What we learned from the BuzzFeed News report that Trump told Cohen to lie to Congress
If confirmed, the report would offer the clearest evidence yet of obstruction of justice.
A bombshell new report claims that Donald Trump “personally instructed” his then-attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress in 2017 — perhaps the strongest indication yet that the president may have criminally tried to obstruct justice in connection with the Russia scandal.
The report comes from Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier of BuzzFeed News, and it claims that Trump “directed” Cohen to lie about talks to build a Trump Tower Moscow. The story also claims that Mueller has substantial evidence and testimony (beyond just Cohen’s word) to prove it, though it does not lay out what specifically this evidence indicates.
If true — and it’s worth being cautious about that, as with any anonymously-sourced new report — it could be a game-changer.
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.
What the BuzzFeed story claims
The BuzzFeed News 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 claims:
- 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 is 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 sounds 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 suggests the two have firsthand knowledge of what they’re talking about. But Mueller’s team has been remarkably leak-proof so far. Have Leopold and Cormier found a way in? Or are there other federal officials separate from Mueller’s team who are investigating this?
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.
Still, any major news that hasn’t been confirmed by multiple media outlets should be treated with at least some skepticism. (And Mueller has not yet claimed in any court filing that Cohen lied at Trump’s behest.)
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.”
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, 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 in which Cohen helped the probe was by providing information on “the circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries.”
If the report is corroborated, attention will quickly turn to the topic of obstruction justice and potential impeachment.
Helpfully, 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.
William Barr said the president coaching a witness to give false testimony or to conceal evidence would be obstruction of justice.
According to @BuzzFeedNews, Trump directed Cohen to give false testimony to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project: https://t.co/BQcHjYyasM pic.twitter.com/iF7anKgREd
— Brian Tashman (@briantashman) January 18, 2019
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.”