- Experts are flummoxed by a statement the special counsel Robert Mueller put out disputing a BuzzFeed News report that indicated President Donald Trump told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the proposed Trump Tower Moscow deal.
- The statement is an unprecedented move from Mueller’s office, which is investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to tip the 2016 US election in Trump’s favour.
- “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,” spokesman Peter Carr told INSIDER in an email on Friday.
- The response came less than a day after the report was published.
Journalists, pundits, and experts sought to make sense of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s move to dispute a BuzzFeed News report, which according to two law-enforcement sources, indicated President Donald Trump told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the proposed Trump Tower Moscow deal.
“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,” spokesman Peter Carr told INSIDER in an email on Friday.
The statement is an unprecedented move from Mueller’s office, which is notorious for how little it reveals about the investigation through any means other than official court documents and indictments.
Mueller’s office has previously said in a court filing that many of the stories published about the Russia investigation since it became public knowledge have been misleading or inaccurate. But the special counsel has never put out a statement specifically disputing a particular story about the investigation.
Carr is known for his four word statements: “We’ll decline to comment.” One of the few times he issued a statement was in response to questions about a bogus scheme in which two far-right GOP operatives offered to pay women to make false accusations of sexual misconduct against Mueller. In a statement, Carr said Mueller’s office had referred the case to the FBI upon hearing of the scheme.
Mueller’s response to BuzzFeed’s report came less than 24 hours after it was published, which prompted The Washington Post to suggest that it may have been in response to mounting calls from Democratic lawmakers to impeach Trump in light of the bombshell allegation.
Cohen has admitted to lying to Congress about multiple aspects of the Trump Tower Moscow deal, including how long the Trump Organisation pursued the deal, the extent of his communication with Russian government officials, and the involvement of multiple Trump family members in pushing the deal through.
BuzzFeed reported that Mueller learned about Trump’s alleged instruction to Cohen through “multiple witnesses,” documents, internal emails, and text messages from members of the Trump Organisation, and then from Cohen.
Legal scholars didn’t mince words when discussing the gravity of Mueller’s statement Friday.
“Difficult to parse each and every word here, but it is extremely unusual for the Special Counsel’s office to issue a statement disputing a story and should be taken very seriously,” wrote the former National Security Agency lawyer and Lawfare editor Susan Hennessey.
Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesperson under President Barack Obama, echoed that view.
“You can spend hours parsing the Carr statement, but given how unusual it is for any DOJ office to issue this sort of on the record denial, let alone this office, suspect it means the story’s core contention that they have evidence Trump told Cohen to lie is fundamentally wrong,” Miller wrote.
BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith defended the publication’s story on Friday night.
“We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing,” Smith tweeted.
BuzzFeed’s statement standing by the story could indicate that “the truth lies in the middle,” Jeffrey Cramer, a longtime former federal prosecutor who spent 12 years at the Justice Department, told INSIDER.
“BuzzFeed went too far on the corroboration? Maybe no docs to support allegations? Story seemed to take on a life of its own today so that could be why Mueller [issued] an unusual statement,” he said.
One recently retired FBI agent cautioned to be “careful with this statement.”
“If you read it closely, it denies parts of the story, not the story as a whole,” this person, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss Mueller’s statement, told INSIDER. “Mueller might not have evidence proving Trump issued a direct order for Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. In mob cases, this is the biggest hurdle for prosecutors – the ‘boss’ rarely directly orders his subordinates to commit crimes … so he can maintain plausible deniability.”
“I suspect that, if it’s true that Trump coached Cohen to lie to Congress, he would have done it indirectly,” the former agent said. “In that case, Mueller’s statement disputing the BuzzFeed report makes sense, while leaving open the possibility that he has evidence that Trump implied to Cohen, indirectly, that he should commit perjury.”
But another former senior Justice Department official who worked closely with Mueller at the FBI disagreed, saying the special counsel would only release a statement like Friday’s if the main thrust of the story was inaccurate.
Whatever the case, Mueller was in the unique position Friday of receiving support from both Trump’s critics and his allies, many of whom pointed to the statement as proof that BuzzFeed’s reporting was fundamentally inaccurate.
It’s likely that the public will learn more about the Trump Tower Moscow deal and Trump’s potential involvement in the coming days. Cohen initially said that he would testify before Congress in an open hearing. But on Thursday, citing “fear,” Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, said he may not testify after all.