At first glance, the revelation by BuzzFeed News reporters Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier that President Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about his attempt to build a tower in Moscow during the campaign, looks bad for Trump. On second, third, and fourth glances, it looks extremely bad.
1. Attorney General William Barr has already defined this behavior as obstruction of justice. In the secret memo Barr wrote to the Department of Justice questioning Robert Mueller’s obstruction inquiry, Barr allowed that of course it was possible the president could obstruct justice if he did something incredibly obvious, such as instruct people to lie in sworn testimony:
At his Senate confirmation hearings, Barr reiterated that suborning perjury would obviously constitute obstruction.
So whatever legal shield Trump believes he is getting in Barr will not help him escape this allegation.
2. The allegations are serious enough that even conservatives concede they would constitute a crime. The immediate response by Trump defenders Byron York and Mollie Hemingway has been to call the allegations “big if true,” while implying they are likely false. Erick Erickson has a short piece arguing the allegations would mean impeachment if they are true, before going on to speculate they are probably false, because no other news organization has yet confirmed them. (To be clear, in the news business, it is common enough for a news organization to break an exclusive story that we have a word for such an occasion: “scoop.”)
They can always move from denial to justifying the crime later. But the lack of any justification for the alleged crime at the outset is telling.
3. The evidence reportedly has multiple sources. Trump lawyer-of-sorts Rudy Giuliani dismissed the story: “Haven’t checked it out but if you believe Cohen I can get you a good all-cash deal on the Brooklyn Bridge.” Any denial of a crime by one’s client that is prefaced with “haven’t checked” obviously does not inspire confidence. And Giuliani’s assumption that the allegation rests on taking Cohen’s word for it is flatly contradicted by the report.
As BuzzFeed explains, the evidence did not originate from Cohen. Cohen merely confirmed what Mueller discovered through other sources: “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.”
Cormier tells CNN he has more sourcing for the report, beyond the two sources he confirmed Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress:
4. There could be more where this came from. Go back to the part about “internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents.” Remember that prosecutors seized a massive trove of recordings and notes from Cohen’s office. Cohen worked closely with Trump in a business that by all indications engaged in criminal activity so routinely that it barely registered. There is very little reason to expect this is the only crime directly implicating Trump contained in these files.
5. Why did Trump order Cohen to lie? By telling this lie, Trump opened himself up to blackmail by Putin. Trump was publicly denying the contours of a business deal to which Russian intelligence was privy. Trump consistently takes enormous risks to protect his dealings with Russia from public exposure.
Building a tower in Moscow is not illegal. He could have admitted the project’s existence during the campaign. Or, having lied about it, he could have let Cohen admit it later. Trump has told so many lies, the news media has had to create new categories to describe their vastness.
So how harmful could it have been for Cohen to add one more admitted lie to a pile of lies so infinite it beggars the imagination? The lie would have been forgotten immediately. Maybe Trump decided to direct Cohen to lie for no good reason. But it may well be the case that he had to lie because confessing to the Trump Tower project would open up other questions about his dealings with Russia during the campaign. Needless to say, there is a lot there.
Update: The special counsel makes an extremely rare statement disputing aspects of Buzzfeed’s reporting:
The statement does not say which aspects of the story it disputes. Given how rare it is for Mueller’s office says anything, though, we should approach the veracity of the whole report with a great deal of caution.