the Valerie Plame incident. As it turned out, no such charges were filed. Additionally, at the time of the Rove report, Bill Jempty uncovered a  2002 story on Leopold. According to this report, Leopold, who used to be a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, had broken a major story about Thomas White, then serving as Secretary of the Army, and an alleged link to the Enron scandal. That reporting was later described as “sloppy” and it was later repudiated by both Salon and The New York Times.

As I said, it’s not surprising that Trump and his supporters are jumping all over this rebuke from Mueller’s office. It gives them a chance to repeat the “Fake News” mantra that they’ve used in response to the Russia investigation from the beginning. It’s ironic, of course, that Trump and others are now praising the same Special Counsel that they have spent the past year and a half calling a “Deep State” agent intent on undermining the President and who they have said is engaged in a “witch hunt” against the President. It seems to me you can’t really have it both ways, folks.

In any case, this is why it’s worthwhile to always take these reports with a grain of salt. As I said yesterday, if the reports about Cohen lying to Congress are truethey would constitute an allegation of serious crimes by the President. Perhaps it will turn out that the reports are accurate for the most part, but that Mueller is unable to corroborate Cohen’s claims. Or perhaps it’s the case that the nature of the evidence that Mueller has is different from what Buzzfeed is saying it is. Or perhaps it’s the case that the entire report is wrong. In the end, we won’t know what Mueller knows until he issues his report, and we should wait until then before jumping to conclusions.

Update: Buzzfeed continues to stick by its reporting:

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Politicians, Russia Investigation, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Bill says:

    James Joyner and Alex Knapp both wrote about Leopold’s past fiction writing in 2006

    https://www.outsidethebeltway.com/rove_indicted/

    and

    https://www.outsidethebeltway.com/no_charges_for_rove/

    James didn’t remember. Alot has happened since then. I blogged about it too at the time but it wasn’t till early this morning that I discovered who one of the co-authors of the Buzzfeed article was.

    Anything coming from Leopold based on his past history has to be scrutinized heavily before it is published. Apparently nobody did so, the MSM fell for it. They should have known better.

  2. @Bill:

    I’ve made note of the past accusations against Leopold in an update to the post.

  3. I remain where I was before the statement: the Buzzfeed story strikes me as plausible, but I still want more confirmation and details.

  4. I also am frustrated that, as has been true in the past, that the “fake news” narrative is fed by any error, any deviation, but solid reporting (which is the bulk of reporting) is does not damage it.

  5. @Steven L. Taylor:

    I agree with both of your comments, but this is why I was stressing the “If this report is true” in my comments here and on social media yesterday. We don’t know what Mueller know, and we won’t until he released his reports. That was one reason the Buzzfeed report was so astounding because it cited “law enforcement sources” as its source for the claims. From the start, I doubted that the leak was coming from Mueller’s office since he has run a fairly tight ship. The next most likely source would be the Southern District of New York, which has been known to leak like a sieve.

  6. Bill says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I also am frustrated that, as has been true in the past, that the “fake news” narrative is fed by any error, any deviation, but solid reporting (which is the bulk of reporting) is does not damage it.

    Steven,

    The SC has problems with the reporting. As I said above, the MSM should have investigated what Leopold wrote based on his past history which includes making things up. They didn’t and ‘fake news’ may be a deserved title for this mess.

    What I wrote in 2006 still applies- Also why hasn’t any wire service reported this? Leopold hardly seems the first member of the MSM a leaker would go to.

    Buzzfeed or the New York Times, Washington Post, AP, CBS, CNN. If you blow a trumpet wouldn’t you want to sound volume be at the highest?

    Bill

    PS- I’m the same Bill who wrote at your Poliblog sports blog.

  7. @Doug Mataconis: I wasn’t specifically commenting on your position, but opining on the general situation.

    @Bill: Hey, Bill. FWIW, I did see a story earlier in the week about Leopold.

    Don’t get me wrong: I am no defending anything. I am lamenting that the nature of the “fake news” attack is such that any error, any overreach, “proves” the news in fake to those who believe the narrative, but the opposite is not true. It is also disgusting that we have a POTUS who cynically and self-servedly feeds it.

