During the Watergate scandal, it appeared for months — and even for years — that nothing would ever emerge that could possibly bring down President Richard Nixon.
Until, suddenly, something did emerge — the tapes. And then Nixon’s seeming invulnerability rapidly gave way to a new reality in which his downfall appeared inevitable.
Such is sometimes the narrative arc of major scandals. It should be said that right now, it’s very possible that President Trump will survive his legal travails. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III may find criminal conduct but decline to indict; or he may find damning misconduct but nothing illegal; and in either of those cases, any impeachment effort could end up foundering amid the skittishness of House Democrats or, if not, crashing against the wall of the GOP Senate. In these scenarios, Trump could easily get reelected.
But if BuzzFeed’s stunning new report is true, we could be looking at a real inflection point in this whole story:
President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.
Trump also supported a plan, set up by Cohen, to visit Russia during the presidential campaign, in order to personally meet President Vladimir Putin and jump-start the tower negotiations. “Make it happen,” the sources said Trump told Cohen.
And even as Trump told the public he had no business deals with Russia, the sources said Trump and his children Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. received regular, detailed updates about the real estate development from Cohen, whom they put in charge of the project.
Here are five big takeaways from this new reporting:
If Cohen can really testify to this, it may be confirmed sooner than we think. According to the two anonymous sources who spoke to BuzzFeed, Cohen told the special counsel that the president personally instructed him to lie to Congress about the duration of negotiations over Trump Tower Moscow, to obscure his involvement.
This, of course, would be suborning perjury, which is a crime. BuzzFeed claims that the special counsel “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.” That’s awfully specific and suggests hard evidence exists. (The White House has not commented.)
We may not have to wait for Mueller to conclude before learning more. Remember, Cohen is scheduled to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Feb. 7, and Democrats can ask him about all of this.
The complication here, according to Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas, is that Cohen may be constrained from talking about this due to an arrangement with Mueller of some kind. “If Cohen has any kind of agreement with Mueller not to reveal some of the contents of his communications, or the nature of the physical evidence supporting his claims, that’s where I think it gets tricky,” Vladeck said.
Of course, if Cohen says, “I can’t discuss this because of a prior arrangement with Mueller,” rather than, “No, this is not true,” that alone would be awfully suggestive.
Mueller has already hinted at this in his sentencing document. Remember, in his document on Cohen’s sentencing, Mueller stated that Cohen, who is cooperating, has assisted with “core topics under investigation” by the special counsel and has provided “credible and consistent” information.
But the document also says Cohen “described the circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries.”
If BuzzFeed’s report is true, this was likely a reference by Mueller, at least in part, to “circumstances” that included a directive from the president himself. Those understated sentences suddenly loom a lot larger.
Trump repeatedly talked up Russian President Vladimir Putin to American voters during this period. The BuzzFeed report tells us this:
Trump was even made aware that Cohen was speaking to Russian government officials about the deal. The lawyer at one point spoke to a Kremlin aide as he sought support for the tower.
Trump also encouraged Cohen to plan a trip to Russia during the campaign, where the candidate could meet face-to-face with Putin.
If true, it seems plausible or even likely that Trump knew the Kremlin was being consulted about his Trump Tower deal, and he wanted to make a trip to see Putin, likely about this very topic.
Let’s not forget that, during the period in question, Republican primary voters were choosing their party’s presidential candidate, and again and again, Trump talked up the need for better relations with Russia and Putin, and publicly absolved Putin of various nefarious charges against him. He presented this as a good-faith description of what he saw to be in the national interest. But if the BuzzFeed report is correct, he understood that he had a direct financial stake in making this argument to a far greater degree than we thought.
The new story suggests Donald Trump Jr. may have committed perjury. The BuzzFeed report says:
Donald Trump Jr., meanwhile, testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 7, 2017, that he was only “peripherally aware” of the plan to build a tower in Moscow. “Most of my knowledge has been gained since as it relates to hearing about it over the last few weeks.”
The two law enforcement sources disputed this characterization and said that he and Cohen had multiple, detailed conversations on this subject during the campaign.
“If there’s contemporaneous physical evidence backing up this reporting,” Vladeck told me, “that evidence could be proof that Junior perjured himself when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2017.”
What if there are tapes? We know that Cohen had a tendency to record his calls, including those with Donald Trump. Maybe he didn’t record any of these particular communications. But throughout this whole tale, the limits on the plausible have continued to give away to the remarkable-but-true.
Whether there are tapes or not, the BuzzFeed report suggests that law enforcement has hard evidence Trump told Cohen to lie to Congress. And if that is the case, it could prove pivotal, just as it did during Watergate.
“Through the spring of 1974, it seemed totally plausible that Nixon would fight his way through the investigation and survive,” historian Julian Zelizer, the co-author of a new book about the history of the United States since 1974, told me. "Then the tapes emerged, and suddenly it was impossible to imagine him surviving.”