Mueller Disputes BuzzFeed Article About TrumpTelling Cohen to Lie
-By Jim Owen
There was only one problem with the recent sensational story in BuzzFeed News that President Trump directed his former lawyer to lie to Congress about details related to the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller: It may not have actually happened.
The online news outlet reported that the president wanted the attorney, Michael Cohen, to falsely tell the Senate and House intelligence committees that the Trump Organization’s negotiations with Russian officials concerning the proposed construction of a building in Moscow ended before the 2016 election campaign began.
The article sparked howls of protest from the president’s political opponents. Liberals ramped up their demands for impeachment, as left-leaning news networks cheered what they hoped was the impending collapse of the Trump administration. Former federal prosecutors who have made a name for themselves slamming the president on television took turns making appearances on multiple shows to accuse Trump of a felony.
The rhetoric abruptly changed when Mueller, who is looking into various allegations against the president and his associates, issued a rare public statement. Through a spokesman, Mueller said portions of the BuzzFeed article were incorrect. Trump seized on the statement to argue that the story was the latest example of the news media’s unsubstantiated attempts to discredit him.
The Case Against Cohen
The lawyer known as Trump’s longtime “fixer” committed perjury while answering questions from members of the two committees, as well as in a two-page written statement he submitted to the panels.
Cohen told the lawmakers that the Russian Trump Tower talks ceased in January 2016, which proved to be untrue. Federal officials have determined that the negotiations continued into at least June of that year, three months after Trump entered the presidential race. Last November, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying under oath as part of his agreement to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation. He is facing a three-year prison sentence, beginning in March.
Cohen is scheduled to offer more testimony on Feb. 7 at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Mueller has urged the lawmakers to not ask the witness about matters related to Russia’s meddling in the election or the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with those efforts.
Early in his probe, the special counsel obtained documents, audiotapes and electronic devices in a raid on Cohen’s offices and home. After being indicted, the lawyer made a number of charges implicating the president. He claimed that Trump reimbursed him for hundreds of thousands of “hush money” payments to two women, a violation of campaign-finance laws.
What BuzzFeed Reported
Reporters Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold cited “two federal law-enforcement officials” as the sources of the scandalous revelations in the article, but did not identify them. The leakers supposedly said Cohen was trying to downplay Trump’s role in the Moscow project negotiations. The lawyer’s goal, according to the sources, was to impede Mueller’s inquiry.
The article stated that the special counsel found out the president told Cohen to give false testimony by interviewing Trump Organization officials and examining company documents. According to BuzzFeed, Cohen told Mueller’s team that the president had instructed him to lie.
The sources purportedly said “attorneys close to the administration” assisted Cohen in planning his oral and written statements to Congress. However, Cormier and Leopold said the law-enforcement officials did not disclose the attorneys’ identities or say whether they were members of the administration’s legal staff.
Don McGahn, a former chief administration lawyer, has denied advising Cohen what to tell lawmakers. McGahn said he had no knowledge of anyone else in the White House Counsel’s Office doing so, either.
The reporters wrote that their sources recalled Trump and Cohen meeting 10 or more times during the campaign to discuss the Moscow deal, which would have created an estimated $300 million in profits for the Trump Organization.
BuzzFeed trumpeted the story as another indication that Trump was trying to quash probes by the special counsel and the FBI regarding election tampering by Russian operatives. The president was already dealing with allegations of collusion for firing FBI Director James Comey and then acknowledging that he was upset about the Russian investigation.
In an earlier article, BuzzFeed broke the news that Cohen spoke with Russian bankers, real-estate developers, and government officials to make arrangements for erecting the Moscow tower. Mueller’s office, in its indictment of Cohen, confirmed that the negotiations continued into June 2016.
According to BuzzFeed, Trump wanted Cohen to travel to Russia that year to speak with Russian leader Vladimir Putin about the tower project. The trip did not take place. The sources reportedly said Cohen kept Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump, who held high-ranking positions in their father’s business, up to date on the negotiations. Both of the siblings have denied involvement in the project.
At the same time, the tower talks were reportedly taking place, Trump was telling his supporters and the media that he had no deals or loans involving Russia. He called reports to the contrary “fake news” and continued to deny there was any collusion.
Mueller’s Office Refutes BuzzFeed
Less than a day after the article appeared, special counsel spokesman Peter Carr issued a brief statement discrediting the unnamed sources. He wrote that BuzzFeed’s account of “specific” comments by witnesses to Mueller’s staff about Cohen, as well as the “characterization” of testimony and documents the office received, were “not accurate.”
The special counsel’s office has revealed little about what transpired during its seven interviews with Cohen. The officials have said only that the lawyer provided “credible” and “useful” details. The public statement came as a surprise because Mueller has mostly remained silent throughout the investigation. His staff has earned a reputation for not leaking information.
Carr’s statement forced the media to question the validity of BuzzFeed’s story. The reporters faced scrutiny from a number of news outlets that had been touting the article. They were confronted on their claim that Trump Organization documents obtained by Mueller indicate that the president urged Cohen to commit perjury.
Cormier admitted during an interview on CNN that he had not seen the documents, which he and Leopold described as emails, text messages and other materials. When CNN’s Brian Stelter pressed Cormier to elaborate, the journalist replied that he could not “get into the details” without endangering his sources.
Cormier said Leopold, who has claimed to have seen the documents, was too busy doing his job to be on the program. Stelter had harsh words for the absent reporter. He said it was a “dereliction of duty” for Leopold to notify Carr about the article just one hour before its publication.
In a three-sentence email to the spokesman, Leopold wrote that the story would accuse Trump of directing Cohen to give false testimony regarding the Moscow tower. The message offered no specifics about the article’s contents and gave Mueller’s office virtually no time to respond.
A History of Questionable Reporting
Fox News pointed out that Leopold has found himself an object of ridicule in the past for his journalistic methods. Articles he wrote for Salon in 2002 about Enron and for Truthout in 2006 about Karl Rove allegedly contained inaccuracies on “Fox News Sunday” to blast the media’s “obsession” with the information.
Vice President Mike Pence backing Trump, said numerous news outlets have exploited the Mueller investigation to unfairly criticize the president. Pence took the mainstream press and broadcasters to task for assuming the BuzzFeed account was reliable, arguing that such reporting is why so many Americans are “frustrated” with the media.
Trump called the piece by Cormier and Leopold a “phony story.” The president went on to express his appreciation to Mueller, whom he has frequently denounced for pursuing alleged connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. He thanked the special counsel for its “very appropriate” statement.
Trump told reporters that the media have shown they lack “credibility.” The president called the BuzzFeed article a “disgrace to our country (and) to journalism.” He accused Cohen of making things up to persuade a judge to shorten his prison term.
Trump reminded his Twitter followers that BuzzFeed was the outlet that, in January 2017, publicized a dossier compiled by a former British intelligence officer. The document contained damaging information about Trump that the president says the spy fabricated to help Hillary Clinton win the 2016 election.
Donald Trump Jr. accused BuzzFeed and other news outlets of “undermining democracy.” He tweeted that liberals are determined to “destroy” his father and the rest of the family. Some observers believe Mueller is investigating whether the president’s eldest son colluded with Russia when he met with a Kremlin-linked lawyer who said she had incriminating information about Clinton.
One of Trump’s top advisers, Kellyanne Conway, demanded apologies from CNN, MSNBC and other networks that spread BuzzFeed’s story without challenging its veracity. The White House counsel tweeted that it is not sufficient for news outlets to use the “if true” phrase in reporting allegations against Trump. She suggested that reporters should do their own research before repeating such charges.