The most damning evidence of potential obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump surfaced late Thursday in a Buzzfeed News report claiming that Trump instructed his former personal attorney Michael Cohen to lie during his Congressional testimony in 2017.
At stake were details surrounding Trump’s pursuit of a real estate deal in Moscow, and the president directed Cohen to misrepresent those details, according to Buzzfeed.
The outlet also reported that special counsel Robert Mueller learned of Trump’s actions “through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents” — not solely from the mouth of Cohen.
What does all this mean for the president?
While caution is the word in this situation — this is an anonymously sourced report — Vox’s Andrew Prokop explains why this development could be a game-changer.
Trump’s behavior over his first two years in office has suggested attempts to obstruct justice, but to date, nothing definitive has been made public to provide a clear-cut path to charges.
If the president provable directed someone to lie for him, this would be the clearest evidence of obstruction.
First, let’s look at the details provided by Buzzfeed, per Vox:
The BuzzFeed report — sourced to “two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter” — contains only a few details on its central allegation. The story claims:
- That Trump “directed” and “personally instructed” Cohen to lie to Congress
- That the goal was “to obscure Trump’s involvement” in the Trump Tower Moscow project
- That Mueller’s team is relying on more than Cohen’s word here — they have “interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents”
- And that Cohen himself has confirmed all this in interviews with Mueller’s team
The rest of the story is about the Trump Tower Moscow project itself, particularly about how often Trump and his children were briefed about it in 2016.
Now, this story has not yet been confirmed by subsequent news outlets, but it is worth noting that Buzzfeed reporters Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier — who cite “two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter” as their sources — have a strong track record in their reporting on the Trump Tower Moscow story, with their reports later being shown true by Mueller’s revelations.
We already knew that Cohen lied to Congress:
Cohen falsely told congressional committees in 2017 that Trump knew little about the project, that he’d talked about it with him infrequently, and that the deal had fallen through by January 2016 (relatively early in the presidential campaign).
In a new plea deal with Mueller, Cohen admitted these were lies:
Cohen now admitted he had talked to Trump about it “more than” three times, that he’d briefed “family members” of Trump, that he had a lengthy phone call with the assistant to a top Russian government official about it, and that talks about the tower project continued later into the presidential campaign.
Then in Mueller’s sentencing memo for Cohen last month, the special counsel claimed the project could have made “hundreds of millions of dollars” for the Trump Organization. He also said that one way Cohen helped the probe was by providing information on “the circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries.”
Enter the claim that Trump directed Cohen in all of this.
Coincidentally, the president’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, is in the midst of his confirmation process this week and was asked about a scenario in which it is proved that Trump obstructed justice.
Asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) whether it could be obstruction of justice if “the president tried to coach somebody” to “testify falsely,” Barr responded that, yes, it could.
Barr had addressed the issue of Mueller’s obstruction of justice investigation previously, Vox noted, writing a letter to the Justice Department well in advance of his nomination last year in which he said he believed Mueller’s case to be weak.
But he also offered his opinion on whether a president can commit the offense in the first place:
However, he wrote that “obviously” the president could commit obstruction. For example, he said, if a president “suborns perjury” then “he, like anyone else, commits the crime of obstruction.”
If the Buzzfeed News report is confirmed to be true, it is highly likely that Congress will pursue impeachment on the grounds that Trump obstructed justice by suborning perjury.
Some Democratic lawmakers have already raised the prospect, or at the very least promised to investigate the matter thoroughly.