Americas: United States
President Trump reportedly instructed his then-attorney Cohen to lie to Congress about Trump Tower project; Special Counsel's office disputes the claim
On Jan. 17, 2019, Buzzfeed broke a bombshell story about the Russia investigation. According to Buzzfeed, President Donald Trump instructed his then-attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about a Trump Tower project. The report relied on information provided by two federal law enforcement officials involved in the investigation. If true, Cohen's testimony would mark the first known case of Trump expressly instructing a subordinate to lie about his links and activities related to Russia. However, it is important to note that the office of the special counsel disputed BuzzFeed News’ report.
In November 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about a proposed Trump Organization real estate project in Moscow. In federal court, Cohen, a Trump stalwart who characterized himself as the president's "fixer," pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements to two congressional panels about a real estate venture in Russia being pursued by Trump at the time he was running for president in 2016.
In 2017, Cohen submitted written statements to Congress asserting that efforts by Trump to build a Trump Tower skyscraper in Moscow had come to a conclusion by the start of 2016. Fastforward to 2018 and Cohen was acknowledging that the pursuit of the Moscow deal continued for several months - until June 2016, a period when Trump had secured the Republican presidential nomination. While the Trump skyscraper project never came to fruition, via the guilty plea, Cohen admitted that he had provided false statements to both the Senate and House intelligence committees.
Cohen also admitted that while he told Congress that he had limited contact with Trump concerning the Moscow skyscraper project, his engagement was, in fact, "more extensive." Cohen additionally admitted that although he told Congress that he took no steps toward traveling to Russia, in fact, such a trip was discussed.
In his guilty plea, Cohen explained his actions referencing Trump as "individual 1" as follows: "I made these misstatements to be consistent with individual 1's political messaging and out of loyalty to individual 1." Special Counsel Mueller noted that in so doing, Cohen was attempting to
“minimize links between the Moscow Project and Individual 1 in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigations.” Individual 1 has been identified as Donald Trump.
Fastforward to January 2019 and two law enforcement sources were telling Buzzfeed that the president personally instructed Cohen to lie about the timeline of the Trump Tower negotiations, and to give the impression that they ended months earlier than they actually did.
According to Buzzfeed, Cohen, who had served as Trump’s former lawyer and self-described fixer, “told the special counsel that after the election, the president personally instructed him to lie.” Buzzfeed further reported that Mueller’s office learned of Trump's directive “through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents.”
Meanwhile, the two law enforcement sources providing information to Buzzfeed indicated that there were conversations shared with Trump's children, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr., regarding the Moscow tower project. Although the younger Trumps denied closeness to the deal, there appeared to have shown deeper involvement. In fact, according to the Buzzfeed report, Cohen reportedly gave Trump’s children “very detailed updates.”
Also of significance, according to the report, was Cohen's dealing with Russian government officials about the deal, and Trump's encouragement for Cohen to travel to Russia during the campaign. In fact, according to Buzzfeed's two sources, there were at least 10 face-to-face meetings between Trump and Cohen about the Moscow deal during the 2016 campaign.
According to the Buzzfeed report, the special counsel’s office learned about Trump instructing Cohen to lie to Congress via internal Trump Organization correspondence and interviews with multiple witnesses. When interviewd by the
special counsel's office, Cohen admitted that he had been directed to lie by Trump.
It should be noted that this was not the first indication that the president may have attempted to obstruct investigations by the special counsel and the into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Nevertheless, if the Buzzfeed report was ultimately verified, it would mark the first known case of Trump expressly ordering someone in his employ to lie about his Russian connections.
Trump on the campaign trail often denied having business interests in Russia even though the Trump Tower project was being negotiated. This version of events by Trump evolved after Cohen pleaded guilty in November 2018. Then, Trump started defending his ongoing negotiations in the Moscow project during the election, saying on the record: “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?”
This evolving account by Trump, on its own, would simply mean that Trump was publicly lying about his account of what actually happened. The legal jeopardy aspect, however, would revolve around Trump's instruction to Cohen to subornation of perjury is the crime of persuading a person to lie under oath in a legal proceeding -- the subornation of perjury.
A crucial point to be made is that a day after the Buzzfeed report was published, a spokesperson for the special counsel's office, Peter Carr, made the rare move of commenting in the public sphere to dispute the Buzzfeed report. Carr stated, "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."
Carr's rare comment on the Buzzfed story -- casting it as containing mischaracetrizations -- was followed by a Washington Post story on Jan. 19, 2019. In that report, the Washington Post noted that Jason Leopold, one of the Buzzfeed writers, reached out to Carr for comment prior to the publication. Carr, at the time declined to comment; however, he sent Leopold a partial transcript of Cohen’s plea hearing, in which Cohen admitted lying to Congress about the timing of the Moscow tower negotiations. In that transcript contained the statement made by Cohen (stated above) which reads as follows: “I made these misstatements to be consistent with Individual 1’s political messaging and out of loyalty to Individual 1." According to the Washington Post's sources, Carr was hoping that Leopold would notice that Cohen had not actually said during the plea hearing that Trump had directed him to lie.
In an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN on Jan. 20, 2019, the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. inadvertently confirmed the BuzzFeed News report that negotiations to construct a Trump Tower in Moscow continued during the election and even continued until November 2016. Giuliani, however, denied that Trump instructed Cohen to lie about it.
For its part, Buzzfeed has stood defiantly by its reporting. On Jan. 18, 2019, Matt Mittenthal, a spokesperson for Buzzfeed, said, "We stand by our reporting, and we are working to determine what exactly the Special Counsel is disputing. Stay tuned." On Jan. 19, 2019, Mittenthal declared, “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.” Also on the same day, Mittenthal said, “Our high-level law enforcement sources, who have helped corroborate months of accurate reporting on the Trump Tower Moscow deal and its aftermath, have told us otherwise. We look forward to further clarification from the Special Counsel in the near future.”
On Jan. 20, 2019, the editor in chief of Buzzfeed, Ben Smith, and one of the reporters who wrote the story being discussed, Anthony Cormier, said in an interview with Brian Stelter on CNN that there were confident in their reporting about Trump telling Cohen to lie to Congress. "This will be borne out," said Cormier.
Note: Cohen was scheduled to testify publicly before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Feb. 7, 2019.
Denise Youngblood Coleman, PhD.
President and Editor in Chief
-- Jan. 21, 2019