A spokesperson for special counsel Robert Mueller’s office released a statement Friday disputing a BuzzFeed report alleging President Donald Trump directed his former attorney Michael Cohen to make false statements to Congress regarding a proposed real estate deal in Russia.
“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,” special counsel spokesperson Peter Carr said in a statement.
— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) January 19, 2019
BuzzFeed, citing two unidentified law enforcement officials, alleged in a Thursday evening report that President Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress and that he regularly briefed the president and his family on the Trump Tower project in Moscow. BuzzFeed claimed Cohen told Mueller that President Trump personally instructed him to lie about the timing of the project in order to obscure Trump’s involvement. No other news organization was able to confirm the report nearly 24 hours after it’s publication.
Further, BuzzFeed said Mueller’s investigators learned about President Trump’s directive “through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents.” The report says Cohen then acknowledged Trump’s instructions when he was interviewed by the Mueller team. “We are continuing to report and determine what the special counsel is disputing. We remain confident in the accuracy of our report,” Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, said in a statement on the special counsel’s dispute of its reportage.
The special counsel’s statement came hours after several prominent news organizations, including Breitbart News, expressed deep skepticism about the report. In a Friday morning opinion-editorial, Breitbart News’s John Nolte wrote that report’s co-author, Jason Leopold, has gotten in hot water for erroneous reporting. Columbia Journalism Review has described Leopold “serial fabulist,” who falsely claimed Karl Rove would be indicted for leaking CIA operative Valerie Plame’s name to the media. Further, Nolte also pointed out that President Trump is not an avid user of email or text messages — thus leaving little other means to corroborate BuzzFeed’s story. Speaking with CNN’s New Day Friday morning, Leopold’s co-author, Anthony Cormier, stood by the report, though he did admit he had “not personally” seen the underlying evidence.
Earlier Friday, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said “any suggestion — from any source — that the President counseled Michael Cohen to lie is categorically false.” In addition, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the allegation “absolutely ridiculous.”
The report comes as House Democrats have promised a thorough look into Trump’s ties to Russia, and as Mueller is investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and contacts with the Trump campaign.
Giuliani noted that Cohen had pleaded guilty to lying and quoted federal prosecutors in New York who chastised him for a “pattern of lies and dishonesty over an extended period of time.” Mueller’s team, however, has called him a credible witness.
“Today’s claims are just more made-up lies born of Michael Cohen’s malice and desperation,” Giuliani said in a statement.
Lanny Davis, a Cohen adviser, declined to comment on the matter. Though Republicans stayed mostly silent, two Democrat committee chairmen in the House vowed to launch inquiries.
Reacting to the report, House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) pledged to “do what’s necessary to find out” if the report was true. He said the allegation that President Trump directed Cohen to lie in his 2017 testimony “in an effort to curtail the investigation and cover up his business dealings with Russia is among the most serious to date.”
The allegation that the President of the United States may have suborned perjury before our committee in an effort to curtail the investigation and cover up his business dealings with Russia is among the most serious to date. We will do what’s necessary to find out if it’s true. https://t.co/GljBAFqOjh
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) January 18, 2019
Calling the allegations a “counterintelligence concern of the greatest magnitude,” Schiff said his committee had already been working to secure witness testimony and documents related to the Moscow deal. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), a fellow House Intelligence Committee member demanded that the president resign or be impeachment, once again, contingent upon the report’s accuracy.
“If the @BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached,” the lawmaker tweeted.
If the @BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached.
— Joaquin Castro (@JoaquinCastrotx) January 18, 2019
Some of President Trump’s closest allies and media boosters, including his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., mocked BuzzFeed on social media over its now-dispute story:
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) January 19, 2019
I can hear the victory laps over on Don Jr’s twitter feed from here in DC. #RIPbuzzfeed
— Arthur Schwartz (@ArthurSchwartz) January 19, 2019
— Andrew Surabian (@Surabees) January 19, 2019
If the media does not spend — minute for minute — the same amount of time on the death of the latest #FakeNews from @BuzzFeed (RIP) that they did speculating about “IF IT’S TRUE 😱!” then they should quit even pretending to be unbiased. What a disgrace. #RIPbuzzfeed
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) January 19, 2019
I told you all that the BuzzFeed story was nonsense. pic.twitter.com/gbTXPjpVtk
— John Cardillo (@johncardillo) January 19, 2019
— Brad Parscale (@parscale) January 19, 2019
The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow said he turned down the chance to report parts of BuzzFeed’s report, citing a key source who repeatedly disputed the allegation that the president asked Cohen to lie before Congress.
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.
— Ronan Farrow (@RonanFarrow) January 19, 2019
In November, Cohen stated in a guilty plea that he lied to Congress about a Moscow real estate deal he pursued on President Trump’s behalf during the heat of the 2016 Republican campaign. He claimed he lied to be consistent with President Trump’s “political messaging.”
Cohen was sentenced December 12 to three years in federal prison after pleading guilty to several charges, including campaign finance violations and making false statements to Congress. Prior to his sentencing, Federal prosecutors in Manhattan asked a judge to sentence Cohen to a “substantial term of imprisonment,” arguing that he had been motivated by “personal greed.”
Reacting to Cohen’s plea, President Trump called Cohen a “weak person” who was lying to get a lighter sentence and stressed that the real estate deal at issue was never a secret and never executed. Giuliani said that Cohen was a “proven liar” and that Trump’s business organization had voluntarily given Mueller the documents cited in the guilty plea “because there was nothing to hide.”
“There would be nothing wrong if I did do it,” the president said of pursuing the project. “I was running my business while I was campaigning. There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gone back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?”
Cohen is scheduled to testify before the House Oversight Committee on February 7 about his work history with President Trump.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.