  8. Side note: if Buzzfeed wants to be taken more seriously, it needs to be better than this (although I guess we still don’t know for sure what the situation is). I think Doug is right, it might still be the SDNY (indeed, I thought it was more likely them than Mueller’s office in the first place).

  9. Modulo Myself says:

    Fake news creates a fire out of nothing. It’s Harry’s Frankfurt’s Bullshit and Louise Mensch and everything that comes out of the Fox/Facebook frighten-the-elderly-machine. This is just bad unnecessary reporting on an actual story taking place (right now) in private. The people screaming Fake News were made to understand nothing, and there’s money involved in keeping them that way.

  10. Scott O says:

    I welcome the Trump fans newfound respect for truth and accuracy. Let’s hope it lasts more than 10 minutes.

  11. @Some Dude: “Ivy-League-educated businessmen, barristers,”

    That is a weird formulation: using a US-specific phrase (“Ivy League”) with a distinctly British one (“barristers”).

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  12. And do I think he said: “Michael, lie to Congress!”? No. Do I think it it utterly plausible he very strongly suggested such? Absolutely.

  13. Jay L Gischer says:

    My thought about this story, or non-story, is that we’re seeing some “information warfare” in action. We know there are law enforcement people (FBI NY Field Office I’m looking at you) who are very friendly with Trump, and not shy about spinning things hard in favor of their guy.

    The thing that I can’t figure is how they think this cycle helps them. Maybe they figure Trump did tell Cohen to lie, but there’s no corroboration, and this will “inoculate” them. Which means they played Mueller, and he knows they played him now.

    We are in uncharted territory. There’s nothing small or petty about this situation.

  14. Tyrell says:

    It’s fairly bad when Director Mueller himself has to step in and correct the junk news. Word has it that some of the folks at CNN were literally in tears when they heard this. Speaker Pelosi was said to have scratched up two chalkboards with her icy nails.
    “Too heavy on politics” Ted Turner talking about CNN

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  15. Gustopher says:

    @Some Dude: He obstructs justice via tweet. This is not a man with a whole lot of self control.

    Thank you for your creative writing.

  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Tyrell: Is this the same Director Mueller that you were begging Congress to stop the investigation of a few weeks ago? Are you cut from the same cloth as Trump–okay with Mueller when he says what you want to hear but against him when he doesn’t?

  17. Paul says:

    As Bill Kristol and Jennifer Rubin pointed out the Trump said Mueller investigation is a witchhunt so the BuzzFeed story must be true and the special counsel is lying. Mueller is trying to keep Trump from panicking and releasing the FISA warrants, Fast and Furious gunwalking and IRS targeting of tea party groups documents that would embarrass the DOJ and the Obama administration.
    I wish we saw the same level of stubbornness and spine shown by BuzzFeed from Rolling Stone with UVA Rape and CBS news with Bush TANG memos stories. Those stories would be accepted as completely true instead of forbibben as thier narratives are too toxic, hurtful and insulting for progressives to acknowledge.

  18. Gustopher says:

    @Paul: if it is a witch hunt, itisan oddly careful and scrupulous witch-hunt that has gone out of its way to say “despite reports to the contrary, we have no evidence that Donald Trump cast this spell towards this person, at this date.”

  19. An Interested Party says:

    Hillary is not smarter than Trump. You are not smarter than Trump. It’s not necessary to like or even respect the man to acknowledge that plain and simple reality.

    Hmm…with statements like that you certainly prove that Hillary and Steven are smarter than you…

    Mueller is trying to keep Trump from panicking and releasing the FISA warrants, Fast and Furious gunwalking and IRS targeting of tea party groups documents that would embarrass the DOJ and the Obama administration.

    Oh please, talk about fake news…if there really was something to those alleged crimes Trump would have already gotten FISA warrants…believe whatever fantasy you want that allows you to think of Trump as being innocent and all of his enemies as being guilty…that will only make the inevitable crash that much more painful for you…

  20. BTW, “Some Dude” was Bunge.

  21. @Some Other Dude:

    Cohen has already admitted to lying to Congress about the Russia tower negotiations. The open question is whether he discussed those lies with anyone beforehand.

  22. al Ameda says:

    @Paul:

    Fast and Furious gun walking and IRS targeting of tea party groups documents that would embarrass the DOJ and the Obama administration.

    Why did you leave out Seth Rich and Vince Foster?