BuzzFeed News broke the story Thursday night about the alleged Trump request. The lie Cohen told is the one he has pleaded guilty to: about when efforts to secure a Trump Tower Moscow concluded. BuzzFeed reports that not only did Cohen tell Mueller’s team that Trump told him to lie, but that Mueller had evidence of this even before confronting Cohen.
There are important caveats here — and the story is of such significance that we need to emphasize those caveats up high. The first is that it is based upon two anonymous “federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.” The second is that Cohen’s team isn’t confirming it, despite his having flipped on Trump long ago. We also don’t know exactly what evidence Mueller has. The solidity of that evidence matters greatly in what would otherwise be a he-said, he-said situation.
But judging by the report, it sounds like Mueller just might have the goods. The key graph:
The special counsel’s office 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. Cohen then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office.
That sure sounds like a lot of evidence.
To this point, both major legs of Mueller’s Russia investigation — collusion and obstruction of justice — have included plenty of evidence seeping out into the public. But these crimes are subject to interpretation. Is Trump firing his FBI director and saying he did it with the Russia probe on his mind obstruction? Lots of people disagree, and presidents generally have broad authority on firings. Was the Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer collusion? The Trump team has said no information was actually used, and thus a strategic relationship was never consummated.
And Justice Department guidelines say that a sitting president can’t be indicted, which means Congress will likely be the judge of all of this. So even if Mueller sees Trump’s actions as being impeachable, you need two-thirds of the Senate (i.e., at least 20 Republicans) to remove him from office. To the extent the evidence doesn’t constitute a smoking gun and irrefutable evidence of a crime, the GOP will be hard-pressed to remove a president its base loves.
Asking someone to lie though, if proven, is not a gray area. As The Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker reports, Trump’s own attorney general nominee, William P. Barr, has affirmed repeatedly this week — as well as in that memo criticizing Mueller’s obstruction probe — that this would indeed be a crime, even for a president.
“If a President knowingly destroys or alters evidence, suborns perjury, or induces a witness to change testimony, or commits any act deliberately impairing the integrity or availability of evidence, then he, like anyone else, commits the crime of obstruction,” Barr wrote in the June 2018 memo. (“Suborning perjury” means to direct someone to commit perjury.)
When Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) asked Barr, “So if there was some reason to believe that the president tried to coach somebody not to testify or testify falsely, that could be obstruction of justice,” Barr confirmed it. When Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) asked him to affirm the above section of his memo, he did so repeatedly.
It has been pretty evident from the moment Mueller cut a plea deal with Cohen for this lie that it would be of some significance to the broader investigation. Cohen apparently told many lies, so why was this the one Mueller decided to pursue? Trump Tower Moscow wasn’t really a huge event in the public narrative. It seemed possible Mueller was pursuing it related to the collusion probe — given Cohen’s outreach on the project included the Kremlin.
But the more apparent connection now appears to be to the obstruction probe. And it could be the most substantial development to date.
All this hinges on that actual evidence, of course. What exactly did those Trump Organization witnesses and their emails and texts say? Was Allen Weisselberg involved? What kind of other documents could substantiate Trump’s request?
We could learn a whole lot more when Cohen testifies to Congress next month, or Cohen could be advised not to detail things Mueller is presently investigating. Either way, this event now looms huge.