Update, 1/18, 10:30 p.m.: Robert Mueller’s office took the rare step of publicly disputing Buzzfeed’s story, calling their characterization “not accurate.” Buzzfeed is standing by their reporting. The original text of Paste’s story is below.
BuzzFeed just published the first article of impeachment against Donald Trump. Two federal law enforcement officials have told BuzzFeed that Trump directed his former attorney and “fixer” Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project. The officials—both “involved in the investigation of the matter”—said Cohen told Special Counsel Robert Mueller that Trump instructed him to say falsely under oath to Congress that negotiations for the real estate deal ended months before they did. This was part of an effort to cover up the President’s involvement in the project, and it would clearly qualify as obstruction of justice—a federal crime and, historically, an impeachable offense. The officials say Mueller has evidence in the form of interviews from multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization, along with internal organization emails, text messages, and “a cache of other documents.”
The article also said Trump instructed Cohen to book a trip to Moscow in 2016 so he could meet personally with Putin, and that Cohen regularly updated Trump and his children Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. about the project. Cohen reportedly briefed Trump on it ten times that year, all while Trump repeatedly lied to the American people that he had no business with Russia. The article also makes it even more apparent that Donald Trump Jr. faces indictment for lying to Congress, pointing out, “Donald Trump Jr., meanwhile, testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 7, 2017, that he was only ‘peripherally aware’ of the plan to build a tower in Moscow. ‘Most of my knowledge has been gained since as it relates to hearing about it over the last few weeks.’”
BuzzFeed’s federal sources said Trump Jr. and Cohen had “multiple, detailed conversations on this subject during the campaign.”
When reached for comment, Trump’s attorney/rodeo clown Rudy Giuliani told CNN, “If you believe Cohen, I can get you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge.” Cohen, however, wasn’t quoted anywhere in the story, and has declined to comment.
This story alone, if true, should—without hyperbole—end Trump’s presidency. Though it’s also possible the story isn’t accurate, we’ll soon find out: The House Intelligence Committee has already announced it plans to investigate the allegations, which a White House spokesman didn’t deny when pressed today on, of all places, Fox News. There’s more than a good chance these crimes will in fact mean the end of Trump, and this isn’t wishful thinking. It’s history and law. After all, this same crime is, in part, what both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were impeached for. Here are a few reasons why BuzzFeed—no really seriously really this time—could have signaled the beginning of the end.
Asking someone to lie under oath—called “suborning perjury”—is obstruction of justice, and it was included in the first article of impeachment against Richard Nixon. It was also included in one of the two articles of impeachment the House of Representatives charged against Bill Clinton. And just a few days ago, Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, William Barr, when responding to a couple of almost suspiciously prescient questions, told the Senate twice during his confirmation hearing he shared this view:
One of those Senators—South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham—was a member of the House of Representatives in 1999, when he voted to impeach Bill Clinton for obstruction. (For, among other things, encouraging Monica Lewinsky to lie under oath as a witness.) Graham actually helped prosecute the impeachment case against Clinton before the Senate, which ultimately failed to convict.
To be clear, you don’t have to be guilty of an underlying crime to commit obstruction of justice. Obstruction is its own crime, and if someone with “corrupt intent” interferes with an investigation, they would be guilty of that crime regardless of their connection to any peripheral offenses. (This story would also count as evidence of Trump’s corrupt intent in his various other actions of obstruction.)
Ironically, Barr—a Trump nominee who discussed the Mueller investigation with the president in his job interview—upheld this specific instance in a memo he wrote to ostensibly explain why Trump wasn’t guilty of obstruction when he fired former FBI Director James Comey:
Obviously, the President and any other official can commit obstruction in this classic sense of sabotaging a proceeding’s truth-finding function. Thus, for example, 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.
As the Washington Post pointed out this morning, 14 sitting Republican Senators are on record having approved of the obstruction article of impeachment against Clinton. If every Democrat in the Senate voted to convict, they’d only need 20 Republicans to join them. It’s awful hard to see any of those Republicans making a plausible objection in Trump’s case. That’s not to say they wouldn’t, of course, because they’re all cowardly goobs, but it would certainly take us to a new level of delusion.
Look, here’s how the Post outlined the obstruction charge against Clinton:
Republicans say that, before Lewinsky became a possible witness, she and the president discussed fabricated stories to use to cover up their relationship, and that, according to Lewinsky’s testimony, the president repeated those stories when he telephoned her on Dec. 17 to say she was on the Paula Jones witness list. As Lewinsky recalled that conversation, Clinton said, ‘You know, you can always say you were coming to see Betty or that you were bringing me letters.’
Sounds exactly like what would have been communicated in the conversation BuzzFeed describes between Trump and Cohen.
At one point during the Clinton impeachment, Graham said, “You don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic if this body determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role…. [I]mpeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”
We’re long past that point, but we can still come back a short distance correctly.
