Well, that was quick. In a “bombshell report” on Thursday 17 January, BuzzFeed alleged that Donald Trump ordered his one-time lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the dates of Trump business dealings with Russians in the Trump Tower Moscow project. In the report, the authors referred to documents held by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as validating the claim.
On CNN on Friday, one of the reporters, Anthony Cormier, acknowledged that he had not actually seen at least some of the texts and emails alluded to in the BuzzFeed article.
And on Friday evening, a spokesman for the Mueller team issued a statement that the article’s allegations about what the team has documentation of are inaccurate.
BREAKING: Spokesman for Special Counsel's Office – "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."
— Shannon Bream (@ShannonBream) January 19, 2019
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.
As a refresher, this was BuzzFeed’s description:
Cohen pleaded guilty in November to lying about the deal in testimony and in a two-page statement to the Senate and House intelligence committees. Mueller noted that Cohen’s false claim that the project ended in January 2016 was an attempt to “minimize links between the Moscow Project and Individual 1” — widely understood to be Trump — “in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigations.”
Now the two sources have told BuzzFeed News that Cohen also told the special counsel that after the election, the president personally instructed him to lie — by claiming that negotiations ended months earlier than they actually did — in order to obscure Trump’s involvement.
The special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents. Cohen then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office.
Some Trump critics have been quick to insist that the Mueller team’s wording doesn’t mean there’s no evidence Trump told Cohen to lie; it just means that the specific facts claimed by BuzzFeed aren’t actually facts.
Other than the obvious silliness of that, it’s worth pointing out that the Special Counsel’s motive to correct the record here goes directly to whether the underlying allegation is true or not. If Mueller has had evidence for months that Trump was suborning perjury from Cohen in his testimony to Congress, there can be no excuse for keeping that from Congress. The integrity of Mueller’s operation would be justifiably called into the most severe question.
Mueller wouldn’t just want to reassure the American people in general on this “bombshell” story; he’d want to clarify that he’s on the up-and-up, and hasn’t been hiding explosive evidence about the president from Congress.
That Mueller’s team refutes the central claim of the BuzzFeed article basically means it’s bogus. Mueller would have done something decisive months ago if he had such information.
It’s never inopportune to point out that the longer this thing goes on, the more is exposed about (a) the media, (b) the desperation of the obsessed anti-Trump crowd, and (c) the increasingly dysfunctional workings of the federal government. That’s the top-level lesson to take away from this episode.
This isn’t the “unfolding” mystery it seems
Also worth observing, however: if the information described by BuzzFeed existed, the Mueller team would probably have had it before Michael Cohen even testified to Congress. It’s from texts and emails, according to BuzzFeed. Electronic fishing expeditions through the NSA database have been ongoing by Department of Justice agencies for years now, targeting Trump associates. Mueller knows, and we can make good educated guesses, what they’ve turned up.
Cohen’s testimony to congressional panels on the Trump Tower deal was given in September and October 2017. The communication to Congress for which he explicitly pleaded to lying occurred in August 2017. (This was the plea entered in November 2018, the only one made by Cohen that relates directly to Russian-connected activities.)
Preparation for these interactions with Congress obviously began prior to that August 2017 submission. The Mueller team’s focus on Cohen wasn’t flagged to the public – i.e., in media reporting – until early March of 2018 (the Washington Post article referenced by McClatchy is here). But Cohen’s connection with the Trump Tower Moscow deal, and therefore his interactions with Russians, would have made him a prime target for Mueller’s “counterintelligence” investigation from the beginning – June 2017.
Moreover, Cohen’s role had previously been known to the DOJ and FBI – and in fact to the same players who now populate the Mueller team – since mid-2016 at the latest. That’s when Cohen’s name came up in the Steele dossier.
So it’s likely that knowledge of what Cohen was saying in texts and emails started some time before Mueller had a criminal warrant. It would be quite possible, if Trump really had corresponded with Cohen in the summer or fall of 2017 about committing perjury before Congress, for Mueller’s team to have, in effect, watched him do it.
The extreme unlikelihood that this could happen with everyone in D.C. including Congress remaining unaware of it is one of the key reasons I didn’t touch the BuzzFeed report – not even with an 11-foot-pole – when it came out on Thursday night.
If it were true, we’d all have known long ago. Conversely, it’s too easy to audit such claims and know they’re false. The BuzzFeed story is written as if there isn’t someone who knows exactly what did happen. But there is.
To the public, the existence and discovery timing of electronic evidence is a something of a mystery, and the media have been exploiting that cognitive seam throughout the Russiagate drama. But it’s no mystery to the investigators. They know what they knew, and how and when they knew it.
Remember, Mueller’s principal charter in a formal sense is to conduct a counterintelligence investigation of activity that centered on Russians and interactions with Russians. Under a counterintelligence charter, he’d be delinquent in his duties if he didn’t pursue Cohen’s communications that might illuminate a conspiracy with Russians. Lying to Congress about activities with Russians would qualify under that category.
FISA allows this, under a set of formal constraints, as long as the predicate remains the Russian connection and the counterintelligence probe, on the understanding that the purpose is not and must not be bringing criminal charges against Cohen.
Mueller did bring a perjury charge against Cohen relating to Russia-linked activities; it’s what Cohen pleaded to in November 2018. But the fact that Mueller brought the charge, and yet apparently made no move to inform Congress of involvement by Trump, suggests strongly that the evidence isn’t from emails and texts that would implicate Trump in a perjury conspiracy. And Mueller would know if such communications existed at all.
It can’t be overemphasized that Mueller has no reason to be flying blind on any of this. If Mueller had evidence of Cohen cooperating with Trump to lie to Congress, he would have had it for a long time now. No matter how he first obtained it – whether through a criminal warrant or under a national security letter for counterintelligence purposes (which by itself couldn’t be used for a criminal prosecution) – there’d be nothing stopping him from telling Congress about it. Any form of reasoning would say it’s his ethical duty to do so.
Yet he has just publicly refuted BuzzFeed’s claim that he has such information. If he’s lying about that, his whole investigation is down the drain. Any reputation it has for integrity evaporates.
If he’s telling the truth, the refutation makes sense in terms of what his motives would be. Basically, Mueller is checkmated and forced to issue the refutation, rather than remaining silent, to keep his investigation intact.
But checkmated is one thing. It’s BuzzFeed I wouldn’t want to be tonight. The metaphors for what BuzzFeed now is are too colorful for a family-friendly publication.