In a rare move, a spokesman for Special Counsel Robert Mueller took issue with BuzzFeed News’ Thursday night scoop that President Trump had explicitly directed Michael Cohen, his former personal lawyer, to lie to Congress.
“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,” read a statement from a spokesman for Mueller’s office.
The statement is startling for several reasons. One is that Mueller’s office rarely comments on news stories that involve the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and any potential collusion between people in Trump’s orbit and Russia.
The second reason, of course, is that it appears to directly undermine an explosive story that had prompted members of Congress to call for impeachment and vow to investigate Trump’s alleged instructions to Cohen to lie to Congress about a possible real-estate deal in Russia known as Trump Tower Moscow. The chairmen of the House judiciary and intelligence committees both released statements after the BuzzFeed story appeared saying that if the story were true, they would pursue its most explosive allegations.
In response to Mueller’s statement, Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor in chief, said: “We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing.”
In response to the statement tonight from the Special Counsel's spokesman: We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he's disputing.
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) January 19, 2019
Follow-up stories in the New York Times and the Washington Post also undercut the central premise of the BuzzFeed story. The Times reported that it could not independently confirm BuzzFeed’s story and added that a person “familiar” Cohen’s testimony to Mueller’s team said “Cohen did not state that the president had pressured him to lie to Congress.”
The Post reported that with the Department of Justice, which oversees Mueller’s investigation, “the statement was viewed as a huge step, and one that would have been taken only if the special counsel’s office viewed the story as almost entirely incorrect. The special counsel’s office seemed to be disputing every aspect of the story that addressed comments or evidence given to its investigators.”
Interestingly, Marcy Wheeler, an independent national security journalist, noted in a lengthy tweet thread that the leak to BuzzFeed may have come from the Southern District of New York (SDNY), which has motivation to characterize Cohen’s testimony differently than Mueller would. “SDNY has an incentive to be dramatic w/Cohen’s testimony, Mueller must be measured,” she wrote.
Mueller has spent 1.5 years ensuring they never get accused of leaking. If BF's sources were SDNY, then SDNY just endangered that effort. And THAT is prolly why SCO made a statement, not (primarily) bc of what BF said.
— emptywheel (@emptywheel) January 19, 2019
Wheeler also wrote in a blog post that BuzzFeed’s story is “important for the concrete details it adds to a story we already knew,” but it “unnecessarily overhyped the uniqueness of Trump’s role in these lies, in a way that could have detrimental effect on the country’s ability to actually obtain some kind of justice for those lies.”
Thus far, Michael Cohen, through his lawyer, has declined to make a statement on the report: “Out of respect for Mr. Mueller’s and the Office of Special Counsel’s investigation, Mr. Cohen declined to respond to the questions asked by the reporters and so do I,” said Lanny J. Davis, Cohen’s attorney and communications adviser.
In a statement on Saturday afternoon, BuzzFeed reaffirmed its stance that it stands behind its reporting, a spokesman said.
New @BuzzFeedNews statement on their story
“As we’ve re-confirmed our reporting, we’ve seen no indication that any specific aspect of our story is inaccurate. We remain confident in what we’ve reported, and will share more as we are able.” @mattmittenthal , spokesperson for BF
— andrew kaczynski (@KFILE) January 19, 2019