Gaping maw of hypocrisy aside, Graham does allude to a poorly discussed gray area with Trump: Did he commit a crime? First, Graham is getting at something when he says “crime” is irrelevant to constitutional interpretations of “impeachable” offenses. (The first federal official impeached by the U.S. Senate was a judge who was drunk all the time.) More importantly, though, if the BuzzFeed story is true, yes, Trump committed a crime. Not only that, but that crime was intended to impede the function of a co-equal branch of government—his own Congress.
Remember: Not the FBI “witch hunt” investigation. A Congressional investigation, which was started (and at the time was run) by Republicans.
Think about this: One, Trump was trying to impair the work of his own government. Two, that government was in the process of investigating an attack on the United States. Three, Trump attacked that branch of government because it appeared to be exercising a constitutional check on him. This obstruction is, on its highest level, in violation of the constitution’s separation of powers.
Trump’s disdain for law, truth, and the principles and—as the shutdown makes clear—even the basic viability of his government should sicken every American. Congress can’t forgive or ignore this crime that the president committed against it. That’s admitting nothing matters. If Trump gets away with this crime, he would in an absolutely real sense have siphoned from our democracy the privileges of a king.
It’s not the beginning of the end. It’s actually near the end of the end of a story that has run for more than a year now, covering the origins of the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations, the raids that yielded documents and devices from Cohen’s offices and home, and Cohen’s earlier confessions in federal court that Trump ordered him to commit felonies. (Oh, right. A pattern.) In fact, some of those devices had recordings of conversations between Cohen and Trump. There’s a pretty good chance Cohen got some of this on tape, too.
To that end, BuzzFeed reports the special counsel “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.” That’s a lot of evidence on a lot of fronts, and suggests Mueller has the receipts, as they say. BuzzFeed itself, however, didn’t see any of the evidence, though the authors are emphatic the story is “100%” true.
We might not even have to wait for Mueller. Michael Cohen, who hasn’t yet commented on the story, will have the opportunity to confirm it during his already scheduled appearance in front of Congress on Feb. 7. The only catch here, as University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck told the Washington Post, is whether Cohen has an agreement with Mueller that would prevent him from discussing this publicly, though as Vladeck points out, Cohen could allude to this pretty obviously.
We can find a hint at the recent BuzzFeed allegations in the sentencing document Mueller filed against Cohen last December:
Cohen described the circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries, while continuing to accept responsibility for the false statements contained within it. Conclusion: The defendant’s crime was serious, both in terms of the underlying conduct and its effect on multiple government investigations.
The BuzzFeed report likely refers to the “circumstances of preparing and circulating” Cohen’s response. “Circulating” being key: Several people were aware. Additionally, Mueller makes quite clear that Cohen’s duplicity had grave consequences: Mueller asserts Cohen’s perjury before Congress had a “serious” effect on “multiple government investigations.” That damage was the direct result of Trump’s orders to obstruct justice.
Nixon was charged in part with directing subordinates to lie, but he was also charged with lying to the public. This isn’t perjury, nor a crime in itself, but Congress found it impeachable, and in the context of Trump, this text stands out:
The means used to [obstruct justice] include “making or causing to be made false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States into believing that a thorough and complete investigation had been conducted with respect to allegations of misconduct on the part of personnel of the executive branch of the United States and personnel of the Committee for the Re-election of the President”
In other words, if Trump tries to mislead the American people—or orders others to—into thinking an investigation is complete when it isn’t (which Trump does all the time already), there’s precedent for impeaching him on that front, too. If, for instance, Trump orders his Attorney General to muffle the Mueller report in a way that purposefully distorts the truth for the public, then Trump—and likely his Attorney General—should be held politically accountable. Or at least they would have been.
The allegations in this story, if true, are clearly federal crimes and impeachable offenses. This puts pressure on Mueller to hand evidence for impeachment off to Congress, even if his final report isn’t done. After all, this isn’t a videogame: Mueller’s final report isn’t simply supposed to be about President Trump’s guilt, like Mario finally getting to Bowser in the end. Mueller has rolled out dozens of indictments, and nothing would prevent him from acting on this evidence. And unlike an international conspiracy between the governments of two global powers, this crime doesn’t take a whole lot of untangling.
The timing here is so weird—two Senators, including a Republican, both asking this specific question of Barr at this specific point—that it raises the specter that maybe these people know more than we think, and they’re crafting some sort of bipartisan end game. But what’s more likely is they just asked about crimes Trump probably committed, and then it turned out he committed those crimes. Plus, as Sen. Amy Klobuchar pointed out, this isn’t the first evidence we have of obstruction: Trump also dictated his son’s false public statement about the June 2016 Trump Tower NYC meeting. We’ve known of that evidence for more than 18 months now, and Congress still hasn’t acted.
So I point my finger at the investigators. BuzzFeed has forced Mueller’s hand: He owes it to the people to hand over any evidence he has on this story that would lead to Trump’s removal or criminal indictment. Trump is working against the United States, he’s probably done irreparable damage to the dignity and influence of the presidency, and he’s literally holding the government hostage right now. And if Congress doesn’t have the guts to act even at this point, with this kind of clarity, and with the perhaps unintentionally unambiguous support of the prospective Attorney General—Trump’s own nominee—they will be complicit.