SALT LAKE CITY -- Special counsel Robert Mueller’s office disputed a bombshell report by BuzzFeed Friday night, after the news outlet reported that President Trump directed his former attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.
"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's office.
It is “extraordinary” for the special counsel’s office to provide a statement to the media regarding ongoing investigations, PBS reported. The special counsel’s office has rarely issued public statements since its creation in May 2017, and has never before released a public statement regarding evidence in its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to the Washington Post.
The Post reported that the statement was viewed as a “huge step” inside the Justice Department and one that would only have been taken if Mueller’s office viewed the story as nearly entirely false.
“The special counsel’s office seemed to be disputing every aspect of the story that addressed comments or evidence given to its investigators,” the Post stated.
Other news organizations including the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN have not corroborated the allegations contained in the Buzzfeed report. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to the report Friday before Mueller's office weighed in, calling it "categorically false."
Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s current attorney, praised Mueller for issuing the statement:
"I commend Bob Mueller's office for correcting the BuzzFeed false story that Pres. Trump encouraged Cohen to lie," he tweeted. "I ask the press to take heed that their hysterical desire to destroy this President has gone too far. They pursued this without critical analysis all day. #FAKENEWS"
I commend Bob Mueller’s office for correcting the BuzzFeed false story that Pres. Trump encouraged Cohen to lie. I ask the press to take heed that their hysterical desire to destroy this President has gone too far. They pursued this without critical analysis all day. #FAKENEWS— Rudy Giuliani (@RudyGiuliani) January 19, 2019
The President did not immediately respond to the statement. His son Donald Trump Jr. reacted to the statement from Mueller's office with laughing emojis.
🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣👍 https://t.co/Qx4dtOYujD— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) January 19, 2019
Ronna McDaniel, GOP chairwoman and Sen. Mitt Romney’s niece, also took to Twitter to criticize BuzzFeed’s reporting: “The entire premise of this story, which received wall-to-wall coverage, was based on 'evidence' the reporters admitted they never even saw. Who could've predicted that the publishers of the phony dossier would get this wrong, too?”
The entire premise of this story, which received wall-to-wall coverage, was based on "evidence" the reporters admitted they never even saw.— Ronna McDaniel (@GOPChairwoman) January 19, 2019
Who could've predicted that the publishers of the phony dossier would get this wrong, too?https://t.co/enaIVvSNPu
Despite the pushback, Ben Smith, BuzzFeed's editor in chief, stood by the story on Twitter: "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."
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
What did the report say?
The BuzzFeed story alleged that Cohen had told special counsel investigators that "after the election, the president personally instructed him to lie — by claiming that negotiations [for a Trump development project in Moscow] ended months earlier than they actually did — in order to obscure Trump's involvement."
In addition, Buzzfeed reported that Trump supported a plan to visit Russia to meet Vladimir Putin during the presidential campaign to kick-start negotiations on the project.
Mueller’s investigators learned about Trump’s directive through internal company emails, texts messages, and interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump organization, according to the report. BuzzFeed also stated that Cohen confirmed Trump’s instructions when interviewed by Mueller’s team.
The allegations, which BuzzFeed sourced to two anonymous federal law enforcement officials, came after Cohen admitted that he lied to Congress about the real estate deal back in November.
Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker, who won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Harvey Weinstein, pointed out on Twitter that Mueller's denial was focused on Trump's alleged explicit role in ordering Cohen to lie.
"I can’t speak to Buzzfeed’s sourcing, but, for what it’s worth, I declined to run with parts of the narrative they conveyed based on a source central to the story repeatedly disputing the idea that Trump directly issued orders of that kind," he wrote on Twitter.
"Note that the general thrust of Cohen lying to Congress 'in accordance with' or 'to support and advance' Trump’s agenda (per Cohen’s legal memo) is not in dispute. The source disputed the further, more specific idea that Trump issued—and memorialized—repeated direct instructions," he wrote in a separate Tweet.
Note that the general thrust of Cohen lying to Congress “in accordance with” or “to support and advance” Trump’s agenda (per Cohen’s legal memo) is not in dispute. The source disputed the further, more specific idea that Trump issued—and memorialized—repeated direct instructions.— Ronan Farrow (@RonanFarrow) January 19, 2019
Did the report’s allegations include impeachable offenses?
Following the story’s publication late Thursday night, a clamor grew among pundits and Democratic politicians pointing to the report as potential grounds for the impeachment of the President, calling them, if true, “the gravest” and “most damaging claim against Trump yet,” and suggesting that they could constitute the “smoking gun” in the Russia investigation.
“If the @BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted after the story was published.
U.S. senator and former prosecutor Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) tweeted that, if true, the primary claim of the BuzzFeed report could constitute at least four potential felonies: criminal obstruction of justice, subornation of perjury, conspiracy and aiding and abetting perjury.
If this is true, this is plain, slam-dunk, criminal obstruction of justice (18 U.S.C. 1505, 1512), subornation of perjury (18 U.S.C. 1622), conspiracy (18 U.S.C. 371) and likely aiding and abetting perjury (18 U.S.C. 2). https://t.co/k6BoPNYkol— Sheldon Whitehouse (@SenWhitehouse) January 18, 2019
Subornation of perjury -- the crime of inducing someone to commit perjury -- is “easily the most significant” of the allegations contained BuzzFeed report, The Nation reported.
Fox News host Chris Wallace said of the BuzzFeed report that “if it’s true, it’s very disturbing,” adding that "subornation of perjury... is a crime and it’s the kind of thing that could get you impeached.”
In fact, subornation of perjury was part of the articles of impeachment that targeted both Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon.
In his articles of impeachment, Nixon (who resigned before he was impeached) was accused of counselling witnesses to give false testimony in congressional proceedings.
Bill Clinton faced similar accusations, including encouraging a witness in a federal civil rights lawsuit brought against him to “execute a sworn affidavit in that proceeding that he knew to be perjurious” and for encouraging a witness to give false testimony in that lawsuit.
Giuliani, the president’s attorney, challenged the Justice Department to “reveal the leakers” behind BuzzFeed’s report. He also suggested Democrats should refrain from investigating the president until Mueller concludes his investigation.
“There may be nothing to legitimately investigate,” he said on Twitter.11 comments on this story
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said Mueller's statement demonstrates why the special counsel should release his final report as quickly as possible.
"Today's development only underscores the need for the special counsel to wrap this investigation up immediately," the North Carolina Republican tweeted. "The constant secrecy and breathless speculation helps no one. It's been 20 months — enough is enough. Wrap it up. Show us what you have."
Cohen is slated to testify publicly before the House Oversight Committee on Feb. 7.