President Donald Trump directed his former fixer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about a real estate deal that the president’s company was pursuing in Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to a bombshell report published late Thursday by BuzzFeed News.
The revelation comes two days after William Barr, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, was grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee about his views on whether the president can commit perjury and obstruction of justice while in office.
Barr’s views on the matter have taken on new weight as several members of Congress — including Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), chair of the powerful House Intelligence Committee — called Thursday night for a new investigation into whether Trump suborned perjury (meaning to force another person to perjure himself).
“If there was some reason to believe that the president tried to coach somebody not to testify or to testify falsely that could be obstruction of justice?” Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked Barr during his confirmation hearing Tuesday.
“Yes,” Barr said.
Barr repeated that answer when pressed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).
“A president persuading a person to commit perjury would be obstruction,” Klobuchar asked. “Is that right?”
“Yes,” Barr replied.
“You also said that a president — or any person — convincing a witness to change testimony would be obstruction,” Klobuchar pressed. “Is that right?”
“Yes,” Barr answered again.
Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress in November, and he reports to prison in March to begin his three-year sentence on that and other charges.
Rudolph Giuliani, the president’s spokesperson and lawyer, responded to the BuzzFeed report by accusing Cohen of lying to investigators and saying the president had not induced Cohen to lie to Congress. “If you believe Cohen, I can get you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge,” Giuliani said.
But the BuzzFeed news report, which cites two unnamed law enforcement officials, says investigators for Special Counsel Robert Mueller learned of Trump’s instructions to Cohen through several witnesses and documents before Cohen admitted it to them.
The report by BuzzFeed news has not yet been confirmed by ThinkProgress or other news outlets. On Friday night, a spokesperson for the special counsel’s office issued a statement disputing aspects of BuzzFeed’s reporting; BuzzFeed is standing by its report.
Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether any members of Trump’s campaign coordinate with Russia in those efforts. Trump’s efforts to secure a deal for a Trump-branded high rise in Moscow, which were lead by Cohen, is a focus of the investigation.
Trump has taken to Twitter regularly to decry the investigation, which he calls a “witch hunt.” The president’s dissatisfaction with the investigation has played a part in a string of personnel decision he’s made at the Justice Department, including firing former FBI Director James Comey in May 2017 and forcing out former Attorney General Jefferson Sessions III in November.
The Comey incident triggered Mueller’s appointment, and the special counsel has an open investigation into whether it may have amounted to obstruction of justice. Democrats have speculated that Trump may have nominated Barr in part because of a memo he wrote last summer and circulated to the Justice Department that laid out the case that the president cannot obstruct justice by firing one of his subordinates.
That memo could now prove awkward for both Trump and Barr, who has not yet been confirmed by the Senate.
“[I]f a President knowingly destroys or alters evidence, suborns perjury, or induces a witness to change testimony … then he, like anyone else, commits the crime of obstruction,” Barr wrote at the time.
That’s exactly what Trump reportedly did with Cohen. If Mueller finds that’s what happened, it could be Barr who refers the charge to Congress.
This story was updated to include a statement from the special prosecutor’s office denying narrow aspects of BuzzFeed’s reporting on Michael Cohen.