Is This the Obstruction of Justice Smoking Gun We’ve Been Waiting For?
Update: The special counsel’s office has released a statement in response to Buzzfeed’s report:
“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,” wrote special counsel spokesperson Peter Carr.
Original text below.
President Trump could be in trouble. For real this time.
On Thursday night, BuzzFeed News reported that the president personally directed his former attorney, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about the nature of an aborted project for a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow. Frustrated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into his campaign’s relationship with Russia, Trump reportedly attempted to obscure his involvement in the deal by instructing Cohen to tell Congress that negotiations were called off in January 2016, according to two federal law enforcement officials who spoke to BuzzFeed. In reality, negotiations extended well into 2016, as Cohen revealed in November while pleading guilty to perjury.
Cohen said that his false testimony, which he provided in August 2017, was made “out of loyalty” to Trump, and though Mueller implied in a sentencing recommendation that the president may have had something to do with it, BuzzFeed’s report is the first real indication that Trump personally directed it. According to BuzzFeed, the special counsel’s office learned that Trump directed the lie through text messages, emails, interviews with multiple witnesses and other documents, all of which were obtained before prosecutors spoke to Cohen. Trump and his legal team have repeatedly cast doubt on Cohen’s claims that Trump directed him to violate felony campaign finance law, labeling him a liar. In this case, however, Cohen only corroborated what Mueller’s team already knew.
If I were Trump, Ivanka or Don Jr, this would make my blood run cold:
"The special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through…internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents."
— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) January 18, 2019
Despite repeated claims that that he has had no business dealings with Russia, Trump reportedly had at least 10 in-person meetingz with Cohen about the Moscow project throughout the course of the campaign. Donald Trump, Jr. and Ivanka Trump were also kept apprised of conversations regarding the proposed tower. In September 2017, Trump, Jr. testified to Congress that he was only “peripherally aware” of the project. A spokesperson for Ivanka Trump’s attorney told BuzzFeed that the president’s daughter was only “minimally involved.”
After Cohen revealed in his November guilty plea that negotiations extended well into 2016, Trump tried to play it off. “There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?” he told reporters. “Oh, I get it!” he added on Twitter. “I am a very good developer, happily living my life, when I see our Country going in the wrong direction (to put it mildly). Against all odds, I decide to run for President & continue to run my business-very legal & very cool, talked about it on the campaign trail … Lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia. Put up zero money, zero guarantees and didn’t do the project. Witch Hunt!”
Peripherally aware! Minimally involved! Lightly looked at!
Despite the Trump family’s attempts to qualify their involvement, there are a host of reasons why it is not “very cool” for a presidential candidate to be negotiating a business deal with a foreign adversary, not least among them being that Trump repeatedly praised Putin throughout the campaign. This may imply that something untoward was taking place between Trump and Russia, but it doesn’t prove it, at least not to the extent required by Republicans in Congress. If Mueller’s office does indeed posses hard proof that Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress, however, it would constitute explicit evidence that the president obstructed justice, which is a felony, and is also impeachable.
“This stunning Trump Tower Moscow story establishes a clear case of Obstruction of Justice, a felony,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) tweeted Thursday night. “I’ve lost count now how many times @realDonaldTrump has engaged in Obstruction of Justice. Oh, fyi the first Article of Impeachment for Richard Nixon was Obstruction of Justice.”
Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, agrees that with Lieu that impeachment could be warranted. If the @BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached,” he wrote. Also in agreement is presidential historian Jon Meacham, who pointed to language in the articles of impeachment filed against Richard Nixon.
The first article of impeachment against Nixon was just this: obstruction by directing others to lie. This is not hysteria or hyperventilating. It’s history.
— Jon Meacham (@jmeacham) January 18, 2019
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who leads the House Intelligence Committee, wants to investigate first. “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,” he tweeted. “We will do what’s necessary to find out if it’s true.”
On Friday morning, Schiff released an extended statement in which he outlined the gravity of what the report suggests while reiterating his intention to investigate. “As a counterintelligence concern of the greatest magnitude, and given that these alleged efforts were intended to interfere with our investigation, our Committee is determined to get to the bottom of this and follow the evidence wherever it may lead,” he wrote.
So too is Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who heads the House Judiciary Committee, which would be responsible for overseeing potential impeachment proceedings.
Big, if true, says Adam Schiff. pic.twitter.com/8CkMeXM5e7
— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) January 18, 2019
We know that the President has engaged in a long pattern of obstruction. Directing a subordinate to lie to Congress is a federal crime. The @HouseJudiciary Committee’s job is to get to the bottom of it, and we will do that work.
— (((Rep. Nadler))) (@RepJerryNadler) January 18, 2019
Mueller, however, has already been investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia since May 2017, and clearly has made a lot of progress. On Thursday morning, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) implored Mueller to share his intelligence with Congress so that Schiff and Nadler can properly investigate the matter. “Listen, if Mueller does have multiple sources confirming Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress, then we need to know this ASAP,” Murphy tweeted. “Mueller shouldn’t end his inquiry, but it’s about time for him to show Congress his cards before it’s too late for us to act.”
Outside of impeachment, Trump could face legal repercussions for directing Cohen to lie to Congress. As Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe points out, suborning perjury is “punishable by five years imprisonment under 18 U.S. Code § 1622.” There’s also obstruction of justice, and according to testimony given Tuesday by Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, the president could be in trouble.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar on Tuesday: "In your memo…you wrote on page 1 that a president persuading a person to commit perjury would be obstruction, is that right?"
Attorney General nominee Bill Barr: "Yes" pic.twitter.com/doma7BTmkC
— Axios (@axios) January 18, 2019
“If a president … suborns perjury, or induces a witness to change testimony, or commits any act deliberately impairing the integrity of available evidence, then he, like anyone else, commits the crime of obstruction,” Barr said on Tuesday.
Cohen is set to testify before Congress on February 7th. This will probably come up.
This post has been updated to include a statement from the special counsel’s office.